The Prince of Pilfer: “Spiritual America” at the Walker Art Center

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Richard Prince, “Untitled (Cowbow),” 1989, Ektacolor print, 50×70″ (photo courtesy The Guggenheim)

We’ve just returned from a hot and miserably humid Fourth of July weekend in Minneapolis. Even the mighty Mississippi, which for the most part is actually quite lazy up that way, couldn’t offer much respite from the sweat-drenching conditions. A Saturday morning visit to the grounds of the Walker Art Center to see choreographer Tricia Brown recreate four of her early dances temporarily diverted our thoughts from the heat.  It was a special treat to have the choreographer present, moving here and there among the spectators (shouting directives at us rather than the dancers!). I was introduced to Ms. Brown’s work in the early 80s; all these years later, I still find it fresh and witty. I still have an immediate emotional response.

Later, in the cool dark haven of the Museum, among the temporary exhibits, I found “Spiritual America,” the traveling “retrospective” of Richard Prince’s work. This show generated a lot of controversy when it opened at the Guggenheim last fall. With no plans to be in NY at that time, however, I had more or less written off the opportunity to see it.

I entered the show at the wrong end, and thus made my way through it backwards. Interestingly, that didn’t seem to matter, as the exhibit is organized to reflect the artist’s predilection for working in themes (or the fact that he has no discernible progression of style).  A great deal of what is on display are works of appropriation, the technique on which Prince’s built his reputation. Some, like the ubiquitous nurses and recycled jokes are paintings; others, like the cowboys and biker chicks, are photographs.

As I wandered through the rooms, disappointment grew. The work was doing nothing for me.  Despite, or perhaps because of, this I paused for a long time in front of the cowboy images and pondered my lack of connection. Here before me was quintessentially American subject matter. Surely I must have some response! There had to be something to it; after all, the cowboy image featured above sold for nearly $1.25 million at Christie’s in 2005, a record for a work of photography.

There were certain things I had to acknowledge.  I know that Prince, along with Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and others in the “Pictures” generation, is a figurehead in the post-Warhol, Post-Modern (read: fresh and unique) comment on America’s commodity culture.  I can even appreciate how he has gone beyond Pop Art, which used the symbols of popular culture for its own artistic ends quite effectively. By contrast, Prince has made his mark by  “clipping” (technically re-photographing) whole images, as well as stories and jokes, and RE-presenting them, often virtually unchanged from their original state.  Because the cowboy images were originally part of the Marlboro ads, they immediately evoke the mass-consumed fiction that was served up by the campaign. On a grander plane, the pieces function as mirrors reflecting us to us without the bother of an artistic sensibility.  Ok, I get that. As an artist, I’m intensely bothered by the wholesale appropriation. Sure, every artist borrows, but hasn’t Prince crossed over the line to outright stealing? A corporation holding the copyright on an image (as Philip Morris does with the Marlboro photos) doesn’t make it any less problematic for Prince to use it.   (For a thoughtful discourse on this topic, see James Traub: Art Rogers vs. Jeff Koons.)

Finally, as a mixed-media artist using photography, I am quite sympathetic to the ways in which Prince, along with Thomas Ruff, Jeff Wall, and Hiroshi Sugimoto have pushed the traditional definition of photography in the fine arts world.

In the end, acknowledging all of this was of no consequence, because I couldn’t get beyond the images themselves. Actually, the honest truth is that I found them boring and tired. I want art that elevates above the banal, not glorifies it.


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