By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007
NEW YORK -- You go into an empty room, look around and get bored.
Or, you go into that room with a perceptive friend. He points out the striped light coming through the Venetian blinds, crosshatching the verticals of an old radiator. He points out how the room recalls a detective office from film noir. Or the subjects of famous paintings by Edward Hopper. He points out its tinge of melancholy.
That kind of "pointing out" has been a central role of art for centuries. In 1660s Holland, Jan Vermeer's paintings gave his neighbors a fresh awareness of their own interiors. In the 1960s, Diane Arbus's photos did the same for strange corners of America.
The photographs of Richard Prince, one of today's most influential artists, did something rather similar when he hit the New York scene in 1977 at age 28. Except that his great innovation was to point his camera at some of the other photos already out there that make up such a crucial part of daily life. That innovation earned him his retrospective, which is filling most of the Guggenheim Museum and dominating the entire fall art season in New York.
When Prince was making the first works in this survey, he was working a day job clipping articles for the editors at Time Life. Instead of throwing out the ads that danced around the articles he clipped, Prince chose to keep and care about them. He cared so much, in fact, that he decided to capture them in his own photographs. That rephotographing became his signature art form. What, after all, could be a more important subject for a late-20th-century photographer than the commercial photographs we're all swimming in?
A suite of four photos of pen ads of that era make us realize that those advertisements, which we might barely notice if Prince hadn't pointed to them, are carefully structured, artifice-filled creations. Formally, the rephotographed still lifes have all the rigor of a modernist abstraction, with every object in them defining a strong horizontal, vertical or diagonal. They look so much like classical abstraction that it's hard to imagine them even existing before the birth of modern art; they're keen to piggyback on its aggressive modernity, to assert how up-to-date their products are. The content in these images is equally constructed: Each gleaming pen is joined by a wallet, a lighter or a watch, defining a perfect pocketful of sophisticated maleness, circa 1979.
Look at this or any of Prince's other early photographic suites -- four images of necklaces framed by their wearers' cleavage; three of fashion accessories framed against foliage; three of women who happen to be looking sideways in precisely the same pose -- and you're struck by how unnatural all this imagery is. You can't fail to notice how our visual culture is truly a "language," with almost as many rules to its grammar as English has. And you notice that, like the spoken word, pictures change with what is being talked about, when and where.
A Dutch still life, for instance, was built to give its viewers a casual-looking glimpse of all the objects that mattered most in their bourgeois world. And these pictures were especially potent because a possession-obsessed bourgeoisie, pretending to be blase about its own goods, was a crucial new feature of Dutch society. In that same way, Prince's suites let us look into the heart of our own reality: He shows us a world where the selling of stuff, via photographs, has almost replaced the objects themselves as the crucial feature of our culture.
Prince's most famous series doesn't even show the stuff that's being sold. Starting in 1980, Prince began to take pictures of Marlboro Country, as already pictured in the famous cigarette campaign. He rephotographed the lone Marlboro Man riding the trail under the frontier's Big Sky. He reshot him skipping through his twirling lariat and also in close-up, drinking coffee from an old enameled cup.
Prince's cowboy series gives us a stunning compendium -- a visual thesaurus -- of the American West. But not any West that ever really existed. Rather, Prince shows it to us as constructed by a bunch of 1970s ad executives with an iffy product to sell, speaking to a bunch of consumers increasingly uneasy about buying that product but happy to buy into an iconic American image. (The one thing you're not likely to see in Marlboro Country? A cigarette.) The ad execs were doing their best to press our buttons, and hoped we'd barely notice them at work. Prince's goal is let us watch that button-pressing happening.
That's one reason he doesn't simply assemble tear sheets of the printed ads themselves and let us gawk at them. There would be a risk, then, that the ads would still do their original work, beckoning us to look through them, to the products and fantasies they sell, rather than at the images themselves. By turning those images into art, Prince wakes us up to what is going on.
Prince's artworks excise all the copy from the original ads, letting us concentrate entirely on how their pictures work. Prince also enlarged the advertising pictures. Some almost fill a wall: That lets us clearly see the dot patterns of the original magazine pages, so we know we're zooming in on ads, not on the subjects they depict. We're instantly aware, that is, that Prince's art is about printed pictures of cowboys, and how those pictures shape and are shaped by the world around us. They're not about the cowboys themselves.
In Prince's well-known pictures of half-naked biker chicks, the dots are sometimes so big, and the photography and printing that he captures so crude, that we can tell they've come to us from the back pages of cheap magazines and from the bottom end of our culture. That keeps us, as viewers of the art, at one remove from the chauvinistic world of the original photos -- able to look at the pictures, and contemplate their meanings, without buying into their worldview.
Some viewers feel that one remove isn't enough to get us off the hook. They may have a point. These pictures, like a good number of Prince's works, simply can't avoid the taint of lecherous misogyny. But the other possibility is that this is imagery we need to come to grips with, if only out of respect for those who choose to pose for it.
Blown up to altarpiece size and presented in a museum, at least one of Prince's motorcycle molls -- a strong redhead, topless and uncomfortable but somehow proud in her forbearance -- started to have a poignant feel that made me think as much of a classic Venetian Madonna as of a Playboy centerfold.
There are some parts of the world we find we've hardly seen -- really seen, rather than just sleepwalked through -- until they've been recast as art. Did Vermeer's compatriots know their light-filled houses could be magical, before Vermeer taught them to see that transfiguration? We feel our own picture-filled world more intensely once Prince points his art at it. Even the already iconic Marlboro Man becomes more powerful blown up. The cowboy is not debunked by Prince so much as re-empowered as a strangely moving figure out of our culture's dreams. Prince lets us see and feel the power of the image behind the ad, as well as in it; he gets us to understand the pull of cowboydom, even in advertising, by making it the subject of his art.
Thanks to Prince, we get to watch a bunch of poorly paid agricultural workers on the western frontier become the Great American Cowboy, and then go bouncing around the remoter corners of pop culture. For a work from his more recent "Originals" series, Prince bought an actual painting of a shirtless cowboy drawing his gun, initially commissioned as the image for the cover of an old dime novel. Prince then matted that painting into a single frame alongside one of its photographic descendants: an impish bit of gay erotica that closely echoes the painting. It's unlikely that the photographer who took the naughty shot would have been aware of its painted precedent, but that doesn't matter. Images have a life of their own that's beyond our consciousness, or control. Prince lets us see a single image as it goes from one artist's hand-painted effort, to an anonymous mass-produced book cover, to an object of titillation, to (thanks to Prince himself) high art. A cliche is born before our eyes and sets out on its own into the world.