The 30-year retrospective of American artist Richard Prince, Spiritual America, opened this past Thursday to a waning full moon on one of the last hot nights of summer. The show, which is on view until January 9th, 2008 at the Guggenheim New York, includes nearly 160 paintings, photographs, drawings, and sculptures.
Prince’s work, which plays with deception and truth in visual culture, is at once a celebratory gesture towards the unreal and a serious questioning of normative American culture. Beginning in 1977, Price re-photographed advertising images, appropriating quintessential American images and presenting them in a new, critical light. Watches, decorated living rooms, pens, and other objects from advertisements were the subjects of his early ektacolor chrome prints. His work paved the way for many artists of the 80s who also dealt with appropriation, such as Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, and Jeff Koons.
The show, however, begins with Prince’s new work, namely, “American Prayer,” a grandiose sculpture of a classic American muscle car, a 1969 Charger, stripped bare and hung above the floor, supported by a large block, which connects to the car’s roof. The block, unlike the rest of the sculpture, is in a state of near completion, and acts in opposition to the unfinished, once magnificent, now decrepit car that it supports. The piece stands lonely and defiantly in the main gallery of the Guggenheim, the unfinished car frame, a dream of what is to become and simultaneously the debased, empty shell of machine that we all depend on. Prince’s work makes use of the everyday object in a manner reminiscent of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Duchamp. A postmodern dumpster-diver, Price scavenges the detritus of American culture and reshapes and represents his findings as artworks.
A striking example of Prince’s ability to transform an object, while simultaneously reifying its iconic American value, is his car-hood sculptures. These works, which are taken from Camaros, Mustangs, and Challengers, hang on the wall, painted yet slightly crude. Although three-dimensional, the car-hoods vacillate between their status as sculpture versus that of a painting. The hanging works are pieces dissected from a car, their isolation from their everyday context purports them to the modern American hero version of a classical relief.
Earlier this year, these works faced a serious threat when reports that lightning had struck Prince’s estate in upstate New York, which included “Second House,” an installation that had been gifted by the artist to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 2005. Serious damage did occur, but the car-hoods were salvaged.
In Prince’s series, Girlfriends (1992) he appropriated a series of photographs from the back pages of biker magazines. Readers would submit photos of their “hot” girlfriends on their bikes, in an eager attempt to display their most prized possessions to the public eye. The amateur quality of the photographs highlights the failed attempt at sex appeal that the scantily clad biker chicks wield defiantly. In their sadly pathetic attempt to resurrect themselves as sex symbols atop motorbike pedestals, they become trophies of their motor head boyfriends. The motorcycle itself is a modern incarnation of the cowboy, at once signifying freedom and individualism.
The opening was pleasant and fairly uneventful, the crowd mingled up the rotunda and then scooted back down the elevator for another round of drinks. The Guggenheim arranged the works chronologically twisting upwards, so one must work their way up to the top to see the show. Small gaggles of art-worlders coagulated in the the smaller galleries, air-kissing and chit-chatting as befits an art event. Notables included Prince himself, gallerist Barbara Gladstone, photographers Terry Richardson and Collier Schorr.
Richard Prince: Spiritual America [Guggenheim]