Richard Prince: Spiritual America, a critical overview of this celebrated American artist’s work, will be on view at the Walker Art Center March 22–June 15. The artist’s first comprehensive retrospective since 1992, organized by Nancy Spector, chief curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, highlights Prince’s contributions to the development of contemporary art, bringing together key examples of his photographs, paintings, sculptures, and works on paper in an installation that integrates the various series comprising his oeuvre. A Walker After Hours Preview Party takes place on Friday, March 21, and Spector discusses the artist’s work at an opening-day lecture on Saturday, March 22.
Richard Prince is one of the most innovative American artists to have emerged during the last 30 years. His deceptively simple act in 1977 of rephotographing advertising images and presenting them as his own ushered in an entirely new, critical approach to art-making—one that questioned notions of originality and the privileged status of the unique aesthetic object. Prince’s technique involves appropriation; he pilfers freely from the vast image bank of popular culture to create works that simultaneously embrace and critique a quintessentially American sensibility: the Marlboro Man, muscle cars, biker chicks, crude jokes, gag cartoons, and pulp fiction. Richard Prince: Spiritual America not only focuses on the artist’s fascination with rebellion, obsession with fame, and preoccupation with the tawdry and the illicit, but also connects them to the fabric of our social landscape.
Spector 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 2007 review of the exhibition. “His work disturbs, amuses and then splinters in the mind. It unsettles assumptions about art, originality and value, class and sexual difference and creativity.”
“I went to see a psychiatrist. He said, ‘tell me everything.’ I did, and now he’s doing my act.” This one-liner, one in the repertoire of recycled jokes appearing throughout the work of Richard Prince, describes an illicit act of appropriation, in which an existing narrative becomes the source for an entirely new performance. It is a paradigm that provides a succinct introduction to Prince’s creative process, in which the subject matter for his art is taken directly from mass culture—an act of visual piracy that the artist has often referred to as “practicing without a license.”
From Marcel Duchamp’s signed urinal to Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, strategies of appropriation have long been at the forefront of avant-garde art-making. Prince, however, took the radical step of entirely erasing all traces of his hand from this process when, in 1977, he trained his camera lens on four advertisements for luxury home furnishings in the New York Times Magazine and presented them as Untitled (living rooms), his own autonomous artwork. This iconoclastic gesture represented not only the defining breakthrough of Prince’s career but also a revolutionary challenge to the modernist concepts of originality and authorship, which were then under interrogation by a generation of artists associated with postmodern theory.
Save for the removal of all identifying text and some careful cropping, the rephotographed images remained unchanged, and yet they appear transformed by their new context. What would fail to elicit a second glance in the pages of a magazine is revealed to be a highly orchestrated fiction; the pictures that Prince was re-presenting were themselves idealized simulations of reality. The artist’s day job in the tear-sheet department of Time Life publications allowed him to immerse himself in this parallel universe of consumer aspiration, and he began to marshal images of fashion models, popular brands, and luxury goods into serial patterns, revealing a succession of highly codified visual clichés.
The simultaneous embrace and critique of mass culture that are at the core of Prince’s art are powerfully articulated in the Cowboys, the series of photographs begun in 1980, appropriated from the long-running advertising campaign for Marlboro cigarettes. Elevated in the public imagination from humble ranch hand to individualistic hero, the cowboy is the ultimate icon of American manhood. The Marlboro men embody this archetype, aided by expansive natural backdrops that draw on both the tradition of American landscape painting and the spectacle of Hollywood Westerns. While Prince amplifies the seductive appeal of these stylized images and studiously eschews any overt moral commentary, the irony of pressing an ideal of rugged health into the service of selling addiction is ever present in the work.
Prince’s attraction to the incendiary potential of photography is writ large in his appropriated 1983 photograph Spiritual America, showing a naked, prepubescent Brooke Shields posing in a brothel-like atmosphere, her face made up like a grown woman’s. First exhibited by Prince in a makeshift gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the original photograph was at the time the subject of a protracted lawsuit between Shields and the photographer, Gary Gross, over the ownership of its copyright. By then a well-known actress, Shields wanted to prevent further commercialization of the picture, which had been taken with her mother’s full consent. For Prince, this troubling image and its controversial history encapsulate the dueling impulses at the heart of the American psyche, with its overarching puritan ethics countered by a yearning for recognition, even at the price of transgression and degradation.
In 1984, Prince developed a new compositional format that prompted him to look beyond the glossy fabrications of the mainstream media toward the more marginal corners of the cultural landscape. Inspired by a commercial printing technique in which individual slides are grouped, or “ganged,” into one sheet of images, the Gangs allowed him to combine disparate appropriated images into a single photographic print. Drawing his material from the pages of tabloids and special-interest magazines, Prince created alternative pantheons of monster-truck enthusiasts, rockers, porn stars, and paparazzi victims, as well as visual lexicons of related forms such as desert islands, crashing waves, or cloudy skies. Each of these works presents a study in juxtaposition, designed to elucidate the formal and thematic relationships between the images.
