The Collector and His Discontents: The Photographs of Richard Prince
Originally published in a shorter version in Arts Magazine, December 1987
Richard Prince's appropriated photographs playfully explore the contemporary visual vernacular of wanting, as evinced in particular codes of behavior, such as those systematically administered by fashion, entertainment, and advertising media. This hysterical babel of visual codes is treated very much as a language that Prince isolates and re-contextualizes, not so much to perform a critique of consumer culture, but rather to enter the apparatus and treat it as a field on which to explore and play. In the manner of Andy Warhol he is more bemused than critical. In the collage work from the 1980's a grid of pictures on a white surface is used in the manner of pop artists such as Wallace Berman or Warhol, turning the grids' inherent rationalism into an absurd diagnostic testing ground for images and their presumed power in the marketplace. In effect he gives the pictures a spin - and in the process demolishes the intentionality of representation. Many of the pictures in the gridded works are images of other images - but unlike Robert Rauschenberg, another artist fascinated by codes and meanings, whose pictorial repertoire was very wide - encompassing Rubens' nudes and American astronauts - Prince limits the photographs to very specific genres and kinds of images - even the color palette is quite narrow - and that makes his work very interesting within the group now called "the pictures generation."
In his own photography Prince favors the traditional landscape and portrait but at the service of the ironic narrative component that is built into his exploration as he enters genres freely, like a parasite, only to devour the interior whole - in that sense the more trite and sentimental the content the funnier the work tends to become - a strategy also favored by Jeff Koons among others. The pictures are about the codes of photographic genre as much as they are pictures in the traditional sense - Prince wants to have it both ways but there is a certain price to be paid for this dualism. Certain images repeat: basketball hoops, bikers and their paraphernalia, the open road, suburban lots full of trash, muscle cars, overgrown gardens. Some of the most ubiquitous recurring images are of young women posing for the camera in a way that makes it very clear that they are aware, or complicit, in the creation of a narrative line that alludes to established conventions of beauty - but of course those conventions are now italicized or in quotes. Richard Prince: "I've always tried to give some attention to what appears to be ephemera, to collect the minor art forms."(1) Prince’s presumptuousness here - giving the appearance of speaking from a golden throne in his castle while describing the filthy mob outside - is so obvious that it verges on being funny. What is clear is that Prince considers his practice to be “above” the “minor” art forms that he appropriates - in effect he can turn straw into gold.
In Untitled (Blonde & Car) a young blonde woman wearing an open plaid shirt, black underwear and black boots stands next to a large American car from the 1980's that has photographic images directly printed on the car's surface, as is done with buses in metropolitan cities. This format is called an "all-over advert" or "bus-wrap" that often advertises Hollywood films, television shows or consumer products. In this case the image on the car is a snapshot of a topless woman apparently taken from a magazine. The model lightly touches the car with her left hand, in the manner of the photography common to car and trade shows, where a woman, usually in a bathing suit or a short dress, touches the car while looking provocatively at the audience and/or the camera. The woman in Untitled (Blonde & Car) is, as to be expected, unnamed since to name her would be to take the work away from the categorical imperatives of genre where the individual photographed is no longer important as an individual, but exists only as an idea or an abstraction - as a type. In effect Prince deploys a fundamentally conservative approach that is also used by dominant media when dealing with the non-famous, the "other," the "exotic," the poor and those nameless people that stand in for "the masses." The erotic is treated in a similar fashion that clearly objectifies the model - he/she becoming "the object of desire." Susan Sontag: “A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if inadvertently, in the cult of celebrity that has fueled an insatiable appetite for the opposite sort of photograph: to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights." Unfortunately for Prince the distance between the original vernacular image, that might appear in a soft core biker magazine, and Prince's appropriation, that would appear in an art gallery, collapses into the black hole of photographic ethics - a dilemma from which the work never escapes - despite Prince’s belief in the segregation of high and low art - an unbridgeable divide that can only be united (ironically of course) by a master artist.
Untitled (Blonde & Car) is set in what looks like a large studio with various American automobiles in a state of disrepair, a drum kit and a basketball hoop. We see the usual paraphernalia found in a garage that denotes male pastimes, action and physical vigor, along with a half naked woman on the same stage all dress up, more or less, with nowhere to go. The basketball hoop and drum kit are crowded behind the cars and so it is impossible to access and play them. The picture seems to depict a rich man's depository or menagerie housed in a fancy warehouse very much wrapped in the idea of "sex," "action," and "show-time," in the exaggerated and boisterous American style familiar to all who engage with American culture. But, of course, there are quotes around all of the nouns for a reason. Is someone being made of? Something is very wrong.
