The Programmatic Prelinary Proud Difficulties with Richard Prince

Darren Bader


Richard Prince
Spiritual America
The Guggenheim Musuem
September 28th – January 9th


One owns a wall. One is chosen by the wall. These are two givens, of many. Each could be conferred and/or confirmed as art. Art in the way we come to know it in the biased sense: the visual arts/ bourgeois decoration/ bourgeois creation-individuation. So assumes the place—indeed the strict locus—of one Richard Prince, artist par excellence.


The venerable New York Guggenheim has under the co-liegemanship of staff curator Nancy Spector and Richard Prince himself been ushered to house a Prince retrospective fancifully/appositely named Spiritual America.


“The Collection of the Artist”. This is what a great many placards read in Spiritual America. This would suggest one of two things:

1. an artist intimately calculating his legacy (because he believes-in [alternatively, adheres-to] art historical logic) [Richard Serra played this card @ MOMA this summer].
2. an artist loath to sell cherished works due to an ambivalent relationship with commerce vis-à-vis artistic output.


Prince is most famous for his appropriation of photographic entities found in mass produced magazines. He has a gland that processes what many less-glanded people fail to process: a conscious recognition of the profane genius, or imperious seductions that go into advertising, towards announcing an artifact. He takes pictures of existing mass-produced pictures, cropping them as he sees aesthetically-cum-conceptually fit. Hence we are reacquainted with living-room interiors, jewelry/timepiece-type accessories, comely women and men, and cowboys. The cowboys come from Marlboro ads no-duh. The provenance of the other subjects is less clear (at least for a person of my vintage).

All these appropriations are handsomely blown-up and framed. So, we arrive at art in the aforementioned “biased sense”. We have plush wall works (which often look sexy as hell), with a deliberate nod towards the beauty/omniscience/omnipresence/profanity/economy/surreptitiousness/candor of popular commerce in its aesthetic manifestations. I say B.F.D (big fucking deal). Look back to Rauschenberg, Rosenquist and Warhol, or further back to the harvest of Dada (excuse me, dada).

In the earlier of Prince’s photo works he may cast a gelid eye on his subject, almost-precluding an emotionality that comes out even in Warhol. But any such postures of being a lucid clinician soon evanesce and Prince’s oeuvre ambles itself farther and farther from critical acuity towards the endemic platform particular to every lesser artist: being captive to a signature (whether this occurs due to monetary interests, or due to a spiritual marriage to the manual joys of the workshop could be fun questions to play with). 30 years of artistic output seems quite limited by the time we summit the rotunda.

IV ½.

Moving along to the remainder of Prince’s three-decade output…

Let’s start with the numerous, numerous joke paintings that span 20 years (stretched-canvases specifically, in the styles of gestural, monochrome, and silkscreen masters of the 50s and 60s): Jokes on paintings don’t make jokes that happen to be on paintings, they make paintings that happen to have jokes written on them. (At least Lawrence Weiner, with his inexorable font, ditched the canvas!) Ironically, the joke paintings often look pretty good as sculpture, propped up in three-dimensional relief in the awkward niches of the Guggenheim.

Deservedly brief mentions: hypertrophied Nurse Paintings, sadly half-baked collectibles (autographed photos of the stars), sadly quarter-baked recent attempts to deal with vintage editions of canonical books, the so-called protest paintings [!], the “I-do-happen-to-be-a-qualified-photographer” Upstate series.

But there are series worth mentioning as relative successes. The Girlfriend series with motorcycle subculture T&A picking up where the Marlboro men and luxury advertisements left off, succeeds on a similar level to them. The Gangs are framed prints that contain nine isolated block images, printed on a sea of white, that somehow thematically congeal: sometimes quite explicitly, other times with an aleatory élan. However seductive the spartan collage can be, it curiously remains indentured to the wooden frame around it and the glass on top of it. Finally, the canonic Car Hood sculptures basically boil down to what looks like Judd-Flavin doing a Rothko-Reinhardt.


Let me skip IV and V and move to VI. You can see I’ve got some beef with Richard Prince. The man seems ubiquitously lauded among my art-peers. I never understood why exactly. So with honest alacrity I bounded up to the Guggenheim to reassess my biases. I did just that and only reconfirmed them.

Art is an inherited term. An inheritance. Richard Prince sings an American hymn, as sarcastic-yet-sincere inheritance. He also inherited art and its biases. And he takes them far back into themselves. What begins with a seeming attempt to divest mass-produced image of its sonambulist consumption slowly (perhaps rapidly) degrades into a métier of fetishization, a reliance on serial projects that putter out.

