Sometimes, Richard Prince pisses people off. It’s not that he spends his time trying to figure out how to piss people off. It just comes naturally to him. When I meet Prince at his Upper East Side studio, he gets right into it, talking about how he thinks pissing people off is part of his job — one privilege of being an artist.
At 67, Prince is still a bad-boy teenager trapped in the body of an artist who has spent four decades upending conventions. He is sitting behind a desk in artist drag of jeans and paint-specked shirt, surrounded by works in progress. (When he’s not at work, Prince wears a suit and looks like someone who has stepped midflight out of one of Robert Longo’s “Men in the Cities” drawings.) Unfinished works line the wall, and assistants are within shouting distance to take care of whatever might be necessary.
Prince is telling me about a review he read in a magazine where one artist (David Salle) wrote nasty things about another artist (Oscar Murillo). “I kind of really relate to that,” Prince says. “Sometimes, you know, that stuff is really shit. If an artist can’t say it, who can?”
But on the other hand, “It’s just art. It’s not out there hurting anybody. Who cares? It’s none of my business if someone is making crappy art. That’s the problem with art: It’s so goddamn subjective. That’s why I don’t like it.”
Does Prince really not like art? Au contraire. Prince is a student of art. He collects it. He is among the elite of the world’s most successful practitioners of it. He is obsessed with art. He talks about his friends who make it, like Jeff (Koons) and Damien (Hirst). Prince sees art in old record sleeves, pulp-fiction paperback covers of busty nurses, muscle cars, and even a photo of Donald Trump he has manipulated until the image is vaguely visible but totally recognizable.
Prince also sees art in social media. In 2015, he unveiled a controversial series of Instagram “portraits,” which he created by blowing up images of other people’s postings. Appropriation is central to Prince’s practice, and the social universe gives a peripatetic personality with restless tendencies like Prince lots of room to roam around — kind of like the Marlboro Man perched upon his horse and looking out on the vast space of the American West in the ads Prince famously photographed and presented as original works of art of his back in the 1980s.
More recently, Prince has taken to Twitter, with @RichardPrince4 firing off missives like Trump on a bender. “I was on Twitter really early,” Prince says. “It reminded me of this thing I did called ‘bird talk’ ” — a series of short, aphoristic text pieces Prince created in the 1970s. “They were just sentences. I would stack them and publish them in a catalog. It made me sound smart, that’s all.” (Prince is a prolific writer who has published about a dozen books and maintains a blog, also called Bird Talk, and much more on his obsessively comprehensive site, richardprince.com.)
I haven't heard boo from many artists on feelings 4 Trump. BUT I've heard from collectors they won't collect my work now. Really? WonderY.
— Richard Prince (@RichardPrince4) February 28, 2017
My collector base R worried bout me. So is Sotheby's. Want me 2 tone it down. U know. Says I'm "drifting" in "political landscape." YaMahn
— Richard Prince (@RichardPrince4) February 28, 2017
Prince has found other uses for Twitter as well. “Let’s say you got a bad review,” he explains. “There was no way to answer or fight back. Who writes letters to the editor these days? Now I have a platform where I can talk back to the critic. For instance, yesterday I read a review by Holland Cotter about the Met [Museum] and it kind of pissed me off, so I made a tweet about it. I can be a critic, too.”
But why stop with art critics? Why not push it into politics? Prince has been outspoken in his disapproval of our 45th president, and earlier this year found a way to use his newfound political voice to send a message that he felt would resonate with the First Family.
Much to his apparent regret, Prince had accepted a commission to create a portrait of Ivanka Trump — the only time he has ever agreed to such a transaction. (Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, have an extensive collection of contemporary art that includes works by Dan Colen, Nate Lowman, and John Baldessari, among others; in May, it was revealed that Kushner had failed to list its asset value as part of the financial disclosure statement required by his role in his father-in-law’s administration.)
This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This fake art. pic.twitter.com/ouHJmVeF8C
— Richard Prince (@RichardPrince4) January 11, 2017
After the election in November, Prince’s regret became something he could no longer bear, so in January, he gave back the $36,000 he had received to make the piece, an Instagram portrait of Ivanka, and disavowed the work, dubbing it “fake art.” “Because I made your portrait, I can unmake it,” Prince said of his decision to de-authenticate and distance himself from the painting.
“It’s a fake. It’s no longer worth anything — at least not to me — and here is your money back,” Prince explains. “They wanted me to come down to talk about it. I got a call from a collector: ‘Please, don’t do this.’ She was upset…. I’m sorry. It’s done. I don’t want anything to do with the Trump family, period.” As for the other artists represented in what is thought to be a substantial contemporary art collection — many of them Prince’s friends — he prefers not to pass judgment. “That’s up to them to decide,” he says.
Prince also uses Twitter to tweak his collectors and the auction houses that have been known to rein in artists if they feel their investment is threatened. “If I start to tweet, like, ‘Phillips you’re a piece of shit auction house. I don’t like what you’re doing and I’m going to tell people not to bid on my work,’ they call and say, ‘Richard, please, what can we do?’ They respond.”
Nowadays politics is front and center for Prince. He is looking to use his brand, social-media footprint, and financial connections to support a politician he happened to catch on local TV earlier this year while lazing around a hotel room in Massachusetts watching a Sunday morning talk show.
“I was up in Smith College, where my daughter goes to school, and I saw this guy talking and I just sat there mesmerized,” Prince recalls. “His name is Seth Moulton. He was in the Army with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Johnny Lunchpail, speaking [about] Planned Parenthood, the environment. So I met him and I said to him ‘What do you do during the day? And by the way, how much money can I give you and do you want to be introduced to anybody? I can introduce you to people.’ I met him at the house of a collector he’s friends with. Next thing we need to do is organize a cocktail party, introduce him to Leo [DiCaprio] and David Geffen. He doesn’t know these people. And it’s all because of Twitter. That’s where it started. I tweeted about him, and this collector picked up on it who knew him and called me.”
Prince doesn’t have as many followers on Twitter as Trump, but in the long view of history, he explains, artists may have something even more valuable on their side. “Who was the president of France when Gauguin was painting in Tahiti?” Prince asks rhetorically. “No one gives a shit. All they care about now is the painting. That’s the point.”