PRINT March 2003

’80s THEN

Richard Prince

STEVE LAFRENIERE: You weren’t in Douglas Crimp’s “Pictures” exhibition, but a lot of people seem to think you were, maybe because of your later association with Helene Winer, who was at Artists Space before starting Metro Pictures. Did you feel a kinship to the artists in the “Pictures” show?

RICHARD PRINCE: I’ve never said this before, but Doug Crimp actually asked me to be in that show. I read his essay and told him it was for shit, that it sounded like Roland Barthes. We haven’t spoken since. I didn’t know anybody in the show at the time. I later became friends with Troy Brauntuch. I still like his work.

SL: What you read didn’t ring true in terms of what you were doing?

RP: I guess that in those days I didn’t particularly understand the relationship between artist and critic, and I didn’t care to establish any relationship. Critics tried to tell you what you were doing, and wanted you to make the kind of work that they were thinking about. I probably resented that. I had a similar argument with Craig Owens. We had a difficult exchange and I ended up not talking to him. But I more or less had feelings about what they were describing. We were on parallel roads.

I also didn’t understand Crimp’s choices. There were a whole bunch of people who could have been in that show, like James Casebere and Jim Welling, or Laurie Simmons and Sarah Charlesworth—but none of them were, and that didn’t make sense to me. There didn’t seem to be any photography.

SL: Did not being in the show end up affecting your career?

RP: Well, like you said, people seem to think I was in it. People think Cindy Sherman was in it too. I don’t know who really ever read that essay. Those shows and essays are for other critics. So I don’t know what affects a career. I do know that I would continually change what I did, which didn’t help in the beginning, but did in the end.

SL: I’d always assumed that you purposely made your early photos have an amateur look, and that you’d done them quickly. But looking at them today would suggest otherwise. How worked-on were pictures like Untitled (three women looking in the same direction) [1980]?

RP: I had limited technical skills regarding the camera. Actually, I had no skills. I played the camera. I used a cheap commercial lab to blow up the pictures. I made editions of two. I never went into a darkroom. And yes, I really worked hard on Women. I mean, that piece still looks like it was purposely made.

SL: So you sort of fell into photography?

RP: In the early ’80s I didn’t have the subject matter for painting. I didn’t have the “Jokes” until 1986. What I did have was magazines. I was working at Time Life and was surrounded by magazines. I wanted to present the images I saw in these magazines as naturally as when they first appeared. Making a photograph of them seemed the best way to do it. I didn’t exactly “fall” as much as steal.

SL: The cliché is that the dealers were all-powerful then. But what about the collectors?

RP: I think certain collections are powerful. I saw one in 1987, at the Merino’s in Monaco, where they placed a big Thomas Ruff next to a “Big Nude” by Helmut Newton. They were leaning against the wall. It made me change my mind. In the early ’80s, to be collected by Charles Saatchi was another way to be included, to be part of what was happening. To be in instead of out, or so it seemed at the time. Anyway, I was “left out.” Nobody bought my early work. I couldn’t even give it away.

SL: You don’t have such great memories of the collectors.

RP: The Rubells gave pretty good parties. Michael Schwartz started collecting in the mid-’80s, concentrating on about ten artists. I remember one woman collector asking me who “anon.” was. She was surprised she didn’t know him or her, because they seemed to be listed in a lot of collections. The best thing about being collected is getting money.

SL: Do you think the critics understood what you were doing?

RP: I wasn’t aware that there was much critical writing in the ’80s about my work. I think people were more focused on David Salle, Schnabel, Fischl, Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer.

SL: Well, I remember one person gushing about your work’s “complete eventlessness.”

RP: That sounds like cartoon language. Kind of like when Susan Sontag describes taking a photograph as “a soft murder.”

SL: Longo, Schnabel, Sherman—they’ve all made movies. I’ve often wondered why you haven’t.

RP: I’m not very collaborative. I like being alone. Working alone. I hate actresses. I don’t like having to ask permission. A green light is not something I’d be happy waiting for.

SL: What films back then had an impact on you?

RP: The Road Warrior. First Blood. Alien. Drugstore Cowboy. The Terminator. Did Blade Runner come out in the ’80s? If it did, I liked that one—the original, not the director’s cut.