During the same period, Prince started to hand-copy cartoons from the pages of The New Yorker and Playboy magazines. These straightforward transcriptions were soon succeeded by a more layered and allusive form of appropriation, in which silkscreened cartoon graphics, usually illustrating moments of discovered infidelity, were twinned with an unrelated joke, creating an unsettling hybrid narrative. In other canvases, Prince dispensed with images all together, reducing the lowbrow gags to bands of text dissecting uniform color fields—an attempt to create a deadpan, off-the-shelf appearance that offers an irreverent reworking of Minimalist painting.
This iconography returned in more fractured form in the White Paintings of the 1990s, in which a disorientating fusion of jokes and fragmented cartoon graphics, as well as silkscreened photographs and abstract patterns, emerge from washes of muted hues, imbuing the complex compositions with a hallucinatory quality. Joke paintings remain an important presence in Prince’s practice today, but in contrast to the reductive aesthetic of the earlier monochromatic works, they are now swathed in translucent layers of mottled pigment, the words hand-stenciled in broken snatches that are sometimes barely legible. The Check Paintings, begun in 1999, are a further permutation of this series, in which the gag line is embedded in collaged grids comprising bank checks (usually from the artist’s own account) or repeated images of bands, celebrities, and vintage pornography.
A similar trajectory toward a more gestural style can be traced in the ongoing series of Hood sculptures that Prince initiated in the late 1980s. These works appropriate the fiberglass replacement car hoods advertised in magazines catering to muscle-car fanatics. While Prince farmed out his earliest Hoods to body shops to achieve a slick commercial finish, he has since come to use their surfaces as supports for expressionistic hand-painting. Whether hanging relief-like on the wall or supported by plywood pedestals, these abstracted sculptures retain the visceral associations of their origins, evoking dreams of customized automobiles and the reckless allure of the open road.
Prince’s Girlfriend photographs, initiated in 1990, suggest a similar sense of escapism through their source in outlaw biker culture. Rephotographed from the amateur snapshots found in the back pages of magazines such as Easyriders, these awkwardly posed, crudely shot images of girls draped across their boyfriends’ motorcycles fall painfully short of the centerfolds they imitate.
In 1996, Prince moved from Manhattan, his base for more than two decades, to a small town in upstate New York. This change in environment engendered a shift in his process to encompass documentation as well as appropriation, as he began to use his everyday surroundings as subjects for the series of photographs Untitled (upstate). The latest addition to the series is a life-size bronze sculpture of a basketball hoop inserted in the middle of a picnic table—where the game and the prospect of shade are equally unattainable. These works have neither the slick polish of the mass media nor the raw edge of counterculture rebellion, focusing instead on the unremarkable and the overlooked. Prince infuses the local vernacular of rusting basketball hoops, homemade tire planters, above-ground pools, and dilapidated garages with a melancholy pathos, uncovering an unexpected lyricism in these homegrown tokens of blue-collar Americana. The Walker’s presentation of Spiritual America will include Upstate, marking the first showing of this significant work.
Prince is an obsessive collector of books, magazines, memorabilia, and other printed ephemera, and over the past decade he has begun to directly incorporate his ever-expanding collection into his art. Recalling the serial nature of his Gangs, the Publicities gather autographed headshots of Hollywood stars and other personalities into formally related groupings, enshrining them as relics of our culture’s obsession with celebrity. The more recent Untitled (original) series is a further variation on these framed archives, in which the original sketches for advertisements and paperbacks are paired either with vintage photographs that tease out their subtexts or with the artist’s modified versions of the same images.
In 2002, Prince began his Nurses, paintings premised on the classic pulp fiction genre of medical romance novels. Using enlarged inkjet reproductions of the book covers, Prince transforms and partly obscures the figures of the nurses with sheaths of lurid over-painting and the addition of surgical masks, creating simultaneously alluring and threatening spectral presences. Prince’s most recent body of work—a series of interactions with the canonic imagery of the Abstract Expressionist artist Willem de Kooning—continues this painterly register. Both homage and desecration, these works seamlessly blend elements from de Kooning’s famous Women with figures cut from pornographic magazines. The resulting hermaphroditic creatures are hybrids on a number of levels, merging the male with the female, painting with photography, and the refinement of modernist art with the promiscuity of mass cultural representation. This transgression of boundaries is a hallmark of all of Prince’s work, exemplifying his vision of a “Spiritual America” fueled by a pervasive desire for rebellion and reinvention.
Long interested in the display of his work as part of his overall conceptual practice—as in his own installations First House (1993) and Second House (2001–2007)—Prince sees his art relationally. Rather than organizing the work according to chronology or medium, the installation will intersperse works from Prince’s numerous series—including appropriated photographs such as Cowboys, Girlfriends, and Gangs; canvases such as Jokes, White Paintings, Check Paintings, and Nurses; and the Hood sculptures—to unearth latent thematic relationships. The exhibition will reveal the iconographic continuity throughout Prince’s oeuvre despite the variety of its imagery and technique.
