If you once sent Easyriders magazine a snapshot of your old lady astride your hog (a pre-Internet way to pimp both your rides), don’t be surprised to see her on the Guggenheim’s curvaceous walls. Richard Prince’s rotunda-filling retrospective includes paintings, sculptures, off-kilter gag panels, and his early-’90s series of workaday beauties rephotographed from the motorcycle mag’s back issues, the coarse-grained enlargements heightening the down-market spectacle of breasts popping out of leather vests.
It was during the ’70s, in a job clipping articles at Time Life Inc., that Prince (b. 1949) first discovered the visual cornucopia latent in mass-produced imagery, and over the decades he has become, through smart cropping, an insightful curator of American desire. Prince discerned motifs that ad agencies endlessly employ: glamorous models with heads tilted just so, lips titillatingly parted; ostentatious home décor ranging from urbane sophistication to cozy colonial, shot from similar angles with occasionally repeated props. This strategy scaled magisterial heights in his long-running “Cowboy” series, cribbed from the Marlboro Man ads: all sinuous lassos, flaring chaps, shadowed brows, and rearing stallions amid God’s own North Forty. Utter showstoppers, they were culled from one of the most successful ad campaigns ever mounted—by the mid-’60s, Philip Morris had pretty much dispensed with images of actual cigarettes, confident that aspiring addicts would happily ride the high-steppin’ filly of their subconscious right onto the purple mesas of Marlboro Country. Even the catalog acknowledges the supreme skill of these commercial artisans, noting: “Prince makes the most of the lush, high-budget, art-directed aesthetic of the ad campaign. After eliminating the text and enlarging the image, he does little to these already gorgeous pictures.”
So what happens when Prince presses his own eye to the viewfinder? Although you can almost hear the war whoops and feel the shuddering steering wheel when you look at his shot of snaking skid marks on a stretch of two-lane blacktop, most of his recent “Upstate” photos feel denatured, the colors one-note compared to the chromatic symphony of Madison Avenue’s Wild West. Perhaps that’s the point of these images of weed-choked basketball poles, ramshackle deer stands, and wintry mini-storage units. But, hey, we all know the upstate economy is depressed. We gotta be, too?
Which brings us to the joke paintings.
Many market cycles ago, when the neo-expressionist posse was making a killing, Prince began scribbling one-liners onto scraps of paper, trying to sell them for 10 bucks a pop—an admirably defiant gesture during an overripe epoch. (He notes, with characteristic self-deprecation, that he made this move because “no one was looking at my work.”) In one positively baroque variant from 1985, he drew Clark Kent and Superman looming large over his graphite copy of a gag panel in which uptown couples gossip: “Leading his own life now? Are you kidding? That’s not his own life.” The penciled-in Benday dots of the superhero contrast with the studied suavity of the cartoon style that Prince lifts from The New Yorker: Clark is too unworldly, and Supes too much of an Eagle Scout, to breach the battlements of smug schadenfreude surrounding the sophisticates.
Prince himself has led a double life at times, disseminating spurious interviews, fudging his biography, even exhibiting curtains of Budweiser cans under the name John Dogg. Other biographical snippets are revealed in the recent “Check Paintings,” such as the 12-foot-wide My Life Story, which features the artist’s own bank checks behind huge block letters spelling out gags, including “I collect rare photographs. I got one where Norman Rockwell is beating up a child.” These works dovetail with Prince’s collecting mania: He’s a serious bibliophile, and he also acquires the signed, cancelled checks and other celebrity memorabilia found in his “Publicity” collages. In one, he juxtaposes a banal shot of Woodstock against a drumhead signed by the Velvet Underground (a band that wouldn’t have been caught dead at any hippie lovefest); his witty wrongheadedness chimes a sweet minor chord amid our cultural cacophony.
But in the large “White Paintings,” some of which mix bland line drawings with boxing photos in warmed-over Rauschenberg-like layers, or in his flabby de Kooning knockoffs—which feature beaver shots grafted onto the master’s flourishes of flesh—it becomes evident that Prince is at his best when performing Pop-cult surgery rather than stitching together high-art Frankensteins. Or, looked at another way, Prince is only as good as his swipe file (those clippings of figurative poses, facial expressions, props, and vehicles that illustrators stockpile for inspiration). In his muscle-car sculptures, for instance, he zeroes in on the smoothly erupting hood scoops and sleekly indented curves, caressing them with body filler and minimalist gradations of color to achieve a tactile, high-octane sensuality. But despite the catalog’s breathless assertion that he’s making “outlaw art” because of his image “piracy,” there aren’t any startling transgressions here.
Still, if you want Prince to be a hood, fair enough. So was Fonzie.