PRINT May 2007


Richard Prince

CONSIDER, FOR A MOMENT, “Fugitive Artist: The Early Work of Richard Prince, 1974–77,” currently on view at the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, State University of New York, and organized by art historian Michael Lobel, director of the master’s program in modern and contemporary art, criticism, and theory at the college. A sharp, smart survey composed of fifty-four works, the show coruscates a range of maneuvers prior to the artist’s now-iconic rephotography of advertisements featuring fashion models, living rooms, and luxury accessories. The accompanying catalogue is elegant, and Lobel’s text is direct, thorough, and strangely revelatory, both because of and despite something immediately apparent: There are no photographic reproductions of the works, only outlines to scale, “a result of Prince’s refusal to grant permission for us to reproduce his work.”

The reasons for this refusal remain somewhat obscure. Despite recent stagings of backward reveals—such as various shows of Cindy Sherman figuring out dressing up—perhaps the artist and/or his gallerist think the display of these early works will cause some knocking in the engine of his purring market value. Or perhaps Prince, like many Americans, finds fiction more empowering than fact, the signature moves of iconicity more thrilling than groping trial and error. “Fugitive Artist,” then, raises numerous ethical questions: What constitutes responsibility to an artist and how does that determine responsibility to an art object? What bargain is struck if self-mythologization or market clout attempts to nullify material witness? What comprises and what compromises the linked fates of artists and art historians when the archive conflicts with an artist’s own narrative? What does it mean to take these questions public?

Lobel’s sleuthing grew out of a deep admiration for Prince’s work. While researching the artist’s career, Lobel noticed that the exhibition chronology in the catalogue to Prince’s 1992 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York listed several solo gallery shows from the mid-1970s that were omitted from later monographs; he was perplexed by curator Lisa Phillips’s brief description of a circa 1975 work with “drawings of roads” and “ghostly handwritten phrases” yet only illustrated in a detail displaying its photographic elements to the exclusion of all the handwork noted. He called the dealers listed in the chronology—Angus Whyte, Kathryn Markel, and Ellen Sragow, who gave Prince his earliest gallery representation in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and in New York—unknowingly embarking on what would become “Fugitive Artist.” All the art presented came from these gallerists and from those who, in the ’70s, purchased works from them, including collections private, corporate, and even institutional. (It is not a minor point that this fugitive art can be found at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and the Museum of Modern Art Library in New York.)

The exhibition’s scope reveals that etching, lithography, monoprint, collage, and typewriting formed the primary techniques Prince was working on and working through early in his career, for a while abandoning his first medium, painting. One of the earliest pieces displayed, Matches (Like Most Everybody Else . . .), 1974, an etching of a matchbook with text on its opened inner flap, matches packed like a mob about to do something inflammatory, sets up and argues for Prince’s recurring fascination with matching things to their group and nongroup: typologies (“gangs”) of girlfriends; models looking in the same direction while, perhaps, looking almost the same. This obsession with sameness is repeated in a series of text pieces in the show that begins with the phrase, “Like most everybody else, I like. . . .” Whether or not, as rumor would have it, Prince intended these match works—which are complemented by an actual matchbook printed with text—as part of a printmaking job application and only later (by whim?) decided to show them at a gallery, matching and likeness, by pun and crafty misprision, remain key thematics to much of his later aesthetic negotiations between, around, and beyond the real thing and the next best. his later aesthetic negotiations between, around, and beyond the real thing and the next best.

Iconicity is hard work, ask any star. What becomes moving for the beholder is to observe its process, how difficult it is to make it look easy. The earliest works in “Fugitive Artist” display a fussiness that Prince soon escapes. Take his 1975 series “Sitings,” which mixes printmaking, photography, painting, and handwriting. Almost as a kind of logo on letterhead, the title (in an oval) and year top each artwork, which share a matching format: one large image, one small image held in printed picture-album corners, a small text on a print of an index card, and a seal-like mark. Four Men Laughing, 1975, is one of several works included from the “Sitings” series. Both the large and small photos show the same image: a grouping of four men—one pair in shirts and ties, the other pair in bathing suits—that hints at Prince’s “advertising typologies” soon to come. The handwritten cursive script of the words FOUR MEN LAUGHING appears on the printed index card. In his early art, Prince, mythic cowboy, learned to loosen the reins on text and image, sign and signified. Combining text and image, this is just as much a picture of thirteen men laughing: three groups of “four,” with the artist laughingly completing the baker’s dozen.

At this point, Prince frequently wrote in script above typewritten lines, as if he were scanning, metrically, the weight of each word—or its weightlessness, the various resonances of its transcription and its “look,” typed or handwritten. In a typewritten text piece, he even seems to be figuring out the best words with which to solidify his identity as an artist: Prince on Prince on Prince on Prince on Prince, 1976, where, on the letterhead of Ellen Sragow, Ltd., PRINTS ON PRINCE ST./ON WEST BROADWAY, he contemplates the mise en abyme of name, signature, and their economic and technical relations to profession—homophonically “everything you wanted to know about Richard Prince but were afraid to ask.”

“Fugitive Artist” closes with two works that immediately anticipate Prince’s rephotographed ad works. In Untitled, 1977, circular color coupler prints are collaged onto gelatin silver prints mounted on paper: three model couples, each in a black-and-white photo whose center shifts to color. The overlap is seamless yet exposed, the photograph caught in the artist’s crosshairs. Prince’s techniques are brought into focus for the viewer’s attention—for an instant, before the evident evidence disappears. But Lobel provides a reminder that even the artist’s later rephotography remains “more complicated than it may first appear,” involving cropping, reshooting at an angle, and shifting hues. With careful attention to these mum works, Lobel, like some Philip Marlowe, allows what’s hidden in plain sight to tell the hard-boiled tale.

