Richard Prince at the Guggenheim

Notes on the Richard Prince's mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim (his second--the first was at the Whitney in '92).

1. The signature early photos rephotographed from advertisements grab you with their icy coldness and near-claustrophobic perfection of composition/cropping. They are slightly eerie in their grainy, one-step-removed distance from their subjects, and obsessive in their focus on the banal: labels/logos, product photography (furniture, jewelry), male and female models (looking in the same direction).

2. The show gets worse as you move up the Guggenheim ramp. The photos, joke paintings, and car hood sculptures all get larger, messier, overworked, "painterly" for no particular reason, climaxing with the execrable "nurse paintings" and the even more execrable "De Kooning Women" paintings. Copying the "modern masters" is the kiss of death.

3. The exhibition curator mixes old and new work in apparent attempt to obscure this decline. The rephotographed "girlfriend photos" of biker babes mingle with the boring, Eggleston-lite upstate NY photos of the late '90s. The so-so car hoods are interspersed with the monochrome joke paintings as if to say "See, viewers? Both are minimal. Can you say minimal?" The "gangs" series of photomontages of '86-'87 (groups of related images such as battlefield photos, tidal waves, hair bands, more biker girls) is broken apart and spread evenly throughout the show.

4. Prince's content shifts with the winds of the market. After the Neo Geo era of the mid '80s he switched from photo-appropriation to "hard edged painting" (the joke monochromes). When the art world began embracing large scale photos in the late '90s (Gursky, Tillmans, Billingham), Prince returned to Marlboro cowboys, but larger, and began showing celebrity headshots and memorabilia. When the painting madness returned with the influx of Bush tax cut millionaire funny money, Prince went back to big paintings (cancelled checks, nurses). Of course he worked in multiple media all along, but these are the broad trends.

5. The early work is incisive and perceptive and earned him his "place in history." Too bad about the rest of it--at least it wasn't as horrific as late Johns.

Smith on Prince: 1992 and 2007

Roberta Smith, writing on Richard Prince's mid-career retrospective at the Whitney in 1992 (NY Times sign-in probably required):

In addition, whether glamorous or tawdry, the preponderance of photographs in the exhibition's first three galleries can make one wonder if the show wouldn't actually have made a better catalogue. (This speculation is borne out by the show's own terrific-looking catalogue, where these images are arrayed in a snappy scattershot style, undoubtedly overseen by Mr. Prince, and fleshed out by four informative essays and snippets of the artist's writings.)

Fortunately, and unlike many of his contemporaries, Mr. Prince has gone on to apply the principle of appropriation to a broad number of media, including language itself. In so doing, he has brought into clearer focus the strangely poignant, self-deprecating malaise that pervades all his work. In addition, he has made his obsession with artistic issues, and especially issues involving painting, more and more apparent.

His sculptures, his weakest work from the late 80's, consist of mail-order car hoods, repainted by the artist and displayed on the wall like unusually streetwise Minimalist reliefs. His drawings are stand-up comedy jokes, written by hand on typewriter paper...

Roberta Smith, writing on Richard Prince's mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2007:

Mr. Prince’s ancestors include Duchamp, Jasper Johns and especially Andy Warhol. But unlike Warhol, he is much less interested in the stars than in the audience. Thus he is just as much an heir to Walker Evans and Carson McCullers, with their awareness of the common person.

Over the years, Mr. Prince has shown himself to be in touch with the same shamed, shameless side of America that gave us tell-too-much talk shows, reality TV and the current obsession with celebrity. Practically every last American could find something familiar, if usually a bit unsettling, in his work. If he were the Statue of Liberty, the words inscribed on his base might read: Give me your tired, your poor, but also your traveling salesmen and faithless wives; your biker girlfriends, porn stars, custom-car aficionados and wannabe celebrities; as well as your first-edition book collectors (of which he is one).

It often seems that Mr. Prince has never met a piece of contemporary Americana he couldn’t use. Customized checks with images of SpongeBob SquarePants or Jimi Hendrix? He pastes them to canvas and paints on them. Mail-order fiberglass hoods for muscle cars? He hangs them on the wall — instant blue-collar Minimalist reliefs. Planters made of sliced and splayed truck tires? There’s one at the Guggenheim, cast in white resin, where the fountain should be. Is it a comment on the work of Matthew Barney, a gallery-mate who had his own Guggenheim fete? Probably. But from above it resembles a plastic toy crown or the after-splash of milk in that famous stop-action Harold Edgerton photograph.

What's not said is that between the first and second reviews the artist's stock continued to rise so that he is now an unstoppable "player" in the art world. Oh, sorry, I mean, er, the artist's maturation and the critic's deepening understanding of his work contributed to a mellower, more glowing critical tribute for the second mid-career retrospective.

Glasstire linkage--thanks!

Thanks for the recent linkage from Glasstire, a web magazine covering visual art in Texas (and named for an artwork by Robert Rauschenberg): Bill Davenport's Dec. 18 Newswire nod to my found seasonal GIF ("Even better after a few eggnogs"), and Ivan Lozano's enthusiastic piece on Net Art 2.0 and the surfing clubs. I have to say I prefer Lozano's take on the scene to the Wall Street Journal's, not just because he mentions this page but because his account is visually lush and gives you a sense of what the fuss is about with net art's second wave*. Also, none of the usual cliches are invoked such as claiming that the art is made by "a generation that grew up with the Net" (beyond a jab at pre-Net-nostalgic "squares" in the opening paragraph) or the all-important "Can these cra-a-azy artists sell this work?"

For more discussion of the latter two issues, please see this Nasty Nets thread. On the issue of age-ism, I think two things are going on here: (a) the same "young is better" media narrative that makes actors washed up at 21, and (b) reinforcing another media script that bloggers are "unruly kids" when in fact the most prominent independent voices come from all age groups. The WSJ article recites a couple of the "pro surfer" artists' ages--one is 23 and one is 33. Are they the same generation? I don't think so. Anyone 33 remembers life before the Net. Whether the art is first or second wave is surely a matter of attitude, not birth year. So, curators, can you please stop saying this?

*the only exception to the "second wave" designation among the works mentioned in Lozano's piece is g_i_o_c_a_t_t_o_l_i's pseudo-pixelated Op Art javascript utility. That is more of an overdetermined net art 1.0 concept, heavy on programming magic and "interactivity" compared to the rather trashy, DIY use of html and GIFs on the surf blogs.

Update, 2012: non-broken link to Ivan Lozano's Glasstire piece (all the image links are broken, though)