Fresh Prince

Sarah Thornton on Richard Prince's opening at the Serpentine


Left: Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones with restaurateur Marlon Abela. (Photo: Richard Young) Right: Artists Richard Prince and Noel Grunwaldt. (Photo: Dafydd Jones)

I KNEW A GUY WHO WAS SO RICH HE COULD SKI UPHILL . . . announced the enormous joke painting in the central room of Richard Prince’s first solo show in a British public space, which opened at the Serpentine Gallery on Wednesday night. At a time when the art market continues to defy the laws of gravity and the latest cliché is that “art is the new gold!” the monster canvas was a fitting altarpiece. Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones, directors of the Serpentine, told me that Prince had conceived of the gallery’s various rooms as “chapels.” Indeed, the show offered spiritual uplift in the manner of, say, a great rock anthem, and many declared that it was the most pleasing Prince installation they’d seen to date.

London in the summer is the Serpentine. Outside the gallery in verdant Hyde Park, five hundred or so art-worlders drank beer beneath the setting sun. I stood for a moment, notebook in hand, daunted by the task of working the throng, until someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “See Simon Periton over there? He’s the sexiest man in the art world. Go talk to him.” So instructed, I strode over to Periton, who was standing with fellow artists John Stezaker and Carey Young, and asked them what they thought of the fact that all the works in the show were either newly made or from Prince’s collection of his own work.

Left: Model Stella Tennant with musician Bryan Ferry. (Photo: Dafydd Jones) Right: Artists Simon Periton, John Stezaker, and Carey Young. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

The trio admired Prince’s obsessive collecting of everything from signed first-edition books to American muscle cars, particularly as it is relevant to his art, but opinions diverged when it came to withholding work. Fellow appropriationist Stezaker admitted that he couldn’t bear to let go of certain pieces. “Picasso kept back his best drawings to reassure himself that he was a great artist,” he said. “I like to have something in my possession to remind myself that I’m not shit.” Periton shook his head and said that while he had “a lot of records, books, some art, and other frivolous stuff that I don’t need,” when it came to his own work, he was “pooing all over the place.” Young, who had just sold nine works to the Tate, admitted straightforwardly, “At this early stage of my career, I’ve got too much of it and I’m glad to sell it.”

Next thing I knew, I was in a black cab on my way to Annabel’s—a notorious members-only restaurant with a lot of dark corners in which expensive people get up to no good. Here, the crowd was on a different cloud from the jeans-and-T-shirt artists in the park. In fact, there were so many glittering girls that I never figured out which one was Daria “Dasha” Zhukova. I thought I saw Roman Abramovich, but it turned out it was Viktor Pinchuk. (These billionaire oligarchs all look alike.) As the paparazzi snapped up singer Bryan Ferry and supermodel Stella Tennant, Art Monthly editor Patricia Bickers quipped, “I just don’t understand why the press don’t ask me what I’m wearing. I would tell them. Marks & Spencer, H&M, Top Shop!”

Left: Dealer Rafael Jablonka with Frank Dunphy, Hirst's business manager. (Photo: Dafydd Jones) Right: Art Monthly editor Patricia Bickers with artist Simon Patterson. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

After eating a meaty meal in my assigned seat at table 10, I set to work trying to get a sense of what was really going down at this ad hoc power summit. About the work in the show, one collector told me, “Everything is going through Larry. Rumor is that the extra-large ‘Cowboy’ is going for ten million dollars, but don’t quote me.” As he continued to tell me about how he preferred to buy from Barbara Gladstone and Sadie Coles, I noticed Prince listening intently to Frank Dunphy, Damien Hirst’s business manager, and wondered about the nature of his independent financial advice. Then, at 11 PM, Hirst (who must own at least one “Nurse” painting) sauntered in to pay his respects.

Eventually, the crowd ebbed and I took one last look around. On the dance floor at the very back of the room, Sadie Coles director Pauline Daly was doing a mesmerizing solo performance to Estelle’s dance hit “American Boy” while a handful of Serpentine staff stood in what looked like a postmortem huddle. The white-clothed tables were entirely abandoned except for the long central one over which Peyton-Jones had earlier presided. On it sat two men in a sober tête-à-tête. I couldn’t hear what Gagosian and Prince were saying to each other, but Estelle’s crystalline voice rang clear, “Take me on a trip, I’d like to go someday. Take me to New York. I’d love to see LA. I really want to come kick it with you. You’ll be my American boy.”

Left: Dealer Nicholas Logsdail with artist Gustav Metzger. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Photographer Mario Testino with Sandy Nairne, director of the British National Portrait Gallery. (Photo: Dafydd Jones)

Left: Dr. Katie James with Robert Hersov, chairman of the Serpentine Council. (Photo: Richard Young) Right: Collector Laurence Graff with dealer Tony Shafrazi. (Photo: Dafydd Jones)

Left: Artist Ed Lipski. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Photographer David Bailey with collector Barry Townsley. (Photo: Dafydd Jones)

Left: Tim Taylor and Mai-Thu Perret. (Photo: Richard Young) Right: Caroline Berhelt and Princess Alexandra von Furstenberg. (Photo: Dafydd Jones)

Left: Richard Prince with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, codirector of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery. (Photo: James Peltekian) Right: Author Nicholas Blincoe with curator Rebecca Wilson. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)