Art Writing

Try to Make Yourself a Work of Art:
Richard Prince’s New Portraits at Gagosian

“The Internet attains its quintessence in the heteronormative blue-chip mind-fuckery of this most accomplished of trolls.”

Richard Prince: New Portraits at Gagosian
September 19 through October 25, 2014

Richard Prince uses Instagram, but not in the way most people do. While you or I might dip into that infinite stream of pixels for idle diversion or cheap thrills, what we see or say is usually inconsequential and ephemeral. Prince goes on Instagram, and somehow the result is important and enduring art. With an alchemist’s touch, what was worthless becomes precious. It couldn’t be easier: Prince trawls the app for selfies of young female hotties (famous or merely Internet-famous or totally amateur), posts a comment on the photo, captures the screen, and has an assistant inkjet-print it onto canvas at 65 x 48 inches. He calls these 40 images “paintings”; you might object, but collector dollars speak louder than you do.

Is there a reason to interpret the endeavor as anything other than some simple economic activity devoid of other meaning, like, for example, printing money? This easy explanation is tempting, in exactly the way a late-afternoon nap on the couch is tempting. Are we obligated to try to avoid “following the money,” even if that requires a true-believer devotion to art as a realm beyond politics?

Since his emergence in the late ‘70s as part of the Pictures Generation, Prince has always been the naughtiest of appropriators. Unlike Cindy Sherman, he has little respect for history; unlike Louise Lawler, he takes little interest in the art world; unlike Jeff Koons, he doesn’t fetishize craft or expensive raw materials (two of the most universally accepted indications of artistic value). With Prince, it’s just take, take, take.

In 2011, a US District court judge ruled that Prince’s appropriation of Patrick Cariou’s photographs for his 2008 “Canal Zone” exhibition constituted copyright infringement. His New Portraits can be read as Prince’s response to this defeat, by implying that his transgressions are no worse that the common and familiar act of re-posting images on the Internet. He just happens to re-post on the walls of Gagosian, that’s all.

It’s not news that digital data can be reproduced perfectly with little effort, and that many of us take and share it freely. If a press release asserted, “Prince’s appropriation holds a mirror to our contemporary moment,” we’d probably agree without much thought. Prince is merely commenting on the way images circulate in 2014, someone might argue.

It’s advisable to think harder. What Prince and Gagosian are up to isn’t a game; massive amounts of capital are being created and accumulated here. Artnet reports that between January 2011 and August 2014, $106,995,896 worth of Prince’s art was sold on the secondary market (placing him at #7 among living artists for this period, ahead of Damien Hirst and Peter Doig). Thus Prince’s modus operandi is not analogous to the common man’s copyright-blind illegal downloads and shares, which serve to disperse valuation instead of concentrating it. What it really resembles is Facebook’s profiteering strategies, which convert what is freely given into a valuable commodity.

It’s become evident that the Internet is a tool more for consolidating power than dispersing it. It has made our economy more “efficient,” meaning that it concentrates more wealth in the hands of fewer individuals and corporations, faster and with less effort. This, precisely, is what Prince mirrors — though the work itself gives little space for reflection.

The readymade recently had its centennial, so the gesture of re-photographing is hardly transgressive. And yet Prince may occupy a sort of radical position, in that his work is so morally untenable. When an artist like Santiago Sierra performs unethical acts in creating his work (such as hiring 30 day laborers and arranging them in a gallery according to their skin color), the work intentionally brings the evil within the art into dialogue with evil in the world. Instead, Prince’s cynical but collector-friendly exploitation exists within a vacuum. It presents the viewer with a challenge: do we carry on with the business of art-consumption as usual when to do so means a tacit affirmation of the ethos of “greed is good”? What if the zombie ghost of the avant-garde walked among us as nothing other than Mark Zuckerberg’s lack of ethics and our complicity with it?

Should art be more than expensive clickbait? Though Prince did not take any of the Instagram photos, his selection of them and his appended comments act as a signature for these portraits. Like the best comments on the Internet, they are funny, rude, and passive-aggressive. On a shot of a spread-legged Kate Moss in the forest, he writes, “I remember this so well, glad we had the tent.” Under an image of a black woman with rainbow dreads, Prince writes “DJ Trippy Headrin” (a pun surely lost on her demographic). It’s an occasion for a 64-year-old man to demonstrate his impressive mastery of a specific Internet argot: troll-speak, those booby-trapped non sequiturs which first parse as a “like,” but on second glance are revealed to be a total diss.

Perhaps Prince was always a king-size troll avant la lettre. His snarkiness couldn’t really blossom until its true medium, the Internet, was invented. And, the Internet attains its quintessence in the heteronormative blue-chip mind-fuckery of this most accomplished of trolls.

