criticismExhibitions
Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Try to Make Yourself a Work of Art: Richard Prince’s New Portraits at Gagosian


Richard Prince: New Portraits at Gagosian
September 19 through October 25, 2014
976 Madison Avenue (between 77th and 78th streets)
New York, 212 744 2313

Richard Prince, installation view, "Richard Prince: New Portraits," 2014, at Gagosian Gallery. © Richard Prince. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever.

Richard Prince, installation view, “Richard Prince: New Portraits,” 2014, at Gagosian Gallery. © Richard Prince. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever.

Richard Prince uses Instagram, but not in the way most people do. While you or I might dip into that infinite stream of pixels for idle diversion or cheap thrills, what we see or say is usually inconsequential and ephemeral. Prince goes on Instagram, and somehow the result is important and enduring art. With an alchemist’s touch, what was worthless becomes precious. It couldn’t be easier: Prince trawls the app for selfies of young female hotties (famous or merely Internet-famous or totally amateur), posts a comment on the photo, captures the screen, and has an assistant inkjet-print it onto canvas at 65 x 48 inches. He calls these 40 images “paintings”; you might object, but collector dollars speak louder than you do.

Is there a reason to interpret the endeavor as anything other than some simple economic activity devoid of other meaning, like, for example, printing money? This easy explanation is tempting, in exactly the way a late-afternoon nap on the couch is tempting. Are we obligated to try to avoid “following the money,” even if that requires a true-believer devotion to art as a realm beyond politics?

Since his emergence in the late ‘70s as part of the Pictures Generation, Prince has always been the naughtiest of appropriators. Unlike Cindy Sherman, he has little respect for history; unlike Louise Lawler, he takes little interest in the art world; unlike Jeff Koons, he doesn’t fetishize craft or expensive raw materials (two of the most universally accepted indications of artistic value). With Prince, it’s just take, take, take.

In 2011, a US District court judge ruled that Prince’s appropriation of Patrick Cariou’s photographs for his 2008 “Canal Zone” exhibition constituted copyright infringement. His New Portraits can be read as Prince’s response to this defeat, by implying that his transgressions are no worse that the common and familiar act of re-posting images on the Internet. He just happens to re-post on the walls of Gagosian, that’s all.

Richard Prince, installation view, "Richard Prince: New Portraits," 2014, at Gagosian Gallery. © Richard Prince. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever.

Richard Prince, installation view, “Richard Prince: New Portraits,” 2014, at Gagosian Gallery. © Richard Prince. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever.

It’s not news that digital data can be reproduced perfectly with little effort, and that many of us take and share it freely. If a press release asserted, “Prince’s appropriation holds a mirror to our contemporary moment,” we’d probably agree without much thought. Prince is merely commenting on the way images circulate in 2014, someone might argue.

It’s advisable to think harder. What Prince and Gagosian are up to isn’t a game; massive amounts of capital are being created and accumulated here. Artnet reports that between January 2011 and August 2014, $106,995,896 worth of Prince’s art was sold on the secondary market (placing him at #7 among living artists for this period, ahead of Damien Hirst and Peter Doig). Thus Prince’s modus operandi is not analogous to the common man’s copyright-blind illegal downloads and shares, which serve to disperse valuation instead of concentrating it. What it really resembles is Facebook’s profiteering strategies, which convert what is freely given into a valuable commodity.

It’s become evident that the Internet is a tool more for consolidating power than dispersing it. It has made our economy more “efficient,” meaning that it concentrates more wealth in the hands of fewer individuals and corporations, faster and with less effort. This, precisely, is what Prince mirrors — though the work itself gives little space for reflection.

The readymade recently had its centennial, so the gesture of re-photographing is hardly transgressive. And yet Prince may occupy a sort of radical position, in that his work is so morally untenable. When an artist like Santiago Sierra performs unethical acts in creating his work (such as hiring 30 day laborers and arranging them in a gallery according to their skin color), the work intentionally brings the evil within the art into dialogue with evil in the world. Instead, Prince’s cynical but collector-friendly exploitation exists within a vacuum. It presents the viewer with a challenge: do we carry on with the business of art-consumption as usual when to do so means a tacit affirmation of the ethos of “greed is good”? What if the zombie ghost of the avant-garde walked among us as nothing other than Mark Zuckerberg’s lack of ethics and our complicity with it?

