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Why Does Everyone Hate Richard Prince?

by Cody Elliott   Chapter One Richard Prince walked into the room one day in spring, 2014. He was inherently both dad-like and not dad-like. ...

by Cody Elliott

 

Chapter One

Richard Prince walked into the room one day in spring, 2014. He was inherently both dad-like and not dad-like.  He had that fundamental juxtaposition that cool people have, that bred-in impulse that once led Lou Reed to buy beige shag carpet. He looked over at his daughter, lying on the couch, thumbing through something on her phone, and inquired about what she was doing.  She replied that she was just on Tumblr.

Prince had, in both cool aloofishness and old man fussiness, refused thus far to adapt to the changing technologies of the day.  He still relied on film cameras, for instance, after an initial frustration with digital mediums. So he asked, “What’s a Tumblr?”[1]  She explained the basics of the social media platform to him,  and as he began barraging her with questions, his interest rose.  What Prince would come to realize was that Tumblr – alongside Instagram, another discovery from the same conversation – were both photo-based social media sites that relied upon understandings of photography that originated from his work.  Or at the very least, looked a lot like the things he had made.  An Instagram profile looked a lot like his 1985 work “Gangs” in which he “organized a set of nine images on a single piece of photo paper and blew the paper up to 86 x 48.” [2]

While this was a new format, new formats were nothing new to Prince. They were  his thing.  He oeuvre hopped as much that of as any contemporary artist. He photographed photos, painted on paintings, even built houses in the Hudson Valley to keep art he made, or put fake heads in refrigerators.[3]

Prince started right away asking her legal questions. “Where did you get that one? Did you need permission?” he asked.[4] He had already been sued for reproducing work without permission by photographer Patrick Cariou. That case was about Prince’s Panama Canal Zone series, which featured images from Cariou’s Yes, Rasta series of photographs. While the initial decision was against Prince, it was ultimately reversed in Prince’s favor by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York on the grounds that his work was transformative.  It probably didn’t hurt that it was an artistic method that Prince had used for some time – paint on photos – and that Prince was an artist thoroughly vetted and supported by the broader art world.

Prince left the room.  He wasn’t sure exactly where to start after his social media discovery, but over the next couple of months, he experimented. “I spend all day in the studio, just kind of bumping into things,”[5] Prince has described his creative process. This is another trademark – the intensely humble self-narration. That was the beginning of spring.  Until the middle of summer, he became a student of this new experience.  He ignored Tumblr to focus on Instagram. Under the name “RichardPrince4,” he spelunked this new cave system, realizing that what Twitter was to editorial content, “Instagram was (to) advertising.”[6] He was discussing this with his friend Jessica Hart when he joked that someone should make a portrait of a picture she had posted on the site.  She replied by telling him that he should be the one to do it.

All this time, Prince  exploring Twitter as well. He experimented with the narrative possibilities of the format, trying to cram a story into 140 characters.  His technique was something he named “birdtalk.” He described it as “Short sentences that were funny, sweet, dumb, profound, absurd, stupid, jokey, Finnegan’s Wake meets MAD Magazine meets ad copy for Calvin Klein.”[7]  Quite possibly this means he had Glenn O’Brien, one of his closest friends, and head copywriter for some of Calvin Klein’s most notorious campaigns, on his mind.  He posted photos and captioned them in his birdtalk, constructing a strange series of narratives about a fictional unit he referred to as his “family.”  He printed some out, and sold them at Karma bookstore.  They went for $12 each.

When he later moved this format to Instagram for his New Portraits series, his price would jump by $88,988. Prince took these tweets, applied the same textual format and familial references to Instagram comments, edited them so his comments appeared higher, and printed them onto large canvases.  The subjects for these “New Portraits” were anything on Instagram that caught Prince’s eye: friends, friends of friends, anything and anyone.

Prince did business with the prestigious Gagosian Gallery often.  It hosted a number of his shows, and it went to bat for him, getting tied up as a defendant whenever he got sued. Prince and Gagosian were jointly named on Prince V. Cariou together, so when it finally became time to show it was obvious that Prince would show there. Besides, not only was it his usual gallery, it was also the gallery – five locations in New York, two in London, one in L.A., one in Rome, two in Paris, one in Geneva, one in Athens, and one in Hong Kong.  One of the world’s biggest, if not the biggest gallery, Gagosian pulls an international weight otherwise reserved for the largest museums.