The young woman exposing her body stands in a beautiful contrapposto stance in the manner of Botticelli's Birth of Venus, but on her face we see a self-conscious, droll, sardonic, confrontational gaze in the style of Manet’s Olympia. It is an image that is a parallel universe to advertising but one that turns on itself with a vengeance - and therein lies the humor. The most ubiquitous framework for images, seen on a daily (or hourly) basis, in contemporary western society is to be found in advertising - an arena where pleasure always means the same thing: a disquieting homogenization and sterilization of wants. The sexualized body is central to Prince's work and to advertising, but in the later all roads lead to the product. In Prince's image there is no product, per se, except for the work itself - not an arena this time but a playground where we can explore and reflect on photographic codes.
Technically Prince's photographs often have a bluish tint that in the days of film was the result of using tungsten film (to be used with photo-floods) outdoors in daylight. Hollywood often uses underexposed tungsten film in daylight to produce a "day for night" effect. Tungsten films have a much lower color temperature than daylight film, with the result being that when used in daylight, it gives everything an ice cold bath of blue. Untitled (Self Service Island) is a magnificent recreation, in color, of Robert Frank and Ed Ruscha's black and white pictures of American gas stations - the landscape is caught between a beautiful blue gasoline pump on the far left and a red Coke machine on the far right. The two machines act in the manner of quotation marks with the American landscape inside the quotes along with some trees that appear to be an attempt at landscaping, along with a derelict basketball hoop. The work is reminiscent of William Eggleston's Gasoline Station in Nashville Tennessee but Eggleston's image is loaded with traffic moving in different directions at once so we get a sense of moving through the intersection, while in Prince's work there appears to be a post- apocalyptic absence of humans - only their machines remain to tell the story. It's a narrative we've seen before in popular films. Richard Prince: My experience has been America since the early 50's: television, movies, magazines. It's what I like about America. It's what's real to me."(3) For Prince, national identity is intimately tied to popular media and this manifests itself in his photography in terms of landscape. This has been the case with many American artists from Thomas Cole to Ed Ruscha, and from Albert Bierstadt to Richard Estes - it's about landscape.
In Untitled (Basketball Hoop and Trash), Prince shows us a stream of abandoned plastic toys. Two discarded windows and two trash bins stand next to a homemade basketball hoop that is in disrepair on an overgrown garden. The scene beautifully articulates a disquieting sense of dread about what might have taken place here and caused this abandonment. A new chain link fence (the quintessential American piece of architecture) separates these items from some beautiful lush trees in the background. The separation and unity - that is the dialectical relationship - of nature and culture is very well articulated. It is also clear that nature is taking back what to belongs to it, despite the shiny new fence. Among the toys that lead the eye through the photograph from the bottom right to the top left diagonally is a yellow tractor; its large wheels upended and useless seem to register the metamorphosis of a territory whose better days have already come and gone. The image, like so many others in Prince's body of work, are devoid of human life but that only serves to give greater emotional poignancy to the artifacts left behind - the detritus of our civilization - which seem to have altered the landscape while leaving traces of our communal existence. This ethnographic aspect of Prince's art is familiar to pop artists who have been prospecting through populist art for source material for years, from Eduardo Paolozzi's small collages of the late 1940's to James Rosenquist's billboard size advertising images in the 1960's, to Damian Hurst's use of pharmaceutical graphics at the turn of the century. Connoisseurship is taken to a very high level of wit, but as will all manner of drollery there is a major problem. Walter Benjamin: "...everything said from the angle of a real collector is whimsical."(4)
Prince describes his own collection needs: "I want the only copy on record. I want the copy that is rarer than anyone had previously dreamed of. I want the copy that dreams."(5) Prince uses the words "I want" three times in the space of three sentences - a remarkable auto-critique that is both comical and illuminating. Pop artists all faced the same dilemma: Facetious and sarcastic visual literacy is strangely impotent to pass beyond its own erudition and really explore a subject in any depth. It is far too self-conscious to take that kind of risk. At best it can only deny the need for art to explore anything in depth, since it is primarily concerned with surfaces. Andy Warhol always said that the only meaning to be found in his work was to be found on the surface - and that there was nothing behind it; in Warhol's case this was, of course, the point.
