NEW YORK - The artist Richard Prince worked at Time Life in the 1970s, clipping and archiving articles for the news divisions. As the story goes, he grew fascinated with the ads that were left over, noting similarities in props, models, poses. He collected the ads and assembled collages of them before he hit on the idea of simply rephotographing them.
"Richard Prince: Spiritual America," a career-spanning, 160-work retrospective at New York's Guggenheim Museum, brings us back to his creative breakthrough: 1977's "Untitled (living rooms)." Prince photographed four furniture ads depicting luxuriously appointed living rooms, cropped out all the identifying text but otherwise didn't alter them, and hung them side by side. It was a simple, disconcerting, groundbreaking move that short-circuited dearly held notions of artistic originality and authenticity. A sign of its power is that 30 years later it still sort of feels like cheating.
"Spiritual America" is brilliant, annoying, funny, and overstuffed. Prince, who was born in 1949, grew up in suburban Boston (or so he has claimed, although Prince likes to embroider his biography), and is now based in Rensselaerville, N.Y., was a pioneer of what's become known as postmodernism, in which artists dissect the theoretical underpinnings of art by borrowing, reshuffling, and reworking what has come before. He often affects an aloof bad-boy pose, which is by turns delightfully crass or cold and cruel. Then he turns around and wows you with his ideas.
Prince's rephotographing turned out to be as much about advertising as the nature of art. He copied ads for fancy pens, gold earrings, watches. He rephotographed iconic Marlboro cigarette cowboys. He grouped subjects by type, like specimens: necklaces dipping into ladies' plunging necklines; female models in hats all looking to the right. After copying ads, Prince assembled grids of rephotographed images of monster trucks, hair bands, surfing waves, speedboats, scantily clad biker chicks sprawled on motorcycles.
The ads conjure up a luxury lifestyle. But Prince revealed himself as a connoisseur of lowbrow (sinking at times to sleaze) with the trucks and boats and biker chicks, which become a catalog of macho posturing, passions, and insecurities. Prince is an anthropologist of the American dream - or perhaps it's the American unconscious.
In the mid-'80s, he began screen-printing old Borscht Belt one-liners across simple monochromatic canvases: "My father was never home, he was always drinking booze. He saw a sign saying 'DRINK CANADA DRY.' So he went up there." "Do you know what it means to come home at night to a woman who gives you a little love, a little affection, a little tenderness? It means you're in the wrong house." They confound our expectations of art, feeling more like signs than paintings. And it becomes apparent that the jokes are a litany of guy anxieties: tired marriages, infidelity, boozing, loneliness, dysfunctional families, homosexuality, dead-end jobs.
In 1987, Prince addressed the ultimate expression of modern manly cool: the hot rod. He painted the hoods of Mustangs, Challengers, and Chargers and hung them on gallery walls like minimalist abstract reliefs. They're simultaneously bewildering and exciting because again they don't feel like art. Much of Prince's work is inspired by Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, which upended definitions of art by positioning manufactured items as art (including infamously, in 1917, a urinal).
Both artists ask us to reconsider the aesthetics of mass-produced items. But Prince also asks: Why is the painting, sanding, and sculpting that goes into customizing cars simply body work, while the same labors applied to an abstract sculpture are called art? And why is one considered manly and the other effete?
Prince's car art has expanded to include hoods with bulging air scoops mounted atop massive plywood cubes, the whole front ends of cars, and in "American Prayer" (2007) almost the entire, stripped-down body of a 1969 Challenger emerging from a plywood block. They honor the cars' sinuous, sleek, sexy shapes. The later works are patched and Bondoed, fetishizing the work-in-progress. The magic (and the joke) of these works is how they recalibrate your eye, turning rusty chassis on blocks in a neighbor's driveway into sculptures on pedestals.
Prince hit on these subjects by the late '80s and has spent the past 20 years elaborating on them. The joke paintings become tedious by the time Prince circles back to the idea as faux expressionist paintings or layered screenprinted one-liners, cartoons, and photos. Photos from the late '90s of depressed rural New York are tepid.
Recent paintings and prints rework the covers of pulp novels about sexy nurses and Willem de Kooning's '50s abstract expressionist women paintings. The nurses are about guys' desire to be cared for. The de Koonings point out the misogyny woven into abstract expressionism's swagger. Prince's talent is for reframing and recontextualizing existing works to expose their essential subjects. The less he alters his sources, the better. His cheeky reworkings of de Kooning and the nurse paintings just get in the way.
But there's one more bright idea here. Around 1999, Prince began assembling what he called "Publicities," matted and framed celebrity head shots, posters, and other memorabilia grouped by subject (Lucy Lawless, Andy Warhol, and the Velvet Underground) or type (rockers, hunks, babes). They are just the sort of kitschy collections you might find in someone's rec room (and so tease highbrow art collecting). Prince reveals them to be holy relics of pop-culture America, talismans that can magically connect ordinary life to the glittering stars.