Irony of Ironies

John Haber
in New York City

Richard Prince: Spiritual America

When Richard Prince made his name, painting was dead, and irony ruled. At least people kept saying so, thanks in no small part to artists like him. And with his appropriations from America's underbelly, irony trained its sights directly on fine art—the kind that enters a museum.

Now, ironically enough, irony is dead, or so say many of the same people. Ironically, too, Prince has a retrospective at a museum. That retrospective also just happens to end with paintings, big ones at that, with his old jokes submerged in styles copped from late modern art. To add to the irony, the artist will probably never look so at home again, but not because of his irony—or the quality of his art. Richard Prince's Nurse of Greenmeadow (photo by the artist, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2002)

At the Guggenheim, the building alone is a temple to Modernism. Yet Prince finds an audience who can share his jokes without once thinking about the art world, and it suits him just fine.

America twice removed

Prince calls his retrospective "Spiritual America" (irony noted), and of course it is thoroughly dispiriting. Yet it offers at least one real pleasure: you get to see how often I can use irony and ironically in just a few hundred words. You can even appropriate this review, highlight the key words, and call it art. One does not even need a thesaurus, as with text art by Mel Bochner.

Seriously (oops, wrong word), the show opens in 1977, far from the heartland of spiritual America. At work at Time-Life, Prince is sorting through news clippings when an epiphany strikes. In the eviscerated magazines, he sees something more meaningful than the news will ever be, the glossy ads—at once creative, manipulative, enticing, and utterly clichéd. He photographs them and displays the photographs as his own art. As with others of "The Pictures Generation," the photographs of photographs serve him as images of images of received images, and he cannot help piling them on. They also show his desire for the desire of others, and he wants it to be yours as well.

Ever since, Prince has worked as the collector and eviscerator, copyist and confessor, satirist and true believer in his discovery of America. Equally obsessive and self-obsessed, he traps his fans into the same roles of ironist and desirer. The curators do not seem to notice the irony in their claim for those early works as a first, in a new art of rephotography. It may or may not be true: a key show at the time did not include Prince. Either way, however, the Guggenheim keeps finding epiphanies, marking so many creative turning points that it could be parodying the myth of the authentic artist.

The first photographs do indeed look like ads, only slightly larger and only marginally more alluring. Soon, though, Prince's obsessions extend way past the day job. He collects image after image of babes and bikers. He rephotographs the controversial shot of Brooke Shield as tween idol, the work that lends its name to the retrospective. He starts the series that everyone does remember, the Marlboro man. Blown up to the scale of nineteenth-century American landscape painting, the photographs look all the grainier for it, but even the grain contributes to the sepia haze of a legend.

In between, he finds yet another kind of appropriation and another kind of male leer, in old borscht-belt gags and Playboy cartoons—variously hand lettered, stenciled, and silk-screened. From that moment on, he appropriates mostly himself. The text paintings, at first as plain as the date series by On Kawara, grow larger, more fragmented, and in more painterly relief. It becomes a challenge to read the joke or to see more than the faux tribute to Jasper Johns. In images without text, too, Prince brings paint and luridness alike to the surface. Images of sexually active nurses, based on pulp paperback covers, style themselves after early Mark Rothko or Willem de Kooning around the time that they, too, were finding a style.

Prince starts with photographs that hold photography at a remove and paintings that exclude art. Ironically, the artist formerly known as a photographer ends with paintings that aspire to art history as much as parody it and with original photographs. Moving upstate, he turns his camera on the roadside, its banality now very much his own. He throws mock Minimalism into the mix, based on another object of his obscure desire, vintage cars. The retrospective departs from chronology, using this painted fiberglass sculpture like punctuation along the ramp. Prince, it seems to insist, never lets one forget his place in art and in his spiritual America—but does he mean it, and does he mean it ironically?

Irony in a closed world

Prince first drew attention in the East Village scene of the 1980s, as one of several artists working chiefly but not solely in photography. The medium had long aspired to art, in the uniqueness of the privileged moment or the handmade look of abstraction. Now it really did leave the ghetto of photography galleries and museum photography collections. Yet, ironically, it did so because now art aspired to the qualities of a photograph. It became not just reproducible and inauthentic, but about reproducibility and authenticity. It became about irony.

In fact, it rang the changes on irony—from rephotography to staged photography and from collage to flat text. Sherrie Levine took photographs by Walker Evans (who, ironically, also recorded a seamier America), photographed them, and presented the results both as art-historical image and as a woman's art. Laurie Simmons cut up images of consumer products and turned them into fantasies of leggy women. Barbara Kruger mixed her stolen images, often from fine art, with banner text to make very funny and very angry political statements. Cindy Sherman photographed herself alone, in images that resemble any number of classic films and magazine spreads but belong to none. These artists appropriated existing images—and placed those images under suspicion.

