Nobody cannibalizes an image like Richard Prince, who has carved his place in contemporary art by recycling, reflecting, and reframing photographs, cartoons, advertisements, and other images already existing in the public sphere. It’s a practice cut from 1970s and ’80s SoHo—Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, and Sherrie Levine are among his contemporaries. But more than his peers, Prince sees himself as a funnel rather than a filter: he pilfers freely from the vast image bank of pop culture and recasts these appropriated images in a new light, embracing and at the same time critiquing a distinct American sensibility.
In 1977, Prince’s simple yet controversial act of rephotographing advertising images and presenting them as his own ushered in a new, critical approach to art-making—one that questioned notions of originality. This plays out through his reframings of the Marlboro man, topless women atop Harley-Davidsons (culled from pictures in biker magazines such as Easyriders), comedians, cars, cartoons (hand-copied from The New Yorker and Playboy, among others), neglected landscapes, pulp fiction, side-by-side pinups of Hollywood starlets, nurses in surgical masks and, most recently, homages to the paintings of Willem de Kooning.
There are well-known pieces—the appropriated image of a naked Brooke Shields at age 10, which gives this exhibition its name, had a controversial history even before the artist cast a new light on it. The 1983 photo, Spiritual America, is quintessential Prince, playing to conflicting impulses—the seeking of attention while maintaining a high moral ground—that are at the heart of contemporary American culture. Prince also turned his fascination with celebrity culture inward with a series of paintings layered with his own canceled novelty checks.
While the Walker began collecting and showing the artist’s work in 1984, Richard Prince: Spiritual America, organized by the Guggenheim Museum, New York, is the artist’s first comprehensive retrospective since 1992. Philippe Vergne, the Walker’s chief curator and deputy director, sees a “cruel elegance” threading Prince’s work and considers the exhibition essential both to the Walker and to anyone interested in the visual—and visceral—dissection of Americana. “We have the cowboys, hoods, girlfriends, early photographs, the core of his career in our collection,” he says. “What people will see now is a depth of practice.”
While Pop Art has largely appropriated pop culture, Prince makes this process circular by creating art that appropriates and later becomes part of popular culture itself. Previous examinations of his art have emphasized its role in postmodern criticism. This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue not only focus on the artist’s fascination with rebellion, obsession with fame, and preoccupation with the tawdry and the illicit, but also connect them to the fabric of our social landscape. Nancy Spector, chief curator at the Guggenheim, writes in the exhibition catalogue that Prince entered a metaphoric life of crime in 1977 and went underground, adopting aliases to evade identification and escape definition. “His specialty is a carefully constructed hybrid that is also some kind of joke, charged by conflicting notions of high, low and lower,” New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote of Prince in a September 2007 review of this show. “His work disturbs, amuses and then splinters in the mind. It unsettles assumptions about art, originality and value, class and sexual difference and creativity.”
Controversial and seductive, edgy and classical, ultimately beautiful, Richard Prince: Spiritual America shows him as a chameleon in style and form. Through all his work, Prince compels his audience to notice the ordinary and see commonalities with the extraordinary. “He relinquished the role of artist as high priest, which he had originally aspired to in his reverence for Kline and Pollock, and took on that of the fugitive,” Spector writes. “He even created an artistic alter ego known as John Dogg, who had his own exhibitions and fleeting 15 minutes of fame. . . . In the end, the question ‘Who is Richard Prince?’ is a rhetorical one.”