Art on Call Audio Guide
Callers dialing 612.374.8200 any time day or night, inside or outside the Walker, can hear from people who share Richard Prince’s passions. Speakers include writer Annie Proulx, who tells you what she thinks about cowboys; Joe Dolce, former editor of Star magazine, who explores the disease of fame; and cartoon editor Robert Mankoff from The New Yorker magazine on the often darker meaning behind jokes.
Many of Prince’s jokes recall a form of comedy known as Borscht Belt humor, which came out of resorts in the Catskills during the 1950s. In one Art on Call excerpt, comedian David Steinberg compares the comic aesthetic with that of Prince: “Comedians, even in the Catskills, don’t really tell jokes. Most comedians are working through some emotional angst to get to some humor through—forgive me the pretension—but through some personal pain to find what they do. Richard usually does a lot of jokes that are what comedians call groaners. You don’t laugh at the end of them, you groan at the recognition of what appears to be a joke. The reason that groaners get repeated is that they’re easy, and that if your expectation is a groan and not a laugh, you’re lowering the expectation on the teller. A laugh is hard to get. A groan, not that hard.”
Information that is accessed via Art on Call is also available to the public through the Walker’s Web site (newmedia.walkerart.org/aoc) as well as in Podcast versions which can be downloaded to an iPod or other MP3 player.
In the Walker Shop
A 368-page fully illustrated exhibition catalogue features a critical overview by curator Nancy Spector, an essay by Jack Bankowsky, and a series of interviews conducted by Glenn O’Brien. Hardcover: $60 ($54 Walker members); softcover: $45 ($40.50).
Walker After Hours Preview Party
Friday, March 21, 9 pm–12 midnight
$35 ($25 Walker members)
Save $2 per ticket when ordering online.
New members can choose one free ticket to the party for joining.
Enjoy music by Skoal Kodiak, cocktails, complimentary Wolfgang Puck appetizers, screenings of Rendezvous and The Honeymoon Killers, a text-based art-making activity, and Party People Pictures. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 612.375.7600 or visit walkerart.org/tickets.
Walker After Hours sponsored by Target.
Nancy Spector on Richard Prince
Saturday, March 22, 2 pm $8 ($5 Walker members)
Join exhibition curator Nancy Spector for an afternoon of ideas on the work of Richard Prince. Images of the artist’s major series illustrate this discussion of the ways that his focus on ordinary elements of American culture alters our sense of reality. Spector is chief curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where she has organized exhibitions on conceptual photography, the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle.
This lecture is made possible by generous support from Aaron and Carol Mack.
Target Free Thursday Nights
Thursday, April 3
Gallery Talk: American Mythologies: The Art of Richard Prince (Part 1: Masculinity), 7 pm
Meet in the Bazinet Garden Lobby
Richard Prince’s humorous and dystopic examination of American pop culture and its place in our collective consciousness spans nearly three decades, beginning with his first photos of luxury furniture appropriated from ads in the New York Times magazine. The first in a series of three, this talk takes on the masculine mythos in the exhibition. The Cowboys series of rephotographs, the muscle cars, and the Girlfriends series serve as the artist’s high point in his ongoing deconstruction of American archetypes. Led by Jonathan Metzl, associate professor of psychiatry and women’s studies at the University of Michigan.
Thursday, May 1
Gallery Talk: American Mythologies: The Art of Richard Prince (Part 2: The Fetish), 7 pm
Meet in the Bazinet Garden Lobby
A fetish is defined as an object of irrational fascination, power, and desire. Led by Paula Rabinowitz, Chair of the English Department at the University of Minnesota, this talk explores Prince’s admiration for pulp novel nurses, celebrities, and cars as fetishes.
Thursday, June 5
Gallery Talk: American Mythologies: The Art of Richard Prince (Part 3: Jokes), 7 pm
Meet in the Bazinet Garden Lobby
“I went to see a psychiatrist he said, ‘Tell me everything.’ I did, and now he’s doing my act.” So goes some of the monochrome joke paintings of Richard Prince. His reproduction of what is known as “borscht-belt” style humor can appear simple, yet jokes meant to be heard rather than read take on a different meaning in a visual context. This talk delves into the process of writing jokes and how class and culture play into their appeal as “low humor.”
Target Free Thursday Nights sponsored by Target.
All tours free with gallery admission; Thursday night tours are free.
Saturday, March 29, 12 noon
Sunday, March 30, 12 noon
Friday, April 4, 6 pm
Thursday, April 10, 1 and 6 pm
Saturday, April 12, 12 noon
Friday, April 18, 6 pm
Sunday, April 20, 12 noon
Sunday, May 4, 12 noon
Sunday, May 11, 12 noon
Friday, May 16, 6 pm
Friday, May 23, 1 pm
Friday, May 30, 6 pm
Friday, June 6, 1 and 6 pm
Thursday, June 12, 6 pm
Saturday, June 14, 12 noon
Friday, June 20, 1 and 6 pm
Friday, June 27, 1 pm