Similarly, the play with printing processes, obvious in the “Sitings” series, Garbos into something much more understated later in Prince’s career. Despite the readymade appearance of his sly Hollywood publicity-photo series from the late ’90s—work ripe and rife in its consideration of things that (almost) match; the shifting value of names and, via autographs, their wavering radioactivity; the collapse of person, persona, and role; and the devolution of fame to celebrity—the stars’ signatures on their head shots are sometimes actual and sometimes faked, by Prince’s hand or via silk screen or print. The only clue or sign to these subtle differences might be a misprint or a misspelling in a star’s name.

If the bull’s-eye the young artist didn’t yet know he was aiming at was the cool, look-ma-no-hands-chic of his early advertising rephotography, then what Lobel has offered is a privileged view of how an artist “learns” to do “less.” (Not within Lobel’s curatorial purview is how, after the best—i.e., most cynical—monochrome joke paintings, gesture and “hand” make their return in Prince’s procedures.) What is too often referred to as “deskilling” is, more often than not, a savvy reskilling, a deployment of both the gestural and the unmanipulated, even the mechanical, as vernaculars of the “dumb.” Consider the history of twentieth-century art as artists striving to make things as “artless” as possible, and how the “look” of the artless—because it is the appearance of the artless, an artful artlessness, rather than any actual incompetence—transforms from generation to generation. The artists whose careers began simultaneously with Prince’s all reskilled by paring away, whether actually or metaphorically: Sherrie Levine’s presidential silhouettes cut from ads led to her “collages” of clipped photos by others and then to the internegative rephotographs of reproductions; Jack Goldstein moved fairly quickly from making minimal block sculpture to filming spare actions and then to looping preexisting film clips and hiring professional crews to Hollywood his concise cinematic ideas.

While I think it’s fascinating that Prince wishes to disavow his early work, even suggesting that Lobel has him confused with the Canadian artist Richard Prince (there is one, once name-dropped—accidentally?—on The L Word, and in no small part because of the other Prince’s fame, he has added the middle initial “E.” to his professional moniker), there is more at stake than a single show unblessed by one art-world royal. While the artist “wants to offer up a particular view of the development of his or her work,” Lobel writes, the art historian is “concerned with providing an accurate and adequate historical account of the development of the artist’s practice.” The issue might be even more complex than Lobel states, in that the art historian’s own judgment and desires are inflected by the changing status of an artist’s career: What might have been taken for the equivalent of an acute study of the “basement tapes” of a cult favorite a decade ago now can be seen to participate in the foundational understanding of an international art superstar.

At the close of his introduction to the catalogue, Lobel responds to the bizarre elision of artworks by artists and estates, curators and gallerists. He takes as his example Felix Gonzalez-Torres. In the catalogue raisonné’s accompanying text, Dietmar Elger glosses the Gonzalez-Torres estate’s curious category of “registered nonworks” (“works which have been shown in exhibitions, published in the literature and listed in the inventory book but were later no longer acknowledged by the artist as constituting art and hence stricken—by him—from the oeuvre”). Lobel wonders,

what could be more indicative of an artwork’s public life than the features described as characteristic of these so-called “non-works” by Gonzalez-Torres: having been shown in public exhibitions; having been written about in published accounts; and having been recorded in the official inventory book kept by the artist’s gallery. To an art historian, these are some of the key features that tell us an artwork has had a public life, that it has become part of the historical record. We can certainly allow that there are categories of work that should not be included in the official record, or that at the very least have an ambiguous status: student works, for instance, or pieces that never leave the studio and thus are never fully realized or executed. But once a work has been executed and exhibited and written about, and perhaps even bought and sold, are we really to allow an artist to edit or erase the historical record? My short answer is no.

I find this statement particularly trenchant now that Gonzalez-Torres will represent the United States at this summer’s Venice Biennale, with a piece never realized in his all-too-brief life. Unmade but planned works may not be exactly the mirror version of registered nonworks, but without the artist to complete them, given the vagaries of mood and contextual impetus, it is curious to think of such projects one day also ending up in a catalogue raisonné. I assume Nancy Spector and others feel there is no relevant work being made today by a living artist (and dead artists are so much quieter and easier to work with). Spector will curate Prince’s forthcoming retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and it will be interesting to see how these early works are dealt with, if at all; the show will offer a potentially telling commentary on the current negotiation of history, artistic fiat, and curatorial compliance.

There should be a little more questioning of biographical fallacy in the visual arts—not that the fictions people tell about their lives don’t reveal as much if not more than the facts. To pay attention to the art object, even contrary to the desires of its creator, to allow its objections, is not to kowtow to the teleological; showing these early works doesn’t detract from Prince’s “genius,” just its immaculate conception, and provides a more pertinent, messy, and demanding narrative.

Art history could be seen as the long-distance runner to art criticism’s sprinter: They participate in the same larger field, neither is inherently better than the other, but their skills and consequences are beautifully and importantly different. Rather than accept the hackneyed pieties about the “Pictures” generation, Lobel’s show opens a new dossier on that so-called group. His savviest homage may be to have appropriated work of an appropriationist in order to provide a history of a particular movement and moment whose methods loom over most young artists. Against decorum, historical research and thought bring to light works that waited in the preserving shadows of MoMA and the Getty—as well as contemporaneous critical writing, in back issues of Artforum and elsewhere, that caught these works’ first appearances, when they were fully Princes and Prince’s—for someone to notice. In a world that demands instaneity and jettisons accuracy, it is important to remember other temporalities and modalities—and to question.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.