Richard Prince: Early Photography, 1977-87 @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 62 photographic works, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in a series of six connected gallery spaces. (Installation shots below.)

The following works are included in the show:

  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1976-1977, sized roughly 42×69 inches, in an edition of 2
  • 1 set of 3 Ektacolor photographs, 1977, roughly sized together 42×55 inches, in an edition of 2
  • 1 set of 4 Ektacolor photographs, 1977, each sized roughly 26×34 inches, in an edition of 10
  • 1 set of 4 Ektacolor photographs, 1977, each sized roughly 24×32 inches
  • 1 set of 4 Ektacolor photographs, 1977, roughly sized together 42×53 inches, in an edition of 2
  • 1 set of 3 Ektacolor photographs, pen, and pencil on rag board, 1978, sized roughly 31×24 inches
  • 1 Ektacolor photograph, 1978, sized roughly 43×63 inches, unique AP
  • 1 set of 2 Ektacolor photographs, 1978-79, each sized roughly 24×32 inches, in an edition of 10
  • 1 set of 3 Ektacolor photographs, 1978-1979, each sized roughly 23×31 inches, in an edition of 10
  • 1 set of 4 Ektacolor photographs, 1979, each sized roughly 23×31 inches, in an edition of 10
  • 1 set of 4 Ektacolor photographs, 1979-1980, each sized roughly 31×24 inches, in an edition of 2+1AP
  • 2 Ektacolor photographs, 1979-1980, sized roughly 85×49, 87×49 inches, in editions of 2
  • 1 Ektacolor photograph, 1980, sizedf roughly 43×63 inches, unique AP
  • 1 set of 3 Ektacolor photographs, 1980, each sized roughly 36×48 inches
  • 1 set of 3 Ektacolor photographs, 1980, sized roughly 43×63 inches, unique AP
  • 1 set of 4 Ektacolor photographs, 1980, each sized roughly 24×32 inches, in an edition of 10
  • 1 set of 4 Ektacolor photographs, 1980, each sized roughly 36×49 inches, in an edition of 1+1AP
  • 1 Ektacolor photograph, 1980-1983, sized roughly 24×31 inches
  • 1 c-print, 1980-1984, sized roughly 37×49 inches
  • 4 Ektacolor photographs, 1980-1984, sized roughly 32×24, 38×51, 41×57, 48×36 inches
  • 1 Ektacolor photograph, 1980-1984, sized roughly 32×24 inches, in an edition of 2+1AP
  • 2 Ektacolor photographs, 1980-1986, sized 38×51 inches
  • 1 set of 12 c-prints, 1981-1982, variable dimensions, in an edition of 5+1AP
  • 3 Ektacolor photographs, 1982-1984, 1983, sized roughly 24×32 inches
  • 5 Ektacolor photographs, 1982, 1982-1984, sized roughly 49×69, 69×49 inches
  • 1 Ektacolor photograph, 1983, sized roughly 37×26 inches, in an edition of 2
  • 5 c-prints, 1982-1984, 1983, sized roughly 50×70, 70×50 inches
  • 1 c-print, 1983, sized roughly 37×26 inches, in an edition of 2
  • 1 set of 4 Ektacolor photographs, 1983, each sized roughly 37×26 inches, in an edition of 2
  • 12 Ektacolor photographs, mat board, and painted wood frame, 1982, 1983, each sized roughly 97×49 inches, in editions of 3
  • 2 Ektacolor photographs, 1986, sized roughly 85×49, 86×50 inches
  • 2 Ektacolor photographs, 1987, sized roughly 85×49, 86×48 inches, in editions of 2
  • 2 Ektacolor photographs, 1987, 1992, sized roughly 61×41 inches, in editions of 2+1AP
  • 1 vitrine: various photographs/marker on paper, work up materials, tear sheets, printed pamphlets/zines, ink drawings, photocopies, trimmed magazines, uncorrected proofs, work prints, installation photographs, typescripts, 1975-1985

Comments/Context: In our 21st century media saturated world, we’ve become so accustomed to spending our days scrolling and sifting through endless mountains of imagery and video that the styles and codes embedded in any one visual fragment that flits across our screens are muffled by a kind of blank unresponsive numbness. In a sense, we’ve become altogether jaded to the extremes of the enticements, provocations, and fakeries that our media now continuously provides, so much so that in many cases, we’ve stopped paying thoughtful critical attention to what we’re being presented. When you’re being pummeled by a powerful waterfall, it’s hard to care very much about the character of the individual droplets, and yet, each and every one of those media drops has its own particular structures and methods of communication that can be unpacked, analyzed, and evaluated.

Back in the early 1970s, some fifty years ago now, the mass media torrent we are now experiencing was just gathering steam, and artists working in a variety of mediums (including painting, film, collage, and photography) were taking a hard look at that imagery, trying to identify and define the American trends and vernaculars that the images were representing, and reusing and recontextualizing the pictures in creative ways. With the benefit of hindsight, that widespread interest in and experimentation with available mass media have since been coalesced into what we now identify as the work of the Pictures Generation.

This knockout show gathers together examples of Richard Prince’s early work in photography, made between roughly the mid 1970s and the mid 1980s, in the middle of that now distant moment of intense media study. And while many of his contemporaries were restaging, reworking, and appropriating (a new word then) the look and feel of these commercial messages, Prince was doing something even more radical – he was taking those images, cropping, editing, and rephotographing them, and calling the resulting works his own. Back then, such an approach immediately called into question established ideas of artistic originality, authorship, and fair use, and Prince has been fighting those battles ever since. His methods were undeniably bold and unorthodox, but they were also supremely effective in redirecting our attention to what he wanted to show us – the ways in which these advertising pictures functioned, and how those new modes of communication could then be hijacked for different artistic purposes. And while many of the source images Prince grabbed from magazines now have the nostalgic and dated patina of age, his own works from this early period still feel undeniably spiky and incisive, each one a kind of sharp poke in the eye to those who may have fallen asleep.

