A Reflection or Two (On Richard Prince)
by Dike Blair

I used to consider discussions of Richard Prince's work in terms of appropriation, those surrounding issues of originality, to be stupid because they made secondary the best part: the work's dark poetry and saturated eroticism. But perhaps I was wrong, or not entirely right. After visiting him recently, I began to think more about appropriation in terms of ownership. The root "propos" (property) does resonate with his work. He owns things in all senses of the word, and I've come to see that as really essential; but let me return to this idea later.

I think I first met Richard at the Mudd Club in 1978. I remember sharing a table with mutual friends on the second floor. We were all young artists at the time working on our stuff, playing at our identities, trying to get a leg up, a break, and a drink ticket. I asked Richard about his work and where I might see it. Richard was drunk and mumbled a few times about how he mostly showed in Europe, implying he was pretty big there. He wasn't, though I bought it-a Princeian bluff that later would become familiar at the poker table (often involving my stack of chips getting shorter). And, at the time, I thought he was a little bit of a jerk.

Not long after that first meeting, I visited Richard's show at Artists Space of still life re-photographs of luxury pen sets and watches. I remember VO liquor ads and models' head triptychs, and most vividly, I remember being stunned by the recognition of something deeply intelligent, erotic, poetic, new, and important. That the work was appropriated seemed beside the point. already, appropriation was very much in the air. It was more a matter of what was being appropriated-subjects that had already been heavily processed and heavily mediated, and then reprocessed and further reflected upon. The luxurious, artistic work of the subject and the perfection of the image were all in the service of a tony dream that Richard craftily shanghaied and placed behind glass, darkly. Implicit in his vision was the role of artist as off-screen actor/editor/director/producer; and while this too was in the air, I was yet to have seen it so concisely (yet mysteriously) manifested in framed objects on a gallery wall. Jerk or not, I wanted to know this guy better. We exchanged studio visits, and became friends.

Richard's studio apartment on East 12th Street was organized in the same manner as his later environments. Some surfaces got the treatment, others were left exposed-an aesthetic that became highly distilled in his later house projects. His interior was precise, framed, strictly rectilinear, and black and white, except for the yellow Kodak supply boxes slotted around the kitchen that served as his portfolios. His desk was neat and on it there was always a lightbox with a grid of slides. Later, that grid would come to be the basis for the Gangs. When visiting his studio, there'd be a few clues to how his works were made: where or how the early New Yorker joke paintings were drawn, or the magazines re-photographed. He'd organize our visits by removing pictures from their boxes and placing them on his bed or on the Formica board, which covered the kitchen tub. He'd then carefully place them back in their boxes. I think he had lots of visitors, and practiced his act-his patter and timing-on me before doing it for the critics and paying customers. In retrospect, I see that Richard's art-his apartment, the pictures, the books, the patter-was all there in the beginning. And it wasn't long before he really was big in Europe.

In the early eighties, Richard and I would drink martinis at Paul's Lounge on 3rd Avenue and 10th Street. Paul's was kind of a New Jersey wannabe mob place, incongruously plopped in the East Village. It had pressed white tablecloths and sculpted napkins, satellite, and an early projection TV, a black stucco ceiling peppered with glitter, and, occasionally, Joey Ramone, hunching over the bar cradling a drink. We'd talk about books (Richard was the most literate artist I knew) and movies, make up fictitious band names, and engage in art and girl talk. Mostly, I was the listener, the sounding board for Richard's semi-true stories and wonky memes. Often I'd wonder what the fuck he was talking about, and then, a month or a year or two later, one of his phrases or counterintuitive aphorisms would boomerang out of the noosphere, hit me in the back of my head, and begin to make perfect sense.

Even after his fourth Martini, Richard was still working on his act; a lot of the bar talk was about trying out the sound and surface of words and ideas. He was test-driving his titles and catch phrases, all the while and constructing his idea of a cool persona-working out things like whether "Headliner" sounded cooler than "Entertainer," or vice versa. What I didn't realize about Richard, at the time, was the sheer intensity of his inner world, or that he was busy writing Why I Go to the Movies Alone. Richard isn't so much secretive as canny about timing-he's something of a social and artistic stripper, knowing what to conceal, and when and how to reveal. I recently re-read Why I Go to the Movies Alone, and saw that, like his apartment, like his Artists Space show, it was all there from the beginning. His semi-opaque, noir, beat, blurb-styled fiction is an effective lexicon; I'd note that he's honed his writing over the years, and it may be the most underappreciated part of his act.