R. Prince is no true R. Mutt. And he may never have cared to be. But the laurels tossed and drooled onto him often seem to confer a sort of punkish visionary status upon him. Maybe this is my true, and egregious, bias. But Spiritual America, this particular [Prince-ian] bounty of dime store reverence and apotheosis-of-tacky, seems egregiously ill-suited for an adulation that claims a paramount conversation with the (American) art-historical canon. (“Prince = Appropriates”––Congratulations, so did Rauschenberg, Johns, Rosenquist, and Warhol, so did everyone who did collage in the first half of the 20th century!!!)

Back to the punkish visionary: he doesn’t exist. There may be a minor share of dada punk in Prince’s preferred subjects: camp and kitsch relics. But his formal endeavor remains archly rearguard. He turns his pet reliquary into obese iconography, bartering his ideas in the formal language of a bourgeois culture: works for decoration: the monolith of the rectangular wallwork and the circumnavigable sculpture. Don’t get me wrong, bourgeois culture remains my bread and butter as much as anyone who’d be reading this (see Adorno’s excursus on The Odyssey in Dialectic of Enlightenment for the greatest of shits and giggles), but art’s critical (non-aesthetic) duty [in the non-“biased sense”(?)] remains to readminister knowledge, evaporate forms, reconstitute languages, etc… In the light of all that such art(fulness) can offer, Richard Prince provides only a flippant address of some things anyone might or might not hold dear: his creative fodder, and his creative output. They remain mutually opaque, and thus garishly legible.

Opacity is able to be the thunder that rends paradigms, but in Prince’s commitment to the presentation of ideas in the fashion of centuries of predecessors, he denies his opacity of its prowess. Terse sentences of ten or eleven words that explained his gambit would have been infinitely more evocative and (dare I barf) radical than consigning his ideas to the trap and tradition of a canvas, of a frame. As such, his photographic works remain way more persuasive in reproduction (the totally winning Women and Men books, for instance).

VI ½.

So, traversing and re-traversing the decks and galleys of the big Gugg, I could only arrive at a dull summation: Richard Prince has cultivated a rosy strain of appropriation in that he makes shit look good.

Did I misunderstand my peers in their praise for R. Prince? Are they really just loving an artist’s artist [as we say in our trade]? Is Prince nothing more than an art jock: enamored of the pleasure of canvas painting, silkscreening, shuterrbugging, and giving his trash-culture and/or pop-culture subjects a minuet in the high-culture arena? And thus, does it matter that I continue to regurgitate precedents like Rauschenberg? It might mean jack shit. After all the Guggenheim retrospective ends with Prince directly quoting De Kooning. De Kooning? Old Bill still gives us a delicious portion of sloppy glee, but in do-si-do-ing with him, Prince basically throws in the towel, saying: “fuck it, I have fun doing what I’m doing, and what I’m doing is unequivocally art in the ‘biased sense’”. Any so-called Spiritual America obviously has very little invested in this “biased sense.”

What began as a career that hinted at a properly Postmodernist address of what aesthetic information deserves attention and how we can deal with it as a society—not as a cabal of art-collectors and curatorial institutions—turns with great ease into the formal trappings of what is still considered to be “[high] art,” and finally into a heralded “perv”s return to the joys of art school. Richard Prince remains a pretty good art-maker, but he ain’t really pushing art.

Art itself can never aspire to history, it always remains in any myriad of presents, and so Prince remains above reproach. But we continue to think (art-)historically, and find Prince in the art-historical volumes and screeds of our current pundits. His place is as one of an innovator (alongside a group of his contemporaries –although his name seems to be the all-star of that food group). The Guggenheim show, denuded, screams otherwise: Richard Prince is just a dude who likes stuff. And maybe that’s how new annals should be approached: this is after all the great egalitarian milieu[x] that is contemporary art.

So in closing I want to refer you back to section III. above. Spiritual America suggests one of two things:

1. an artist intimately calculating his legacy (because he believes-in [alternatively, adheres-to] art historical logic).
2. an artist loath to sell cherished works due to an ambivalent relationship with commerce vis-à-vis artistic output.

Note: Photo on page one of the article is: My Neighbor, 2002. Acrylic on canvass. 78 x 81 x 2 inches. Thanks to the Guggenheim Museum for images. For more, see the Guggenheim website or if in New York see the show!