Should art be more than expensive clickbait? Though Prince did not take any of the Instagram photos, his selection of them and his appended comments act as a signature for these portraits. Like the best comments on the Internet, they are funny, rude, and passive-aggressive. On a shot of a spread-legged Kate Moss in the forest, he writes, “I remember this so well, glad we had the tent.” Under an image of a black woman with rainbow dreads, Prince writes “DJ Trippy Headrin” (a pun surely lost on her demographic). It’s an occasion for a 64-year-old man to demonstrate his impressive mastery of a specific Internet argot: troll-speak, those booby-trapped non sequiturs which first parse as a “like,” but on second glance are revealed to be a total diss.

Richard Prince, installation view, "Richard Prince: New Portraits," 2014, at Gagosian Gallery. © Richard Prince. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever.

Richard Prince, installation view, “Richard Prince: New Portraits,” 2014, at Gagosian Gallery. © Richard Prince. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever.

Perhaps Prince was always a king-size troll avant la lettre. His snarkiness couldn’t really blossom until its true medium, the Internet, was invented. And, the Internet attains its quintessence in the heteronormative blue-chip mind-fuckery of this most accomplished of trolls.

Instagram’s Community Standards FAQ helpfully explains:

Instagram is a place where people can share beautiful moments from their lives, and when you engage in self-promotional behavior of any kind on Instagram it makes people who have shared that moment with you feel sad inside.

Would most people have a problem if their Instagram selfie popped up for sale in Gagosian? If yes, then the consummate post-Modernist Prince has accomplished a feat any Modernist would be proud of. His New Portraits make the thinking viewer feel sad inside.


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  • http://www.petermalone.com Peter Malone

    A very thoughtful and sober assessment of what I agree amounts to empty work. I wonder if we waste too much thought on “art” like Prince’s that can only thrive in a context defined by what has become the tired old convention of allowing intent alone to legitimize art. Why not try this one: Prince’s Portraits are not art. If we can agree as critics to cross that line we could bring a measure of clarity to the general art conversation that is long overdue. It may seem extremely subjective for a critic to dismiss outright a work of art, but is it not extremely subjective for Prince to pass such crap off as worthy of critical analysis? Why should we award this work with our consideration simply because it costs a great deal? Why are we so timid in asserting our subjectivity?

    • Noah Dillon

      But, Peter, isn’t the problem not whether or not they’re called “art,” but whether they’re presented as profound, significant, or valuable? Like, why should we need to put up barricades? Isn’t this just as much or more art than the lazy muralist making paintings with their stencils, the redundant splatter painter making bad impressions of Jackson Pollock, the guy at the flea market who sells his black velvet Jesus paintings, Jackson Pollock himself, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, etc?

      I don’t know what the use of those barriers is except with regard to money and attention. Richard Prince and anyone else should be free, encouraged even, to make whatever they want and call their work art just like we should be free to ignore it, take a rhetorical hatchet to it, praise it, or whatever. I kind of think that Prince’s show is a bit of a wry gambit and a short-lived joke, but the importance that some may claim for them is stupid and kind of cynical.

      • http://www.petermalone.com Peter Malone

        I’ll first admit to the obvious provocation in what I suggest. I do so in the hope that in throwing a wrench into a discussion I feel is going nowhere may start a more substantive discussion. Be assured that I do not mean that Kurt’s piece fails to hit several significant points in its argument. What I mean is that criticism is ineffective because critics are not willing to go to the barricades, thus ceding the ground to the most assertive forces, followed by a population of indeterminate size who seem content with rolling their eyes. Once a piece is called art there seems no stopping it from entering the deck of cards critics must play. And once the piece is elevated by a gallery or museum by merely putting it on the wall, we hand all critical parameters over to whomever can afford a wall in NYC.

        Yes, an openness to new ideas is the bedrock of art as we understand it. That may be the problem. We’re deluding ourselves into complacency, pretending there are no such things as earthquakes.

        • Noah Dillon

          Yeah, I didn’t think you were gunning at Kurt. I just don’t see a problem acknowledging Prince’s work as art, or in him terming them paintings, which drew the ire of a small but vocal cohort. I think we should be free and encouraged to say when something is bad, anti-humane, hyped, or whatever. I just worry that if we try to establish and police borders about what can and can’t be considered art then we’re liable to exclude something interesting, merely through the establishment of capricious boundaries. Like, does the establishment of such hierarchies or boundaries help people/artists/viewers, or does it harm them? Could it harm them? I honestly don’t know, but I’m always hesitant. I worry that they help conservative established voices at the expense of younger, more inventive ones. (Admittedly, Prince, at his age, with his wealth, at Gagosian, is not a good example in my favor.) Anyway, my point is still that people should be free to make what they want. It’s the cynical and venal rhetoric of genius and value used to promote such objects that I detest, far more than the objects themselves.

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