If you want to know what’s going on in contemporary art—or what will be going on soon—the general rule is this: Keep your ear to the ground; look at what’s coming out of art schools or being made by artists working under the radar of the gallery system.
Sometimes, however, established artists provide a good reading. Right now, for instance, Cindy Sherman is having her 17th solo show at Metro Pictures while a few doors down 24th Street, Richard Prince is having his first solo show at mega-dealer Larry Gagosian’s.
It’s kind of like revisiting the Class of ’77. That’s the year Sherman started making her black-and-white “Untitled Film Stills” and critic Douglas Crimp mounted “Pictures” at Artists Space. Neither Sherman nor Prince was in “Pictures,” although she was featured in a later version of Crimp’s essay (published in October in 1980), and Prince subsequently claimed that Crimp had asked him to be in the exhibition—but that after reading Crimp’s essay and thinking it was “for shit and sounded like Roland Barthes,” he’d refused. (Crimp reportedly disputes this.)
Sherman and Prince were even a couple, briefly. Thirty years later, they’re both installed in art history. What makes the current exhibitions interesting, however, is the light they shed on two other phenomena: feminism and the art market.
The feminist part is pretty obvious at Sherman’s show. Fourteen large-scale color photographs feature women of a certain age and class posing in—or inserted in, since Sherman went digital a while back—”regal” settings: revival-medieval arches, opera halls, plush drawing rooms. The makeup is garish; the costumes astutely conceived. There’s the country parvenu trying to be youthful in a white cowboy hat and the old-money ghoul with bad teeth.
You know what population we’re talking about here: the upper economic region of the culture that’s produced a breed of women who can afford to be tucked and tweaked. For art-world denizens, this means collectors and patrons. Sherman doesn’t offer any Jocelyn Wildenstein–type specimens—that is, overtly pathological. But she doesn’t cut any slack for her own tribe of aging, rich white women.
Meanwhile, over at Gagosian, Prince—in his first gallery exhibition since his retrospective at the Guggenheim last year—offers large-scale paintings of nude women, re-photographed from a variety of sources and digitally printed on the canvas. Scattered among them are also images of a bare-chested Rastafarian with a guitar pasted into his hands. The facial features of the figures have been blocked out with Baldessari-ish ovals of bright pigment.
The show is titled “Canal Zone”—Prince was born in the Panama Canal Zone—and it’s accompanied by a blindingly clueless piece of writing by James Frey (of fake-memoir fame) about an apocalyptic event on a tropical island, after which “women become slaves” and “some are defiled in every way you can imagine.”
For Prince, this is both familiar territory—he’s been pissing off feminists for decades—and something new. In the ’80s, his work was couched so heavily in appropriation that he could point the finger at the other guy: Gary Gross, for instance, the photographer who took the picture of a nude, greased-up 10-year-old Brooke Shields. Prince merely re-photographed the image and titled it Spiritual America (after a Stieglitz photo of a castrated carriage horse), giving him some leverage to claim critical distance. Same with the photos of biker chicks, the “Girlfriends” draped across their boyfriends’ motorcycles. Hey, they were already published in Easyriders! Prince only stumbled upon them. . . . In fact, an example of that work is resurrected here in the form of a 1987 Buick Grand National parked in the front window, every inch of it covered with blown-up images of topless biker chicks.
In this show, however, Prince takes his borrowed raw material—vintage nude photos—and uses it the old-fashioned way: to create ambitious painterly compositions. This time, he’s not feigning a critique; he’s hitching his wagon to the train of art history, the heroic male painters he revered as a kid (particularly Pollock and Kline) and the tradition of the “transgressive” female nude: Manet’s street prostitute, cribbed from Titian and recycled in Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, and so on. You could say he was on this road already with the Nurse paintings, which had one foot in appropriation with their pulp-fiction-cover images, and another in painterly “license”: Prince painted white masks over the nurses’ faces to obscure them, almost like burkas.
You can feel Prince groping for something to replace the now-lost shock value of appropriation. But standing in Gagosian, you witness something else, too—specifically, the triumph of the market over feminism. Because, while feminism faltered, derailed by its own internal battles, the ’90s witnessed the rise of artists like John Currin and Jason Rhoades (of Black Pussy notoriety), whose market success created a kind of critical immunity for misogyny. A low point came in 2003 when Voice critic Kim Levin reversed her opinions in a review of Currin’s retrospective at the Whitney: After urging readers in 1992 to boycott Currin’s first solo show (self-described as “paintings of old women at the end of the cycle of sexual potential . . . between the object of desire and the object of loathing”), she anointed him “our premier mannerist.”
Prince, even more than Sherman, has been a beneficiary of the market boom. (Ironically, their relationship ended because he couldn’t handle her early success, he later admitted.) So it’s fitting that he’s now showing at Gagosian, a kind of emporium for the pornography of the market, echoed literally in the work of Currin, Damien Hirst, or Cecily Brown, one of the few women shown there.
But while Prince is trotted out as transgressive—the “hetero, macho, bad-boy artist,” Nancy Spector described him in her fawning Guggenheim catalog essay—it’s Sherman who is addressing the real taboo in our culture: aging among women (or Currin’s frighteningly termed “object” of loathing).
Sherman’s new body of work isn’t pitch-perfect; sometimes it’s shrill and cartoonish. But it’s fearless and self-searching compared to Prince’s decadent colonial exotica. On the other hand, with the art market poised on the brink of apocalypse, maybe Prince offers the perfect punctuation for a moment about to end.