by Steven Daly December 2007
One evening this past summer, a ferocious electrical storm swept through the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. Residents cowered in their homes as thunder shook the area with alarming violence; at around seven p.m. a fearsome lightning bolt struck a remote one-story building. By the time the local fire brigade arrived on the scene the damage was irreparable.
The lightning hit right here,” says artist Richard Prince, pointing to the charred remains of a fuse box just inside his front door, and the black scorch marks that streak upward from it. “I couldn’t believe it. I mean, this place has stood here for 30 years.…”
Prince purchased the house in 2001, sight unseen, from a New Jersey policeman who used it as a hunting lodge. Although he is clearly put out by the incineration, Prince, 58, seems more bemused than crestfallen—perhaps because in 2005 he donated the place to New York’s esteemed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Fortunately for the museum, when the lightning struck, the Second House, as it’s called, was being renovated for its opening as a unique Guggenheim outpost, and most of the art that normally resides there was in storage elsewhere.
All that remains of the interior now is carbonized wood and ugly entrails: bales of pink insulation spew forth from the rafters like toxic cotton candy; light fixtures dangle from the ceiling like post-industrial vines. Out front, Plexiglas sliding doors have melted into Dalí-esque grotesques. Virtually the only thing left intact is the silver insulation wrapping around the house, a feature that Prince left in place when he bought it as a kind of personal clubhouse a few miles away from his primary residence.
The ghoulish remains of the Second House could almost pass for an actual artwork created by Richard Prince, who over the last couple of decades has become known for documenting in great depth the underbelly of demotic American culture. This season the famous spiral of the Guggenheim Museum is given over to an exhibition of Prince’s oeuvre in all its sprawling glory: his early “re-photography” of advertising images is there, as are his found pictures of bikers’ molls and surfer gangs, his “Check Paintings,” his “Nurse Paintings,” his montages of autographed celebrity photos (many of them Prince-made forgeries), and his painted fiberglass muscle-car hoods. “I refer to this as my first review,” Prince remarks as he takes one last look around the charred shell of the Second House.
For Richard Prince the Guggenheim show represents a coming-out party of sorts. He may have been celebrated with a high-profile retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1992, but his reputation has soared dramatically since then, and the commercial value of his work has increased fivefold in the last three years alone.
Yet despite his formidable renown in the art world, mainstream culture did not really become aware of the Prince phenomenon until November 2005, when Christie’s auctioned one of the artist’s 1989 re-photographs of the Marlboro-ad cowboys for $1,248,000. At the time this was the most expensive photograph ever sold—and it was literally a photograph of a cigarette advertisement, minus the text. Understandably it got people asking, “How does this guy get away with it?”
For an artist whose work is so dependent on mediated images, it seems appropriate that Richard Prince started his art career in the belly of publishing giant Time Inc. He joined the company in 1973, after working countless “shitty jobs” on the low end of the service industry. For Prince, the indignities of the workplace were a small price to pay for staying in the city of his dreams.
Growing up in Braintree, Massachusetts, Prince was an obsessive youngster who would re-arrange his bedroom furniture dozens of times a day and vacuum his carpet in different geometric patterns. The boy was a budding pop-culture aesthete who’d swoon every time one of his favorite film stars or musicians made some new style breakthrough. “Who gave him permission to look like that?!” Prince remembers asking himself. “And where the fuck do you get clothes like that?! The answer was always New York.”
His job at the Time Inc. library involved providing the company’s various magazines with tear sheets of articles, which left him with stacks of advertisements piled up on his desk. Prince decided to re-photograph some of these ads and—starting with a set of four bland advertisements for a furniture store—present them as his original work. “It looked like a real photo. People would look at it and say, ‘Wait a minute …’
“I guess I approached the camera just like a kid who picks up his first guitar and goes onstage a week later. It’s nothing to do with theory and academia. It was a personal crisis—I didn’t believe in anything, certainly not the editorial part of the magazine.”
In 1986, Prince was still struggling, living in tiny railroad apartments where he’d have to throw out the refrigerator and the stove just to have enough room to think about his art. “I’d hit rock bottom,” he says. “I’d been working 10 years and I still wasn’t known. So I wrote a joke in pencil on a piece of paper, and I’d invite people over and ask them, ‘Will you give me $10 for this?’ I knew I was onto something—if someone else had done it I would have been jealous. You couldn’t speculate about it. So much of art depends on the critic as the umpire. With a joke there’s nothing to interpret.”
The art-buying public was slow to respond. “People would look at these things and say, ‘Is this a joke?’ ” Prince did manage to persuade one person, art dealer Josh Baer, to buy three of these $10 masterworks. “And he asked for a discount,” notes Prince.
With the help of influential art dealer Barbara Gladstone, Prince eventually broke the Masonic code of the art world, and his previously derided works began to sell out, including the joke series, now paintings done on a larger scale. Someone, somewhere, would eventually pay more than half a million dollars for a two-panel canvas bearing the words, in unpunctuated block capitals, i never had a penny to my name so i changed my name.
As his commercial star rose, Prince flitted from one style to another, each one—from his re-photographs to his car hoods—offering a distinctively puckish take on some banal piece of Americana, each selected with an adroit curatorial eye. The only thing that tied them together was the artist’s name. “I have no fear of changing looks,” says Prince. “In a way I pattern myself after all the bands I used to like as a kid. Every time they put out LPs, they had a whole new look and a new sound. For me it’s 10 or 11 pieces—that’s this year’s deal.”
One of Prince’s artist contemporaries remembers his surprise at finally seeing Prince break into the major leagues. “I always remember him as this awkward little guy,” says the artist. “No one ever thought he’d end up being a star.”
Prince admits to not being the most socially adept individual, even at this point in his life. “My studio is the only place I feel good in,” he says. “There I’m fearless; outside I’m a mess. The editorial world, the square world. The studio is a hipper world where I can operate according to my own artificial reality.”
That reality is primarily based on pleasure—as is most of Prince’s work. Although he’s been hailed for his “sophisticated critiques … of American consumer culture,” Prince insists that his motivation is far more basic in nature. “Art has always made me feel good,” he says. “Anything I do, I hope it would make you feel good. It’s as simple as that. There’s no real mystery.”
This hedonist millionaire is an unprepossessing figure, a slightly built, balding individual who favors the washed-out sweatshirts, shapeless jeans, and paint-splattered sneakers of the eternal art student. Unlike his good friends Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, there is little of the art-world huckster about Prince, who speaks with great deliberation, and who assiduously shuns media exposure. “You have to be careful,” he intones. “It can be like a vampire.”
The bulletproof mystique surrounding Richard Prince seems to have been something he was already crafting even when he was living in painful obscurity. For instance, in 1983 Prince opened a temporary art gallery on the Lower East Side to exhibit Spiritual America, his re-photograph of a picture of a semi-nude 10-year-old Brooke Shields. Prince slipped out of town and let the receptionist answer questions. Later he faked an interview between himself and British author J. G. Ballard, and you can’t quite tell if Prince is serious when he repeats the old story about his father working for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the C.I.A., and defoliating forests in Vietnam.
As Prince went from success to success in the downtown art world of the late 80s and early 90s, he began partying harder and harder, to the point where something had to give. “Substance abuse was very much part of everyday life,” he recalls. “Sometimes it was a lot of fun. But one day you wake up and you look in the mirror and you know it has to stop.” Although Prince has long since curbed his own excesses, there were times when substances fueled his work. “They were the secret ingredient in the [early-90s Prince series] ‘White Paintings.’ Those were basically fueled by … the powder.”
In 1996, Prince relocated himself and his family 150 miles away in the foothills of the Catskills, where he proceeded to create his own artificial reality on a grand scale. Prince lives with his second wife, the artist Noel Grunwaldt, and their two children in an expansive, well-appointed farmhouse on 88 acres of land. (Prince’s real-estate portfolio also contains a $4 million house in Southampton, to which he recently added an adjacent property.)
Prince’s main house and its adjacent guest cottage are surrounded by a cluster of large, purpose-built structures in which the artist spends most of his days. Adjoining his two-room workshop is a garage that contains, as well as many of Prince’s larger works, an over-decorated 1954 Harley motorcycle and a 35,000-pound clay model for a prototype of the Ford GT. Prince says he’s the only civilian who owns one of these items; a real version of the GT, dark blue with white racing stripes, sits in Prince’s driveway alongside a more practical Volvo station wagon.
The psychic epicenter of Richard Prince’s rural empire would have to be his “Library”—this 1821 brick building, located on a street corner in the town nearest to Prince’s upstate compound, is filled with a collection of mind-boggling worth. In a way, its contents tell you most of what you need to know about Richard Prince.
The Library is a climate-controlled shrine to midcentury hipster culture; it’s like the most exquisite bookstore on the planet, except nothing is for sale. On the ground floor you’ll find mint-condition first issues of Mad magazine, Playboy, and Zap Comix, and acres of Beat-sploitation paperbacks. You might well drool over photo books like Young London: Permissive Paradise, the “Do-It-Yourself Beatnik Kit,” the poster for a (canceled) Los Angeles concert by the Velvet Underground, and row upon row of artist monographs by the likes of Larry Clark, Ed Ruscha, Martin Kippenberger, and Christopher Wool. And, of course, Andy Warhol, with whom Prince shares more than a birthday. As Prince’s writer friend Glenn O’Brien once put it, “He’s to Andy Warhol what Jean-Luc Picard is to Captain James T. Kirk.”
Upstairs, locked behind thick metal doors designed to withstand a 14-hour fire, is the heart of Prince’s collection, ceiling-high shelves filled with ultra-rare inscribed editions of works by 20th-century literary icons such as Dashiell Hammett, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac, among countless others. (Prince has 65 versions of Lolita, including Vladimir Nabokov’s hand-corrected desk copy.)
Prince is quite happy to discuss the prices of his exotic acquisitions, revealing that he recently paid “a little bit over $100 grand” for the only known first edition of Hammett’s The Glass Key in a dust jacket. Then there was the copy of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, inscribed to Dick’s fellow science-fiction writer Tim Powers. “I paid $150,000 for that,” says Prince. “I was more than happy to pony up—it’s an important book for me.”
For Prince there is little separation between spending and creating, but while the grand scale of his collection is made possible only by the spectacular prices of his own art, Prince insists that commercial concerns never drive the work itself.
“Of course, there’s a big difference between something selling for $22 and something selling for $22 million,” the artist allows. “But you get used to it—the novelty wears off after a while, and you expect it. It’s not something you really think about that much. Just because something sold for a lot of money doesn’t mean it’s going to affect my next body of work … It’s hard to talk about it … It’s still a fairly new experience, I suppose.”
The most recent Richard Prince works featured in the current Guggenheim exhibition are a series of paintings that the artist has called his “De Koonings,” in tribute to the Abstract Expressionist master. “It was time to pay homage to an artist I really like,” says Prince. “Some people worship at the altar—I believe in de Kooning.” Prince’s offering to his idol involved first creating a montage of body parts cut from catalogues and vintage girlie magazines, then having it blown up onto a large canvas via ink-jet printer. He then paints over most, if not all, of the original material with dark, sludgy colors before conjuring up crude figures in vague homage to de Kooning’s “Women” series.
The idea for these aesthetically challenging paintings came to Prince when he was leafing through a catalogue of de Kooning’s work. “I started to sketch over the paintings,” he explains. “Sometimes I’d draw a man to his woman. There’s a contribution—for me it’s all about 50/50.
“Making art has never been a mystery to me,” Prince continues. “It’s never been something that’s very difficult.”
The “umpires” of the art world could re-purpose that same statement as an indictment of Prince’s work. “I’m old enough to not worry about being judged,” Prince responds. “Most artists have made their decision about their work before it goes out of the studio. What am I going to say about something I did 30 years ago? There’s nothing to say.”
Prince admits that the de Kooning paintings might be a different story, since they find him abandoning the why-didn’t-I-think-of-that immediacy of his early works. “One way to look at it is that it could be a bit risky because those particular works could be really criticized,” he admits. “But I can’t worry about it.” It helps that the whole series has already been bought by collectors, the larger ones fetching upwards of $1 million at the Gladstone Gallery.
Among major collectors, Prince’s personal equity is higher than ever. According to one Manhattan art-world insider, “All these boy artists like Nate Lowman and Dash Snow, they all want Richard Prince’s mystique and his money, and they want it now. They all want to be Richard Prince.”
The 58-year-old Prince greets this news with wry amusement. “They’re welcome to it,” he says.