Prince discovered Instagram and Tumblr in early spring, and by June he had tweeted “Off to Basel,” with photos of some of the New Portraits on the floor.

Prince, enigmatically, made it hard to track the chronology of his posts by constantly deleting them.  For a while, he even created new accounts, various spins on “RichardPrince4,” such as “RichardPrince1234.”  At the moment, it seems like he has returned to his original handle and abandoned the rest. The New Portraits opened in London before they opened in New York – on June 11 2014.[8]  The notoriety they generated there trickled over stateside, but it wasn’t until after the September 19 opening in New York that the press explosion occurred.

 

“Everything is going to shit right now,” is how Sean Feder remembered that part of his life.

Fader had been in art school for years,  had recently graduated, was looking for representation, had developed health issues, and had recently lost a mentor.  He had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the New School, among others, and shifted his focus from musical theater to the visual art world.  Born in 1985, Fader had a different generational perspective on Instagram and social media than Prince did.  Although an adult when Instagram debuted, his generation has a different relationship to technology – it seems that a certain amount of technological literacy is not just prized, but expected.

In the midst of his own dark wood,  Fader saw something weird in early May while scrolling through his Instagram feed. It was himself, or rather, a screenshot he had posted back awhile from an artwork called Wishing Pelt.  That was a performance piece, but he had stuck a photo of it on his own Instagram without much thought – Instagram was a normal tool of self-promotion to Fader.  So here’s his photo, but lying on a floor, surrounded by other photos.  The user who had posted it?  Richard Prince. The caption: “Off to Basel.”[9]

Fader’s inbox began blowing up.  Friends and colleagues, in a state of confusion, reached out to him, variously to offer their congratulations for the collaboration, their general confusion and, for those familiar with Prince, their outrage.  He asked friends who were in Basel to stop by Art Basel, one of the biggest international art shows. But they turned up nothing.  It wasn’t until the September opening of New Portraits that it became clear: Richard Prince was using Fader’s photo, with Prince’s comment photoshopped so as to appear in the frame.  The New Portraits were all like this, each containing Prince’s comment on a printed and enlarged screenshot straight from Prince’s iPhone.

After his friends found nothing at Basel, Fader stopped paying attention to the enigmatic information available, and more or less resumed his own life. But then a journalist for Slate reached out for comment on the New York opening. So Fader decided to see the show.

His friends were split on how he should react.  The sentiments were divided between, “Oh, you’re famous now,” and, “You need to sue him.“[10]  Lawyers began offering Fader their services, for steeply discounted or pro bono rates, but it was always apparent to Fader that he wasn’t going to sue.  Although his portrait would sell, the amount he could realistically claim was owed to him from the sale was minimal, but more so, to him it was an “uninteresting” choice.  To Fader, the issue was that somehow Prince had actually managed to take his work and put it up a gallery – as Prince’s creation.  So the issue wasn’t just the money that Prince made by selling the piece. It was authorship. As Fader saw it, Prince was a plagiarist.

During this time, he also attended the funeral of his mentor and friend, the artist and professor Barbara DeGenieve.  Flying back after the funeral, he asked himself,  “What would Barbara do?”[11] He would shape his answer over the following months, but he would later state that she would “take her fucking work back.”[12]  Two things could be said of the work Fader would create in order to do so: It would reassert Fader’s authorship, and it would seek to turn his anger into gain.

The Suicide Girls, “an adult lifestyle brand that redefines beauty with our unique pin up girls and active, smart online community,” were slower in  response to the New Portraits.[13] “Missy Suicide,” or Selena Mooney, the founder of the website, was relatively nonchalant about the series when it came out. “My first thought was, I don’t know anyone who can spend $90,000 on anything other than a house. Maybe I know a few people who can spend it on a car. As to the copyright issue? If I had a nickel for every time someone used our images without our permission in a commercial endeavour I’d be able to spend $90,000 on art.”[14]  It took a full year, but in May 2015, the Suicide Girls finally responded by printing off prints of Prince’s work, adding their own comment – “True Art” – to each of them, and selling them. Whereas Prince had been selling his for the aforementioned $90,000, the Suicide Girls sold theirs at a discount – $90.[15]