But the problem remains: even surfaces have many stories to tell as they carry a historical baggage peculiar to their time and place - there is no escape from History. While Prince explores and exploits the images produced for a popular market - what he calls, with disdain, "the minor arts" - what is in play is not so much the historical weight of the original, but the cleverness of the appropriation. The work becomes a mirror of the artist's narcissistic enthrallment to his own exquisite taste as a collector - but at that point the work pivots - it callously turns away from the world and looks only to itself, a self-contained work-of-art. At that point we see, as in a horror film, the clever concept becoming a shroud as the gallery/museum space becomes a tomb. Slavoj Žižek: "In postmodern "self-reflexive" art, this dialectical self-relationship culminates in the uncanny phenomenon of interpassivity (sic), discernible in those cases where the artist inscribes into the product not only the traces of its production process (the standard avant-garde procedure) but the anticipated reactions of the passive observer - this high-art counterpart to the mass-culture phenomenon of canned laughter resorts to the same procedure as the vulgar joke teller who laughs noisily at his own joke. The artist is thus active in response to the anticipated passive position which is truly his."(6)
With Prince, the punster-ism is paper-thin and that is precisely where we may locate the strength and the weakness in his work. We have seen the strong points, where is the weakness? It is to be found in Prince's strategic deployment of irony, heaped on with a trowel, without nuance or details. Henri Lefebvre: "Irony refutes all false claims to authenticity...of representations (which pretend to be alive, as sources and essences of life). Where is authenticity to be found? irony does not say that it knows; indeed it does not know. All it knows is how to strip the inauthentic of its mask of authenticity."(7)
Like a smart adolescent Prince sees through the facades and the games of adults and he relishes skewering them on their own petards - using things like the eroticism inherent in the language of advertising or the transcendence of landscape photography. Let's see how Prince does it. In a body of work published by Gagosian Gallery as an art book titled Bettie Kline from 2009,. As the title implies black and white photographs by Bettie Page are placed side by side with reproductions of paintings by Franz Kline, forming a diptych. Even the title suggest that they are married at least for the purposes of the book. Aside from being contemporaries and favoring a monochrome palette Page and Kline would appear to have little in common. But Prince has a plan because he has seen something that unites their work. Both artists are masters of the strong dynamic, graphic, diagonal and use it consistently in their work. Prince has found the crack in the facade of Kline's Art - of his authenticity - of his depth of feeling - all elements that were crucial to Kline's work as well as to the abstract expressionist painters of the postwar era - that authenticity is where the work either lives or dies. What Prince's diptych collage does is place an imaginary equal sign between Page's erotic images, that are very much a part of the vernacular art of the 1950's, and Kline's abstract paintings that are one of the foundations of post-war American Art. Prince finds the fault line in Kline's work and the mask comes off. Kline is exposed as a manipulator of strong monochrome graphic shapes, but without the sexiness (or the humor) of Page's photographs, he has to work harder to get his dynamic shapes into line so they work. The harder Kline works now the more absurd it seems, for the best he can hope for is to be as dynamic as Page's work, that was, by all accounts, produced rather quickly, spontaneously, and without much fuss. To add insult to injury the spontaneity, that was for Page an essential part of her practice, was also one of the crucial formal strategies for Kline and for the abstract expressionists, further joining the two practices. In Prince's work the inauthentic has been stripped of its false masks of unconscious, unstudied, free expression. Depth of feeling becomes mute. But what remains?
Prince's work re-configures the way we might want to think about the work of Kline and Paige, and more generally about abstract expressionist painting and erotic photography, but does not destroy or supplant either, but rather calls into question the categories that presumably separate them unconditionally. While Paige and Kline were never collaborators they might have more in common than museum hagiographies (in the case of Kline) or lurid biographies (in the case of Paige) might want to acknowledge. We are, as Susan Sontag pointed out, both addicted to images and invariably disappointed by them. Prince's work gets that. What we find in his original, often brilliant, photographic work is the familiar modern, shiny rational consumer objects that signify progress, speed, and power; now de-familiarized and turned into absurd remains - inadequate, fragmented, exhausted and impotent.
His photographs are reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard's soldiers in Les Carabiniers (1963) who painstakingly roam a landscape as desolate and fractured as Prince's, a place seemingly on the edge of total extinction, but the soldiers are oblivious to the destruction they themselves have helped to bring about. Their only goals are to rape women and to loot the bounty of the world - to become the greatest collectors of all time. But by an absurd derangement of the senses, they have come to confuse the sign with reality so they attempt to rape a projected image of a woman on a screen (bringing down the apparatus and destroying the film) and then proceed to collect photographic postcards of famous places, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Roman Forum and the Egyptian pyramids - signs of past civilizations embodied in historical monuments and ruins - believing that they have despoiled the earth of its treasures and are now its new masters. They joyfully display and pour over the images as if they were the proud new owners of a whole array of civilizations they never took the time to explore or understand. As Godard explicitly shows, they are not masters of anything - not even their own sorry fates - for their precious collection cannot save them.
1. Rosetta Brooks, Richard Prince (Phaidon Press), 2003
2. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (Picador), 2002
3. Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Richard Prince: America goes to War...Swimming in the Afternoon... (Serpentine Gallery), 2008
4. Walter Benjamin Unpacking My Library, from Illuminations (Schocken Books), 1986
5. Peyton-Jones and Ulrich Obrist, Richard Prince: America Goes to War...
6. Slavoj Žižek, A Plague of Fantasies (Verso Press), 1997
7. Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity (Verso Press), 1995
©George Porcari 2009