New York

Richard Prince

Richard Prince has been in retrospective mode of late. Last year witnessed “Women” at LA’s Regen Projects and “Man” at Zurich’s Galerie Eva Presenhuber—self-curated surveys of the fashion models and biker chicks, cowboys and rock stars that populate his oeuvre—and his Catskills property Second House will soon open to the public as a Guggenheim-run museum. At Gladstone Gallery, twenty-seven works of painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography from 1984 to the present continued this look back.

Exhibited in the gallery’s five rooms was a representative sample of the work for which Prince has become known, minus the rephotographs of the late ’70s and early ’80s that made his name. The selection included ten “joke” paintings, their punch lines silk-screened on uninflected monochrome canvas, woven through cartoonish sketches, or drippily stenciled on somber neutral backgrounds; a few ink drawings, redrawn from the New Yorker; one “nurse” painting; and seven color photos from the “Upstate” series, 1995–99, most depicting a neglected item of suburban banality—an aboveground swimming pool, a basketball hoop, a median divider. Work from the past two years included three wood-and-fiberglass car-hood sculptures; three large canvases with jokes painted on grids of personal checks; and O’Sexual, 2004–2005, a small pen-on-foam rendering of SpongeBob SquarePants mounted to a wood frame. The five-second audio loop of a Wilco tune piped through this last work’s built-in speaker made me want to slash my wrists until I realized how appropriately such recycling frames the self-quoting repetition that orders Prince’s catholic practice.

Indeed, the advantage of the mini-retrospective is that it allows for the tracing of Prince’s mass-cultural obsessions, which spiral over time and intersect with other fixations. The jokes, once generally limited to one per work, are juxtaposed with others in the latest paintings; as if the transcript of a Borscht Belt stand-up routine, the combinations render their blend of the literate and the lowbrow ever more alienating. The artist’s fascination with canceled celebrity checks has developed into his use of personal checks as a support surface, and he even gets one made out to him, for $1000 from Paramount Pictures for the use of his work in The Stepford Wives (2004). (Perhaps the accompanying photo of Nicole Kidman, unlike the forged signatures on most of Prince’s eight-by-ten publicity glossies, actually bears an authentic autograph.)

The installation was problematic at points: In the back gallery, the “Upstate” photos—which position their subjects dead center—were wrapped in a claustro-phobic loop around the walls, and as if to emphasize this deadpan gestalt, one of Prince’s tire-planter sculptures was placed smack in the middle of the room. The car hoods, joined to boxy wood plinths and tenderly sanded to reveal thin washes of gray and celadon, suffered for being dispersed throughout different rooms: fragments call out for the company of other fragments, and closer proximity would have better conveyed the ’70s muscle car’s range of bony excrescence and canted surface. Yet Prince’s abiding blend of avant-garde and kitsch has never been cleverer than in My Life Story, 2004–2005, in which four hard-boiled jokes are stenciled on a grid of standard-issue yellow checks stretched across an expanse of creamy white, or in My Religion, 2004–2005, in which the checks—now preprinted with images of Jimi Hendrix—are arrayed in a loose configuration evocative of Jasper Johns’s signature flagstone pattern. Like the sugary pastel palette of Peace, 2004–2005, the use of checks in this set of paintings is almost cloyingly obvious: They bring to mind the big sums that Prince’s work has fetched recently, though they also show that, despite this recent gangbusters market and mounting celebrity, he still writes his own checks to MasterCard, ConEd, and Pearl Paint. Whether he loves or hates the vernacular Americana that has fed his work over the past three decades is still an open question, but his attraction to a certain underwater cartoon sensation suggests the former. There’s a lot for SpongeBob to get down about, but he loves his job, makes us laugh, inspires any number of also-rans, and plays the straight man masterfully. Rather like Richard Prince.

Lisa Pasquariello