This was a big hit. The pictures not only sold out, but Richard Prince himself retweeted their comment, “Do we have Mr. Prince’s permission to sell these prints? We have the same permission from him that he had from us. ;)”[16] By August, the $90 prints were already being resold for profit.  An art dealer named Magda Sawson included one of the prints, owned privately by her son, in a show about female artists called “#WCW: @womancrushwednesday” at the Tribeca gallery Postmasters.[17] When the show received positive reviews, several other owners of the images reached out to her, looking to resell theirs for profit.  She flatly refused.  Her take on it all? “The art market is a disgrace to humanity.”[18]

The people whose images Prince used responded in different ways.  One of the most common was to go to Gagosian and have a photo taken with the photo, perhaps recreating the pose or in celebration of new-found fame. Karley Sciortino, writer of a sex column for Vogue at the time, loved hers and said as much to Prince, who gifted it to her. Prince seems to have done the same with the woman known as “nitecoregirl” as he had with Sciortino. An artist known as “Mynxii White” pursued litigation, which as of 2018 was still in court.

Separate from the responses of those whose pictures Prince had appropriated, there was a wider public backlash.

“Richard Prince Sucks,” ran the headline of an article by Paddy Johnson posted on ArtnetNews.com. Artnet News is both a major source for art world content and the news arm of the Artnet Worldwide Corporation, a multi-billion dollar international company whose primary service is online auctions of artworks. In her article, which ran in October, towards the end of the New Portraits show in New York, Johnson describes Prince as both “sexist” and as a “true troll.”  She found the only contribution Prince made to the pieces he presented – his Instagram comment – a leering, voyeuristic gesture. She also didn’t appreciate the format, complaining that they looked as good as you’d expect enlarged screenshots to look.  She concluded with a warning: “Don’t go see it. Don’t ever buy the work.”[19]

This article was not unique. Other headlines from the times read “Opinion: Richard Prince is a Jerk”[20] and “Richard Prince is Still a Dick.”[21] Journalists sought out the people whose pictures Prince had used.  One of these stories or all of them together got to Prince. Three days before the expected end of the exhibition he walked into Gagosian and removed the entire series from the walls.

He simply carried them out, effectively ending the show early.

Fader still wasn’t sure how to respond to any of this.  Fortunately, the answer was offered to him.  Denny Gallery, a gallery that “specializes in work by emerging and mid-career artists whose practices are interdisciplinary, process-oriented, aware of their social and institutional contexts, and engaged with contemporary issues, materials and technologies,” invited Fader to join a group show.[22]  That show was called “Share This! Appropriation After Cynicism.”  Elizabeth Denny, the gallerist, contacted Fader and requested that he create something in response to Prince’s work. Fader agreed at once, recognizing that this was a big break for him. He just had to figure out the format of what the work would be, but fortunately, that too presented itself.

Fader was hanging out with friends when he received a text message: “hey Sean, I’m the collector who bought your piece from Gagosian, just wanted to reach out thought you might want to borrow it for a show.”[23]

This was the break he’d been looking for – he’d actually have access to the work made by Prince.  The collector did product placement for celebrity Instagrams, too, and the whole thing suddenly seemed to make sense.  He’d invite the collector, he’d make a panel that would comment on Prince’s work and hang it next to Prince’s original. The collector could bring along Lindsay Lohan and it would make for a media firestorm.  Unfortunately, in the next couple of weeks, the collector grew quieter, and then eventually stopped responding to Fader’s texts.  The reasons were unclear, but Fader saw Gagosian’s hand at work. Either way though, he had his format – he would print out a new version of Prince’s work, and hang his own panel adjacently, with his own comment – furthering and expanding the conversation.

Fader worried most about the artwork’s “conceptual holes,” and sought out an art historian and theoretician friend who helped him to craft his press release. He named the work “The Rebirth of the Collective Author: There’s a Whole lot of Authorship Going on – Richard Prince.”   The piece was well received – it gave Fader a moment of “underdog popularity,” where he’d walk into bars or openings and people would run up and give him hugs or congratulations.[24]  By the end of the show, Denny had asked him to stay with the gallery, and it continued to represent him. Unlike Prince’s positive responses to the other respondents, Prince replied with a much more ambiguous statement; he tweeted “your pictures are for each other my pictures were never mine vampire.”