Most everything Richard does is calculated to reflect another of his practices. Every medium and every theme is supported by, and in turn supports, another body of work. Gangs, and Jokes, and Books, and Collections, and Cowboys, and Sunsets, and Houses, and Hoods, and Planters all reflect and enhance each other. At times, he collates his images in picture books-the first was Inside World, which served as the title of a catalogue for a group show (with the same title) that Richard was in at Kent gallery. These picture books are probably my favorite of his books because they are where Richard creates and curates himself. He never wanted his work to be dependent on art world powers-that-be. He never allowed himself to be owned by friendly critics ("crickets," as he'd often call them at Paul's Lounge), or curators. He would do that for himself-he would own himself-and the books were one way to accomplish this. Inside the covers he scrambles re-photographed and original snaps (often pictures documenting his own work) and he creates his "real" artist's life. Though Richard's life is certainly glamorous, the version of his life depicted in his books is only as true as is any particular photograph. What is true of these photographs is their beauty, and his pacing and pairing of imagery syncs, which he does with perfection and a profound love of all bound paper. (I've observed how Richard's hands take on a particular grace, when he handles his rare books and magazines.)

When I visited Richard last summer, not much had changed. In the twenty-five years I've known him, he's gone from bathtub in the kitchen to swimming pool in the yard. But prosperity always seemed to be in the cards. Richard is proprietary, in a big way, and I now see this trait as an essential aspect of his art. His practice has a lot to do with his self-reflexive orchestration of ownership. He owns concretely. He owns the stuff of his (and our culture's) dreams-houses, rare books, and cars-and he turns that stuff into art by hijacking their images. He acquired all that he has by taking aesthetic possession. His work, by employing a canny approach to the mediated image, takes abstract ownership of a type of imagery that deals with desire and consumption.

Richard told me that all he wants to do these days is collect. But he needs to keep making his art to finance his collecting. Most everything Richard says about his work is expressed with a somewhat Warholian ambivalence-there is the joke, and the truth inside the joke. Like Warhol, Richard's craft can seem superficial and ironic; and it is. But as much as he extols the "sent-away-for" aesthetic, he remains a painter of refined and detached sensuality, as he keeps his hand in the surface of at least some of his making. But, most certainly, some aspect of collecting has always been at the root of everything he's done, and collecting means owning. In Richard's studio, for example, there is a stunning library of first edition books and pulp ephemera. Over the years, I've watched him build this collection; the original criteria for the collection being that all books needed to have been adapted to film. His ambition, it would seem, is to collect, collate, and display in such a unique, ambitious, and intelligent manner that multiple literary domains get slightly bent through a Princeian lens. When most people who know Richard's work see an "original," un-appropriated Marlboro cowboy, they experience his power to superimpose himself on images that he didn't author. Like the barely visible reflection of an image on the glass under which it is framed, Richard Prince, the artist, is overlaid on the iconic cowboy. Imagine the same sensation of superimposition when seeing a copy of Nabokov's Lolita, or Kerouac's On the Road. I must confess, I find the prospect a little bit scary, and that reminds me that all of Richard's best work has always scared me a bit.

To a greater extent than previous generations, and less than later ones, our generation found self-definition through our cultural artifacts: the posters on our walls, our record albums, and the magazines arranged on our tables. To some degree, that kind of store-bought identity is what Richard's art has always been about. Now that Richard's artifacts have been part of the culture for a couple of decades, and, in ever expanding ripples of context, he can re-appropriate his own work, and replay himself into art history. These days, he spends no small amount of studio time arranging his own work in configurations that may spark new images and meanings-new ways of projecting himself into the culture, with the purpose of being able to read his own reflection. It seems like a convoluted way to try to see oneself, but, come to think of it, that kind of transference is what most artists do-minus a brilliant reflection or two.