Richard Prince

Richard Prince’s formative years occurred during the heyday of Pop art and the breaking through of the more analytical Conceptual art. Both starting points permeate his artistic production. His series “Cowboys” (1980–1992), for instance, in which he rephotographed images from the famous Marlboro advertising campaign, is indebted to Pop art’s critical interest in consumerist culture. However, “Cowboys” can be seen not only as a cynical representation of reality, but also, in the critical tradition of Conceptual art, as a piercing inquiry into the ethos of the American vernacular, and even as the existential gesture of a figurative and realist artist. Such pieces sealed Prince’s reputation as a leading manipulator of social and cultural symbols. Even though Prince’s art, especially his use of photography, is conceptually and intellectually anchored in the critical discourse of its time – loaded with references to simulacra and the death of the author, as championed by figures such as Debord, Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze – his practice cannot be reduced to a philosophical or sociological commitment. Rather, it creates an intelligent dialogue between critical thought and formalistic transformation: Prince’s Marlboro man (the “cowboy”) offers a contemporary reworking of the readymade, while his series “Living rooms,” “Women” and “Gangs” carry the tautological logic and attitude of Conceptual art, and the transfer of cartoons to canvas made in the series “Jokes” is a Pop procedure, while the monochrome backgrounds of the text-based works in that series look back to a longstanding tradition of Modernism. Prince’s paintings, as opposed to photographic works, are neither preconceived nor harmonious, linear, stable nor continuous. Instead, they explore discrepancy and displacement, contradictions and misunderstandings (much like reality in general). We could even speak of the absurdity of these works, the zone where irreconcilable elements on the pictorial surface interrupt the meaning. Here, the spectator is confronted by a confusing and enigmatic frame of reference, akin to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s ruminations on the challenging frame of vision in which one “perceives much, but understands little.” Indeed, Prince’s figurative paintings are about reconstructing reality, or fabricating parallel realities. Repetition in different forms plays an important role in Prince’s narrative structures. This is most obvious in his rephotographed appropriations, where repetitions introduce a “double,” creating confusion and frustration, as developed in canonical texts by Kafka or Nabokov. In the paintings, the same jokes or cartoons are often used within a series, but each time they are slightly transformed. “Reprise” is perhaps a more appropriate term than repetition for these works, since the images are integrated into Prince’s system before their function as appropriation takes hold. According to Kierkegaard, repetition and reprise are part of the same, but divergent, act – the former being identified with what has been and the latter with moving ahead. Reprise can thus be considered a modernist concept pertaining to the liberty of the artist and the notion of progress. Thus it is in this sense that Prince the painter emerges as an artist not merely engaged with the calculated appropriation of images, signs or objects (and the critical baggage that comes with these devices), but one equally involved with the development of a genuine sensibility related to touch. The Car Hoods paintings, for example – moulds taken from vintage car bonnets and washed with color – are real objects, but also painterly abstractions. They are embedded with connotations of energy and power, at once indexing machinery and the legacy of Abstract Expressionism.