Instagram’s Community Standards FAQ helpfully explains:

Instagram is a place where people can share beautiful moments from their lives, and when you engage in self-promotional behavior of any kind on Instagram it makes people who have shared that moment with you feel sad inside.

Would most people have a problem if their Instagram selfie popped up for sale in Gagosian? If yes, then the consummate post-Modernist Prince has accomplished a feat any Modernist would be proud of. His New Portraits make the thinking viewer feel sad inside.

Hollis Frampton’s “(nostalgia)”

“Near the end of each cycle, we’re left with only ash and silence.”

In 1966, Hollis Frampton bought himself a Bolex movie camera for his thirtieth birthday. It was a commitment to new self-identity as a filmmaker, and a move away from his former (a)vocation as a semi-professional photographer. By 1971, Frampton was well-regarded as a structuralist filmmaker. It was in this year that he completed “(nostalgia)”, considered his greatest film. “(nostalgia)” is interpreted in many ways, but at its most surface level, it documents a former photographer’s destruction of his archive of photographs.

We see a black-and white photograph of a darkroom set-up: enlargers, a timer, chemical trays, film spools. A man begins to speak, describing the events that led to the creation of a photograph. (The voice belongs to artist Michael Snow, reading a text written by Frampton.) At first we assume the narrator is referring to the image we see–but then it’s clear he isn’t: the details do not match. We notice the picture of the darkroom is beginning to darken, a strange pattern slowly appearing near its center; its edges curl, then smoke emerges from it. The photo is sitting on an electric hot plate. The voice stops, and in silence we watch the photograph’s dying moments. It slowly consumes itself in small flames, smoldering and writhing, until only a mass of blank black ash remains.

Now a new image appears. The voice resumes, again describing a photo which can’t be the one we’re looking at. Then an a-ha moment: the image we do see, the second one shown, is in fact the first one that the narrator described. He had mentioned Carl Andre; this must be young Carl Andre’s face in front of us now.  And now it too is dying: the black brand of the stove’s coils frame Andre’s face. In a gorgeous motion, the paper gently curls and rises with flame, falling into itself, as if ecstatic for its material form to become energy.  The narrator relates an anecdote about the creation of some other image: it will be the next one we see.

Onwards the cycle continues, through the ritual destruction of twelve photographs, requiring 38 minutes. Portraits of artists Frank Stella and James Rosenquist burn at the same speed as street scenes and documents of Frampton’s art experiments. These carefully crafted prints must have represented an important part of Frampton’s photographic output: no small sacrifice.

In terms of the viewer’s experience, “(nostalgia)” is a phenomenological labyrinth. The viewer examines an image and must think to the past to retrieve what was said about it, two and half minutes earlier. Simultaneously she must listen to what is said now, in hopes of being able to make any sense of the future. Near the end of each cycle, we’re left with only ash and silence. The destroyed image shudders as if alive, its immanence at once a mystery, a tragedy, and a transfiguration. It’s a strange kind of nostalgia that pulls both forwards and backwards, while leaving one firmly rooted in the exquisite beauty of an entropic present.

In the narration, Frampton’s text is both forthright and highly mannered.  Frampton (1936-1984), who wrote for ArtForum and October magazines, explains the genesis of each photo and his motivations for creating it by employing rococo verbal flourishes with the frilly indirectness of an eighteenth-century novelist. This ironic stance serves to give cover for his genuine expressions of love and admiration for his artist friends, as well as his highly revealing, courageously vulnerable account of himself. Frampton’s anecdotes wryly poke fun at his younger self: his vanity, his romantic failures, his misplaced optimism.

The frank text and the element of ritual present “(nostalgia)” as a document of a moment of personal reckoning.  The artist is drawing a line in the sand, saying goodbye to photography and his identity as a photographer. The text conveys a sense of urgency to tell the truth fully, for once, and the film’s actions resemble a suicidal person’s final getting-things-in-order before departing. Yet unlike a suicide, the film is a productive occasion. The beautiful photographs die, releasing another, unexpected kind of beauty; the funeral pyre of Frampton-the-photographer becomes the site of his rebirth as the auteur of the one of the greatest of all experimental films.

“(nostalgia)” is a film that could only be made once. While the action lasts only 38 minutes, its production required years of photographic labor, and a lifetime of introspective self-analysis as a writer and thinker.

It’s not difficult to re-imagine “(nostalgia)” as a rule-based work by Sol LeWitt or Fluxus-era Yoko Ono: “Burn twelve photos, one at a time. While each burns, describe the photo you will burn next.” Yet the resulting work would not resemble “(nostalgia)” at all. While the film stands as a perfectly conceived and executed work of process art, it is far more than that. Frampton’s accomplishment was to create a film whose exacting conceptual structure can somehow convey intimacy, pathos, and conscience.