The camera cut across fine art, commerce, American culture, and gender, and it insisted that these came as one big, ugly package. With Levine, the trouble begins with art. Men make it, and the market has authorized it, but a woman can undermine its authority and claim it for herself. Even more than the others, she indulges in finger-wagging, as in her gold-plated version of Duchamp's urinal. (Yes, yes, I know art is a commodity.) However, she came at the right time, when market really was starting to spiral out of control—and if she annoys people like me, she might call that a virtue.

With Simmons, the context in art comes from the technique of collage, but the source and subject belong to present-day America. Her leggy toy doll with a camera for a head is as imaginary as Surrealism's dreams but as real as a commodity. With Kruger, text almost but never quite takes over, with a speaker as impersonal as advertising, propaganda, or a dream. The air of authority also links her to art traditions, quite as much as her black stripes across the Sistine Ceiling. With Cindy Sherman, both process and product point to fine art. Even when she appropriates horror movies and fashion, she adds their allure and their illusion to the allure and illusion of art.

With Levine, Prince shares a technique, the photograph of a photograph. With Simmons he shares an obsession, in advertising, and with Kruger he shares the authority of language. He collaborated with Sherman early on, and he shares her susceptibility to her own illusions of hell. Sherman's photographs gain immediacy by representing desire, desperation, fear, and loathing. Hal Foster, the scholar and critic, contrasts Surrealism with appropriation's Superrealism. He also traces its Freudian intensity to what he calls trauma—and he takes his examples from Richard Prince.

Prince also shares their finger-wagging—and then some. He makes the others look downright spiritual by comparison. His America is more insular, sexualized, and degraded than they ever imagined. When he photographs a photograph, he cannot debunk its authority or claim it for himself, for nothing can debunk it and it belongs to no one. He starts with liquor ads, bikers, and the Marlboro man rather than Evans, Duchamp, Michelangelo or Hitchcock, because to him past glories seem almost beside the point. When he runs through the stereotypes of female sexuality in his nurses, he might be describing the entirety of a closed world.

And another

A closed world tends to mean a complacent one. For all his sarcasm—or especially for all his sarcasm—Prince believes in what he sees. He believes it, in fact, to the point of identifying every viewer's concerns with his own. Perhaps few others will recognize the make and model of those automobile hoods, and some might prefer them shredded and crushed by John Chamberlain. I cannot speak for others, but when I go through the Sunday paper, I chuck the ads as fast as I can. I stopped reading Playboy when I was fourteen, and the Marlboro man never tempted me to horseback or to smoke.

One can see the obsession in his sheer productivity. One can see it in his constant search for a new stage in his art. He keeps coming back to the same bad jokes because he cannot stop himself, and he loves that old line connecting them: "And another." And another, and another, and another. He does not have to ask where the chain of appropriations ends—between himself, present, advertising, Pop Art, and Dada—because the chain keeps circling back.

He does not have to ask for another reason, too: unlike the other appropriation artists, he accepts the aura of advertising or of art quite well, thank you. In his love for what he parodies, he comes closest to Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons. He hardly minds if he does not have his finger on the pulse of cultural icons like Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons in his eagerness to please. He hardly minds if more people recognize Warhol's Brillo boxes or Koons's puppies than the sources of his bikers and bimbos. He has his finger on something else altogether—his own priapic needs.

Prince differs from the other appropriation artists in yet another obvious way, too—as a man and indeed perhaps the best argument of 2007 for more women in the arts. He puts gender on the spot, but for him the terms of gender have an awful fixedness. He does not have to turn on the male gaze, because he understands it all too well. One can see why he started to care about artistic tradition so slowly and why it seems tacked on. Nothing much connects Johns to bad jokes, and they have little to say about each other. Both, however, have a lot to say about Prince's artistic stature.

As Johanna Drucker points out, writers tend to mistake art complicit with mass culture for cultural criticism. Prince is almost the opposite of a cynic, but he has an obvious appeal for those who see cynicism everywhere. He appeals to buyers smart enough to appreciate appropriation and too smart to buy pulp fiction, but not above lingering over the ads. At the Guggenheim, moreover, he finds a whole new audience, and he has been waiting for it all his life. They cannot quote critical theory by heart, but they genuinely enjoy the jokes half hidden in the unbroken capital letters. They enjoy slowly piecing them together from words broken over two lines, and they do not have to ask how that differs from text messages by Lawrence Weiner, Mark Flood, or Christopher Wool—or from text messaging.

In more ways than one, Prince has the last word. The bad boy of appropriation art gets really tiring really fast. The translation of a mockery of art and commodity values into sales gets frustrating, and his lack of reflection on the process seems like a disconnect. His critical moment passed, and he responded by adjusting to a newer and glibber scene, one of painting and myth making instead of irony. I hate it, but perhaps that makes him relevant to art at last. If Prince is ever to add insight into art and changing audiences, it will have to come in a museum.

BACK to John's arts home page

Richard Prince's "Spiritual America" ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through January 9, 2008.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME