RICHARD PRINCE: SPIRITUAL AMERICA
Nowhere is influence more tangible than in the arts. “What are your influences?” is the primal question aimed at artists, musicians, and authors by interviewers seeking to understand, through historical connections, how and why artists arrive at their individual styles. Likewise, it is one of the central objectives of art critics to locate and articulate visual red flags, or similarities to precedent, in order to place an artist into the grand historical continuum, and allow for an informed discussion of the work via previously posited concepts. In the Richard Prince show, Spiritual America, influence is presented in a manner overt enough for the blind to grasp. Prince intentionally employs abstract expressionism, minimalism, pop art, and consumer advertising to appropriate, or take for his own use, imagery fundamentally embedded in American art and culture. However, appropriation in art is hardly Prince’s innovation. The spoils of war pilfered from conquered lands by Alexander, Hitler, and every army in between, have mainly been precious works of art that adopted different meaning in their new contexts. Similarly, the more recent term, “postmodernism,” generally speaking, is characterized by the conflation and juxtaposition of previously established styles in order to comment of their historical relevance/irrelevance in our global culture of media overload. Yet Prince activates his appropriated images in novel ways that are delightfully compelling, thought provoking, and even humorous.
Prince is a tireless artist who works in sculpture, painting, photography and found objects, and like tireless artists of the past (Picasso comes to mind), his work takes on a serial nature. Perhaps due to the fact that Prince is a voracious collector of virtually everything, his work results in collections, or series. In his Jokes and Cartoons series, Price adopts a variety of familiar styles and combines them with text that recite stereotypical American jokes, the kind that one typically overhears at bars. Crazy (1999-2000) reads, “You know, I was up there in prison talking to Charlie Manson and he says to me he says ‘Is it hot in here or am I crazy?’” The joke appears in simple black block-lettering in the center of a massive composition of two vertically stacked canvases, which have a light pastel hue. Upon closer inspection, this color is achieved through a gestural application of yellows, pinks and oranges and then coved with a coat of whitewash that allows the colors to subtly peek through. This style is immediately evocative of abstract expressionism, combining the splash effect of Pollock with the soft bleeding of colors into the canvas typical of Rothko and Frankenthaler. Normally abstract expressionism demands long, serious contemplation from the viewer, as such works are considered the physical manifestation of the artists’ internal conditions. However, the unavoidable one-liner completely undermines the gravity of the style, evoking a chuckle rather than intense concentration. By overlapping these two appropriated types, Prince creates a reaction that seems taboo in the presence of the distinguished American style, and within the privileged realm of the Guggenheim Museum. Prince employs the same text-to-canvas relationship in other joke works in a two-toned minimalist aesthetic in which the brush is totally absent. In this case the phenomenological relationship of minimalist art between viewer and minimalist piece is enhanced rather than denied by the vocal response.
Prince’s photography is perhaps his most provocative medium in that it can hardly be called his own. His method involves re-photographing images from catalogues, advertisements, and cult magazines. This overt appropriation of images simultaneously calls into question the existential concept of the auteur, and the idea of simulacra, or the image of an image. His series, Untitled (Pens) (1979), illustrates a captivating use of appropriation. Here, images of pens accompanied by fine watches, wallets, and lighters obviously taken out of some high-end catalogue, have been re-photographed by the artist, enlarged, and freed of the text and prices that would normally contextualize these images. In this case, the luxurious quality of the objects themselves has been removed by the banal presentation of a consumer catalogue, but then invigorated and returned to the realm of opulence by the removal of text, addition of a frame, and installation in the reified environment of the museum.
This re-beautification process of appropriation is manifested once again in Prince’s Cowboys series. The well-known advertising campaign for Marlboro cigarettes features heroic depictions of cowboys in the open landscapes of the American west engaged in manly pursuits such as wrangling wild horses, performing lasso tricks and, of course, smoking cigarettes. Once again, the artist has removed text and enlarged the originals to make them his own. However, unlike the Pens series, these images, removed from their original context, are surprisingly beautiful photographs. In a way, by appropriating and doctoring these photographs, Prince is calling to attention their fundamental beauty while acknowledging the anonymous photographer more than the advertisements would have. Rather than being inspired to light up a smoke, the viewer is forced to appreciate the photographs for their aesthetic quality alone. This covertly ambitious series touches on America’s love affair with the cowboy, the western, and consumerism. At the same time Prince references Bierstadt’s romantic paintings of the western landscape, Matthew Brady’s early photographs of the lone trapper, and Remington’s bronzes of cowboys on rearing broncos.
Artists have always sought justification for their styles by drawing connections from their own work to the great works of past artists. A few of the self-promoting manifestoes of recent art history that come to mind were written by figures such as Claes Oldenburg and Allan Kaprow who have both compared themselves to the greatness of Pollock. It would be painfully naïve for Prince to seek such approval for his aesthetic, as he couldn’t expect anyone with the slightest knowledge of art history to mistake his style for ingenuity. Instead, Prince’s genius lies in the layered appropriation of American stylistic precedent and pop imagery to evoke questions of what it means to be an American while innovatively breaking boundaries between art and life.
- Chris Maceira