As seen in this show, Prince’s first appropriations from advertisements (from the mid 1970s) featured the extravagant trappings of luxury consumption, like watches, fancy pens, cigarette cases, and elaborate living rooms. To make his images, he stripped away any logos or descriptive texts that adorned the original spreads, leaving behind just the rephotographed images themselves, which both removed any identifiers or brand associations we might have had and isolated the way the images were used to communicate styles, moods, and atmospheres. Prince then grouped these into pairs and sets of pictures, creating categories and typologies of cigarettes and pens angled in the same direction, living rooms oriented around plush couches, and watches precisely surrounded by other fineries; even the Seagram’s VO Gold whiskey logo becomes its own luxury object, hovering in various glossy setups. When presented in these repetitive groups, what Prince shows us is a controlled visual language being used to manipulate and influence our reaction to these status symbols.

Prince went on to apply these same techniques to ads with people (or models) in them, teasing out more patterns, as found in the way the bodies were consistently outfitted and posed. He created groups of women with hats, women with bows in their hair, and women wearing jeweled necklaces, and then went further to look more closely at commonly deployed gestures – back to the camera, looking left, looking right, “fainting”, head tilted, standing in pairs – highlighting the simple tricks commercial photographers were using to compose their images. Even today, these pictures feel like an inspired exercise in photographic decoding, unlocking hidden patterns and messages we had otherwise overlooked or had failed to understand were embedded in the pictures.

In the following years, Prince seemed to be going in multiple directions at once, the original tear sheet appropriation idea metastasizing and becoming several discrete bodies of work based on different source material. He created montaged images blending black-and-white beachside fun (of families and couples in swimsuits cavorting on the sand) with seething red and orange sunsets drawn from vacation travel magazines (or perhaps a Johnnie Walker ad on view in a vitrine), creating a decidedly uneasy playing while the world is burning mood. And he cropped and enlarged faces from fashion shoots, keying in on surreal eye coverings, wisps of hair, hats, and sunglasses (including a hand shading eyes and the curved shadow of a comb), the massive black-and-white prints playing both with scale and notions of seeing and being seen.

Prince’s appropriations of cowboys, drawn from Marlboro cigarette ads, are deservedly the best known works from this period, and this show features a separate small room filled various examples from the famous series. His images amplify the myths of masculine ruggedness and the American West embedded in the original ads, celebrating the dusty glamour of riding horseback, herding cattle, and setting down for a rest in the long golden prairie grass. But like many of Prince’s other appropriated projects, the cowboy pictures have their own commercially coded symbols and gestures, which become more apparent when seen as a group – the ubiquitous white hats, the repeated roping gesture of an arm raised with a loop of rope, and the individualistic squatting/sitting looking away from the camera poses are all freighted with their own specific meanings and associations, and Prince’s cropping and reframing choices clarify that romantic visual vocabulary.

At roughly this same time, Prince was also experimenting with various other visual expressions of overtly masculine culture. He made appropriations of images of scantily clad (and topless) young women posed on motorcycles for his “girlfriends” series, exploring the staged intersection of ’80s era feathered hair biker chicks and brash motorcycle masculinity. Prince then gathered these images into denser grids than before (of between nine and twelve images), calling them “gangs”, and expanded their content to include images of muscle cars, painted flames, power boats, girls in bikinis, heavy metal bands, and big trucks, once again searching for patterns and codes in these visuals.

As the years passed and Prince settled into the 1980s, many of his appropriations started to include eyes and faces that were looking back at the viewer, in a manner of both intentionally reversing the gaze and becoming more direct in their engagement. Single image works gave us the rabbit from Trix cereal, the Kool-Aid pitcher with a face, a woman’s eyes reflected in a makeup compact, and still other faces on various TV screens and mirrors, all turned back toward us. Prince’s series “The Entertainers” (from 1982-1983) pushes this idea further, with blurred and tinted faces (mostly women) peering out at us from the largely black surroundings of mat and frame, their faces luridly lit by flares of colored light like a peep show. While we were once the anonymous passive voyeurs in this advertising exchange, Prince has made us acutely aware of ourselves, with works that actively engage us.

While this show would have benefitted from being a bit more coherently and chronologically hung on the walls, so the groupings and distinct aesthetic evolutions could be better observed, in general, this is a quibble with an otherwise excellent and timely reprise of these works. For works made decades ago, the feeling of this show is astonishingly fresh and engaged, the questions and approaches that Prince was wrestling with back then are still pointedly relevant and resonant today. Overly easy dismissals of Prince’s photographic appropriations and reworkings will be incisively undercut by the consistent intelligence and sophistication of this show. Seen on their own, some of Prince’s works from this period can seem like simple visual one liners, but when placed in the broader context of a decade of his artistic output, the underlying ideas and leaps of transformation get stronger and more pronounced. This was a powerhouse period of artistic engagement from Prince, and one that should be better remembered by those who think our current media oversaturation is something novel.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $100K to $1.2M, with a number of works NFS or available only to institutions. Prince’s photographic works are ubiquitous at auction, with dozens of lots generally available every season. Recent prices have an extremely wide range, from as little as a few thousand dollars for large edition prints to as much as roughly $4 million for icons and rarities.

Send this article to a friend

Read more about: Richard Prince, Gagosian Gallery

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Lyle Ashton Harris, Our first and last love @Queens Museum

Lyle Ashton Harris, Our first and last love @Queens Museum

JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition, hung against white and black walls, in a series of three connected spaces (and their exterior walls) on the museum’s main floor. The ... Read on.

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter