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Two Artists United by Devotion to Women

December 23, 2008

Two Artists United by Devotion to Women

As artists’ biographies go, those of Wallace Berman and Richard Prince could hardly be more different. Berman, who died at 50 in 1976, the victim of a drunken driver, was a kind of Beat guru flying just below the radar, showing his work in only one conventional gallery exhibition during his lifetime and popping into rare view in strange places: a cameo in “Easy Rider”; the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” where his face is wedged next to Tony Curtis’s, just below Jung’s.

Mutual FocusSlide Show

Mutual Focus

By contrast Mr. Prince, 59, labored in obscurity for years but not exactly by choice: he wanted a larger audience and found it. For more than two decades he has been one of the most influential contemporary artists, and his work — paintings, photography, car-centric sculpture — has sold for many millions of dollars, allowing him to create an impressive studio complex in Rensselaerville, N.Y., in Albany County.

But Berman’s eccentric, highly personal art and career has long fascinated Mr. Prince, who has painstakingly collected copies of his signature work, Semina, a kind of early California zine that Berman made with — and mailed only to — his friends, from 1955 to 1963. For Mr. Prince, a bibliophile with a special love for the Beat years, the fascination stems partly from Berman’s Zelig-like connections in those years: his circle included Allen Ginsberg, Dennis Hopper and Henry Miller. One of Berman’s collaborators was the artist known as Cameron, whose first husband, Jack Parsons, as Mr. Prince notes, was a friend of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

But these days Mr. Prince seems to be drawn to Berman as much for what his life represented, an almost ascetic pursuit of art for art’s sake that seems increasingly distant from today’s art world. Berman’s work “was very word-oriented and a lot of it was free,” Mr. Prince said in a recent telephone interview. “It had nothing to do with the market, and it had to do with a lifestyle that was very anti-establishment.”

For the first time Mr. Prince’s work will appear alongside Berman’s in a show called “She” opening Jan. 15 and running through March 8 at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles. The exhibition focuses on a common subject where the two artists overlap in odd and unexpected ways: women.

Berman surrounded himself with women and loved photographing them, seemingly just for the pleasure of taking the shot; most of his pictures were never even printed during his lifetime. He made romantic portraits of his wife, Shirley, and erotic ones of the painter Jay DeFeo and unlikely ones of the young actress Teri Garr, a friend to whom he regularly mailed artwork. “He was a great person,” Ms. Garr recalled. “He was always saying, ‘Just make things, just make things.’ ”

His collages often relied on found imagery of women in magazines. And it was a borrowed image of a woman — a sinuous drawing of a demonlike one and a man in flagrante delicto — that led to Berman’s arrest and conviction in 1957 on obscenity charges during his first commercial show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, establishing the twin themes of his career: exploring the fringes of American society and shunning the attention of the mainstream.

Like Berman, Mr. Prince mines the ways that society has portrayed women and how women have seemed to want to be portrayed. But his obsessions — images of half-clothed women taken from pulp fiction, biker magazines and other subculture publications — toy much more ambiguously and provocatively with sexism, exploitation and the conventions of pornography than did Berman’s. And Mr. Prince constantly pushes buttons to keep those ambiguities alive. In a question-and-answer session included in the show’s catalog, he is asked whether he has any female friends. He says no. Asked when he thinks a girl becomes a woman, he says it is when she starts baby-sitting.

“I think he likes to be mischievous,” said Kristine McKenna, a writer and curator who organized the exhibition with Mr. Prince and Berman’s widow. “When Richard makes this kind of work, you get the impression that it’s very playful, that he goes into it to figure out what it’s going to be.” (Ms. McKenna recalled that when she first met Mr. Prince in the 1980s, while he was living in the Venice section of Los Angeles, his spare, suburban-style house was “strewn with copies of all these weird specialty magazines like Parakeet Fancier.”)

She said the idea for the show came about because she knew of Mr. Prince’s longstanding interest in Berman and thought that their mutual focus on women and sensuality would be an interesting way to put their work together. After many years of newfound interest in Berman’s art, this also seems to be his moment. His work is included in an exhibition now on view at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and in shows that closed recently at the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Camden Arts Center in London. Galerie Frank Elbaz, a contemporary space in Paris, is planning a show, and “Semina Culture,” a traveling exhibition organized in part by Ms. McKenna from 2005 to 2007, was well received.

Mr. Prince said he agonized over the work he wanted to include in the Los Angeles exhibition, submitting and then withdrawing hundreds of pieces before settling mostly on recent collages that take a familiar theme of his — covers of naughty nurse novels — and combine it with pornographic images, tame compared with most things floating around the Internet but most still too explicit for a family newspaper.

While his work and Berman’s are very different, Mr. Prince said, he sees an affinity in the frankness of their approach to carnality, a subject that art too often dances around. “I’ve never wanted to be transgressive or to make an image that was unacceptable or that I would have to censor,” he said. “But that being said, I think a lot of the imagery I do create is sexual, and I hope it does turn people on.”

If it is pornography, he said of his and Berman’s work, he hopes it is a better kind. “Ultimately I find porn boring,” he said. “An erotic painting by Picasso is infinitely more interesting to me. Pornography is only functional. What I’m looking for is a picture that dreams and imagines.”

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