I recently saw a retrospective of Richard Prince’s work entitled Spiritual America at the Guggenheim in New York. The show successfully displays all of Prince’s series’ from his 1970s rephotography (appropriation photography) pieces to his Girlfriends series to his muscle car hoods to his images of nurses and the Marlboro man and his large paintings of the Checks series. When I was done winding my way through the jokes and cartoons and pop culture images appropriated by Prince into his artwork I felt that I had a good sense of how the pieces and series’ built upon each other over time and also of how American pop culture has not changed a whole lot since the 70s. Perhaps Nascar is bigger now than muscle cars and biker chicks but isn’t the concept the same?
The name of the exhibition, Spiritual America, was two physical things: Prince’s East Village gallery as well as the name of his appropriation artwork after Gary Gross’ provocative photograph of a young Brooke Shields. It also is the notion, seen through Prince’s work, of the deification of pop culture icons in America such as the Marlboro man and our cultural interests in the ideal (the cowboy for example) and the less ideal, baser elements of our culture like pornography and the biker chicks. All told Prince looks at our American popular culture with an eye towards comedy as well as critique while manipulating and re-using photographic images, comics, jokes and quotes.
Perhaps the most interesting part of viewing this exhibition was watching the children visiting the museum with their parents, staring in awe at both the topless biker chicks of Prince’s Girlfriends series and his Marlboro men. It is hard to imagine that these children understood what they were seeing, and many of my co-visitors were shocked that parents would even bring their children to such an exhibit. Maybe that is the point — growing up we all saw many of these images as part of our quotidien life, but until Richard Prince began re-positioning these images and dissecting their cultural meanings by placing them behind glass and in frames rather than in the pages of magazines we didn’t realize how culturally significant they really were. I am still not sure I would bring a child to the exhibit, but it makes for an interesting point.
For details or to see the on-line exhibition go to www.guggenheim.org. The exhibition runs through January 9, 2008.