Looking at this tweet through the lens of Prince’s “birdtalk,” it’s hard to tell who is the vampire.  Prince’s syntax is entirely his own, but it very well could have been directed at Fader, and Fader took it as such, and took it as a victory.  “It just means I won.  It just means I got under his skin via appropriating his work.  Him calling me a vampire I’m like trying to get something from him, which is absurd.”[25] Fader sees this as the crucial difference that explains how he got under Prince’s skin.  The Suicide Girls, he thought, just did “the obvious thing.”[26] Seeing his work as an improvement on Prince’s, Fader priced his at $40,001, one dollar more than the actual final sale price of Prince’s version of Fader.

Besides those who responded with praise and through art, Prince got sued a lot.  Prince has, to be fair, always been sued a lot, and has joked that he spends more time with his lawyers than in his studio. He garnered some significant armor at the end of Prince V. Cariou, and managed to shirk off most of the legal complaints without even getting to the court. Even if the one case that was allowed to go forward of the New Portraits cases – Mynxii White’s – is decided against Prince, it’s doubtful that this would change Prince’s work at all.  Prince seems committed to his art, legal implications entirely aside.[27]  It’s as likely that Prince’s decision to remove his works from Gagosian was routed in his anti-social leanings rather than in legal concerns.

What’s truly fascinating about Prince’s take on the New Portraits, juxtaposed against all the others, is that he couches his opinions almost exclusively in terms that aren’t even just artistic, they’re personal.  His humble self-narration, and his response to Fader, revolve around himself. While this is one of the traits that leaves Prince open to ethical attacks, it also, by way of contrast, highlights the moral terms that his work is often evaluated in. In other words, it’s a device that invites criticism, and in doing so foregrounds big issues at play in the art world. However, it’s exactly this self-centering that at times seems dad-like, narrow in worldview, even creepy or voyeuristic. But it’s also the distance this creates that lets Prince create work that explodes beyond the gallery walls, that ripples out conversations, and that seems to jab so deeply at the dark matter of the art world.

 

 

 

[1] Gagosian Gallery. (n.d.). Richard Prince: New Portraits[Press release]. Retrieved

March 20, 2018, from https://www.gagosian.com/exhibitions/richard-prince–june-12-2015

[2] ibid

[3] See: http://www.richardprince.com/installations/second-house/

[4] Gagosian Gallery. (n.d.). Richard Prince: New Portraits[Press release]. Retrieved

March 20, 2018, from https://www.gagosian.com/exhibitions/richard-prince–            june-12-2015

[5] Gagosian Gallery. (n.d.). Richard Prince: New Portraits[Press release]. Retrieved

March 20, 2018, from https://www.gagosian.com/exhibitions/richard-prince–june-12-2015

[6] Ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] Richard Prince New Portraits  – June 12  – August 1, 2015,

www.gagosian.com/exhibitions/richard-prince–june-12-2015.

[9] Fader, S. (2018, March 10). Personal Interview.

[10] Ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] ibid.

[13] “SuicideGirls.” SuicideGirls, www.suicidegirls.com/.

[14] Needham, Alex. “Richard Prince v Suicide Girls in an Instagram Price War.” The

Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 May 2015, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/27/suicide-girls-richard-prince-copying-instagram.

[15] ibid.

[16] ibid.

[17] Davis, Ben. “Art Flippers Unload Suicide Girls Richard Prince Images.” Artnet News,

Artnet News, 27 June 2016, news.artnet.com/market/art-flippers-suicide-girls-richard-prince-prints-324580.

[18] ibid.

[19] Johnson, Paddy. “Richard Prince Sucks.” Artnet News, Artnet News, 17 June 2015,

news.artnet.com/market/richard-prince-sucks-136358.

[20] “Opinion: Richard Prince Is a Jerk.” PetaPixel, 27 May 2015,

petapixel.com/2015/05/26/richard-prince-is-a-jerk/.

[21] “Richard Prince Is Still a Dick.” Mandatory, 20 Mar. 2018,

www.mandatory.com/living/1005407-richard-prince-still-dick.

[22] “Contemporary Fine-Art Gallery in New York City.” Denny Gallery,

dennygallery.com/.

[23] Fader, S. (2018, March 10). Personal Interview.

[24] Fader, S. (2018, March 10). Personal Interview.

[25] ibid.

[26] ibid.

[27] “Richard Prince at the Beatrice.” M2M, m2m.tv/watch/tea-at-the-beatrice-richard-

prince/tea-at-the-beatrice-with-glenn-obrien.