SL: In your novel Why I Go to the Movies Alone, there’s this notion of “counterfeit memory,” the media landscape replacing personal history. Has that idea panned out?

RP: Do androids dream of electric sheep? Virtual reality. Cloning. Sampling. Substitutes. Surrogates. Stand-ins. It’s either here or right around the corner.

SL: True, and a lot of art now is addressing those very subjects. Do you have any connection to younger artists?

RP: Most of my connections are with artists who are dead. From Smithson on back. I go to the Met and crash on fourteenth-century icons. Younger ones? I don’t know. I like Collier Schorr. John Currin.

SL: What did you make of digital theorists like Gene Youngblood, who found the cautions of people like Rosalind Krauss and Baudrillard alarmist?

RP: I’m not sure what “digital theory” is. I don’t know who Gene Youngblood is. I never read Baudrillard. I read Christian Metz. I read Truman Capote. When my little girl falls on the pavement and her teeth go through her lower lip and I have to take her to the hospital and watch her get stitches, I don’t really think about “almost real” or “really real.” I don’t think about what’s real anymore.

SL: Have you ever thought of your work as abstract?

RP: The “Joke” paintings are abstract. Especially in Europe, if you can’t speak English.

SL: Yes, I imagine the photos were received somewhat differently outside of the US!

RP: First time I showed my photos was in Germany, 1978. Artists like Kippenberger and Walter Dahn were very supportive. They grew up on Armed Services Radio; they liked rock ’n ’roll; they liked the “Girlfriend” pictures.

SL: So many of those subjects you appropriated then still have pop currency today. There are still biker-chick magazines on the stands, showgirl jokes in Playboy, and Marlboro ads with cowboys. I just looked through my copy of Inside World, and it seemed pretty up to date.

RP: The subject matter that I chose wasn’t exactly popular, but it wasn’t obscure. It just wasn’t fashionable. It was more like mainstream cults. They’re still around. They show up at airports. They have their own conventions. They have their own C-span. They call you up just before you sit down to dinner. Anyone can find them.

SL: What was your first thought when you heard that Andy Warhol had died?

RP: Sad. We had the same dentist. I used to run into him in the waiting room. We used to talk about “collecting.” This was the early ’80s. I had just started collecting first-edition books. He was a great artist.

SL: I recently read an essay that described your work as “tight-lipped in the Warholian manner.” I thought that was pretty funny.

RP: I’m not sure what it means. Close to the vest? All-knowing? Effortless? I remember seeing Warhol interviewed: He let someone else answer the questions for him. He just sat there smiling, like he was throwing his voice. “Tight-lipped”? I’m thinking it might mean “ventriloquist.”

SL: There were references to so many bands in your work. Were you inspired by music?

RP: I’m not so sure I was inspired by them, but I liked the Smiths. I saw Sonic Youth in the late ’80s in London. They were great. I liked the way they rocked the Kitchen.

SL: You worked consistently back then with “trash” imagery, an area that designers also began mining for ’zines and CD covers. Some even mimicked your strategies, like blurring and aggressive cropping. Were you taking notice?

RP: If I noticed anything, I noticed that rock videos in the mid-’80s started using “found” footage and started shooting black-and-white images with color film.

SL: The latter I would very much identify with you. Are you still fascinated by muscle cars?

RP: Another “like,” another subtext. The movie Vanishing Point. The movie Bullitt. I like the way a particular car gets painted by a teenager, you know, primed and flaked. Carroll Shelby, the guy who put together the 1967 GT500 Mustang, is very cool. This culture is pretty much about extended adolescence.

SL: I met a young woman recently who was wearing an Ed “Big Daddy” Roth T-shirt. She later e-mailed me that she was “into hot rod stuff, Kid Congo Powers, Robert Williams, and Richard Prince.” It seemed like a logical paradigm.

RP: I don’t know who Kid Congo Powers is. Great name. I know the other two. I wonder if it would have been a logical paradigm if she were wearing a Jackson Pollock T-shirt?

Steve Lafreniere is a writer and independent curator based in New York.