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The man who invented appropriation

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Untitled (cowboy) 1980-1984
Untitled (cowboy) 1980-1984 24 x 20 inches
Image courtesy Richard Prince

Nancy Spector says Richard Prince changed modern art.

"His act of, brazen act, of appropriation in 1977 when he first photographed and existing photograph and called it his own, ushered in a whole new genre of art," she says. 

Phillipe Vergne
Walker deputy director and chief curator Philippe Vergne leads a tour of "Spiritual America."
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Spector is Chief Curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. She put together "Spiritual America."  

It's a huge exhibition, filled with photographs lifted from advertisements and snaps of topless girlfriends taken from biker magazines. There are huge pictures of cowboys, paintings based on borscht belt jokes, and Playboy magazine cartoons. There are even painted muscle car hoods.

"He's really a chronicler of our culture at large, pop culture, and even pre-pop in a sense, or lower than pop, kitsch culture," Spector said. "And he mines that with great affection and also I think with somewhat of a critique."

Leading a tour around the Prince show at the Walker curator, Philippe Vergne said he tried to avoid the word appropriation when it comes to Princes work. 

Vergne said Prince's work should be seen in the context of the ideas of French philosopher Roland Barthes. 

"Nobody really knows who Richard Prince is. I met him, I'm not sure I met the real Richard Prince. Maybe I met just a sidekick,"

In the age of multiple meanings and mechanical reproduction, Barthes argued there are no more authors, just editors working with existing ideas to create a new voice. 

Vergne said Prince is such an editor.

"He's an editor of culture," Vergne said. 

Early in his career Prince worked at Time magazine clipping copy for the archives. 

He began playing with the pictures left over, noticing how they took on new meaning depending on how they were arranged. He began using other iconic images: film stars, glossy ads for booze, clothes and furniture.

They are everyday images, but Vergne said they display central themes in U.S. society.

"Class, which is really present in the work, sexuality, and gender," he said. "You have these three elements which are the center of American culture."

Vergne pointed out that the images can be ambiguous. They can mean many things. Take for example the cowboy pictures. They are beautiful, but they are lifted from the successful campaign for Marlboro cigarettes. 

Untitled (girlfriend) 1993
Untitled (girlfriend) 1993 64 x 44 inches
Image courtesy Richard Prince

Prince cropped all the text, but the images are so well known it's clear where they came from. They display rugged individuals surviving in the harsh beauty of the American West.  

But Vergne said you could also interpret image as showing they are surviving smoking. He said the images appeal both to women and straight men, but on another level are clearly homoerotic.  

While Richard Prince has freely re-photographed many other people's work, Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector said she doesn't believe he's ever been sued. She said other have, but the courts have tended to side with the appropriators. In many ways it's not really an issue any more.

"I think artists work with appropriation like one would a pencil, without really thinking about it," she said. 

'Tell Me Everything'
Richard Princes has used the "Tell Me Everything" joke in several paintings. The Walker's Phillipe Vergne says Prince uses the joke as a self-depricating way to describe his approach to art.
Image courtesy Richard Prince

In recent years, Prince has moved far beyond simple appropriation, however. His pieces are now multilayered, both in meaning and sometimes in materials. 

When he turned to painting he began by copying one liners from cartoons. First, in pencil on paper, then in oils on canvas. 

The Walker's Philippe Vergne pointed out that the oils are on one level just text on a background, but take half a step back and you realize Prince is using the same color schemes and forms as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. 

Vergne said while the subjects are modern, there is nothing new about reproduction.     "Go to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and go to the 17th century room and see how everything repeats," he says. "The formulas are the same, the topics are the same. The mythological painting are from the same aesthetic program," he said.

The materials are different, but the aim is the same in Princes work he said. 

While painters in the past might adorn their work in gold leaf, Prince in recent years has painted his images on huge canvases covered with bank checks.   When MPR asked for an interview with Richard Prince, the request was politely ignored. 

Vergne said the ambiguity of Princes' work extends to the man himself. As he continues his tour, Vergne said, Prince has carefully created a mythology around himself, including publishing personal histories and interviews, which may or may not be fabrications. 

"Nobody really knows who Richard Prince is. I met him, I'm not sure I met the real Richard Prince. Maybe I met just a sidekick," Vergne laughed.

Vergne offers that the information he presents about Prince may or may not be true either, and with that he leads the tour on through Richard Prince's Spiritual America.