Bones’ Beat: Richard Prince’s Canal Zone at Gagosian


This week Bones, intrepid art-world raconteur, stops by Gagosian in the aftermath of some of the worst contemporary art auctions in recent memory. Has Richard Prince figured out which way the wind is blowing?

The miserable showing at the contemporary auctions here in New York last week brought colorful phrasing to the ritual swarm of morning-after chatterboxing beloved by art biz professionals. Some said “bloodbath”. Some said “freefall”. Everyone talked about the bursting of “the bubble”. The new reality is that the market is exactly as stable as everything else currently not made out of gold: beyond rickety, beyond swaying, and now actually falling apart. We in the business long held on to tropical fantasies of Dubai sheikhs, Beijing billionaires, and minked Muscovites, newly art-inclined friends who could be relied upon to uphold the integrity of our greedily inflated market when we ran out of steam. But no one anywhere loves art that much. Art will still cost silly money, but its price will decrease instead of increase for the time being. Even for artists as cozily situated as Richard Prince.

Richard Prince is an artist who made his name in the second half of the 1970s, primarily through photographing existing photographs and presenting them as his own work. He rephotographed the Marlboro Man endlessly, called it the Cowboys series, and showed it for twelve years. The ad campaign character is a memory, but the series is still very much alive: In 2007, one picture became the first photograph to break a million dollars at auction. Prince rephotographed a nude and soapy shot of Brooke Shields at ten years old, a photo that was in legal limbo, called it Spiritual America and hung it alone in a rented storefront at 5 Rivington Street. He collated stock images at the Time-Life Building for a time in the early 1980s. By the end of the decade he was painting a lot of one-liner jokes. He had a midcareer retrospective at the Whitney in 1992.

The jokes stuck, as jokes do, and Richard Prince became, if not quite a household name, then certainly an art-school deity. He displayed framed compositions of celebrity headshots with fake-seeming personal dedications and signatures from DMX or Jennifer Aniston. He made minimal hanging sculptures out of car hoods. The big millennial reveal was a series of paintings where the subject, a nurse from an old pulp novel cover, was scanned and printed on large canvases and then painted over and around. He made dozens of these. He made paintings with his canceled checks pasted to them. He has become increasingly interested in custom cars. Judging from the mania in the museum on a typical afternoon late in the run, I’ll confidently call his 2007 mid-to-late-career retrospective at the Guggenheim a blockbuster. He has exhibited with remarkable frequency for almost 30 years.

Kingmaker Larry Gagosian represents him in New York now, and Prince’s latest, Canal Zone, is his first full outing at the Chelsea flagship. Scanning and printing on canvas remain his new thing: the imagery at Gagosian is a 50/50 split between women from soft-core pornography (an extraordinary range, from old Hollywood fetish mags to nudist journals to what could be Calvin Klein commercials for a liberal market) and hunched Rastas. Most paintings have both. All sorts of expressive painted markmaking is chucked in, and hands, feet and faces are manipulated in both blunt and subtle ways. Various characters are playing cutout guitars. It’s an exotic and charged ecology, and it’s unclear what’s going to happen between these two groups. These are objectively exciting pictures for the eyes, brain and loins. No question.

Prince is, perhaps more than anything else, a collector. He accumulates and invents taxonomies for his huge collections, first editions and signatures and photographs and records and ephemera, and stores them in a large private library that he owns in Rensselaerville, New York. The collector cares for the things he collects, and he wrings all the meaning he can find from them; in some ways, Prince’s work can be seen as a single long exercise in such passionately detailed ordering and preservation. This is certainly true for these new works. The collector in Prince is equipped to handle the complicated decision of where to put something, where something goes best, and this crucial, timely gift has put Prince ahead of the cultural curve, always, an ever-relevant figure, a go-to guy.

Collectors loved Richard Prince as his work became increasingly iconic and definitive of the age and, with their help, the work grew to embody the mania of the last, now-collapsing market boom. The 2003 nurse series, with price tags under a hundred thousand dollars, sold sluggishly first time around at Barbara Gladstone. A nurse appeared in a Phillips auction in 2005, estimated at a quarter of a million. It hammered at a million. Exactly a year ago, a nurse with a high estimate of 2 million dollars topped 6 million at Christie’s. Last Wednesday, same fall sale, a painting from the same series carried a 5 million dollar low estimate and sold for 3 and a quarter.

“Collect what you like, and collect what no one else is collecting” is a borrowed aphorism of course, but, according to a leaf in the ludicrous chubby hi-gloss press pack I eventually prized from the young lady behind the desk at Gagosian with the help of another art organization’s press card, these are Prince’s rules. I love Richard Prince, and have fallen for him, like a kid, many times over, but his comfortable position feels perverse now. Who, besides Prince, can follow through on such a principle? If nothing else, this apparent new era will bring new rules of engagement regarding ownership and obsession. And our collector’s energy—the need to accumulate, preserve, and defend—might be better served by someone with a humbler economy than Richard Prince.-Bones

Canal Zone is up at Gagosian’s 555 West 24th Street space until December 20th. It is Chelsea’s most impressive viewing space. Sphynx-like security guards man every room, but tune into their patterns and you can quite easily snap off a few photographs without them knowing. Be sure to thumb through the catalogue, with an essay by James Frey, on the front desk.