Richard Prince is Still a Dick

All images courtesy of Edward Cella Art & Architecture unless otherwise noted. 

There’s a rumor going around that Richard Prince used to date Cindy Sherman. It was so what seemed to be the perfect art world couple that I tweeted about it after I drove home from the opening of the show Richard Prince: The Turnbaugh Collection (1977–1988) at Edward Cella Art & Architecture. The tweet reads: “Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince used to be a thing but she got out before he could appropriate her work.”

Indeed, Prince and Sherman did date, which I gathered based on his mentions of her in his frequent correspondence with collector Douglas Turnbaugh. Their letters and other works by Prince when he was a young emerging artist are on view in the exhibition. The work in this show offers a glimpse of an artist who is on his way to becoming mega art world famous, and includes ephemera, sketches, photographs from trips, and letters between the artist and Turnbaugh. There’s other stuff, too, like a beautiful leather jacket, a few postcards from Hollywood, a cute mixtape, early art manifestos, and some filmic experiments. Oh, and there are a lot of drawings of dicks (mostly his own), and plenty of dick-ish behavior to boot.

Modified postcard sent by Richard Prince to Douglas Blair Turnbaugh c. 1983

Modified postcard sent by Richard Prince to Douglas Blair Turnbaugh c. 1983.

Richard Prince is known as one of the founders of appropriation art, which has always been a questionable practice for any artist who says they make original work. The concepts might be his, but the content rarely is. Prince was in the news again recently for ripping off artists’ Instagrams, which meant he got sued by photographer Donald Graham, gave artist Sean Fader his Gagosian debut, and also did exactly what ‘sad girl theory’ founder and artist Audrey Wollen has called him out on. Wollen recently explained to VICE I-D:

VICE: Richard Prince recently appropriated one of your photographs for his New Portraits series. How do you feel about his use of your image?

WOLLEN: I was really angry, but not at all surprised. An old, white, successful, straight male artist feeling entitled to the image of a young female body is not surprising. My photograph wasn’t included in his show at Gagosian, but by distributing it through the internet under his name without any consent, he completely erased my authorship and identity. I really was just a photograph of a naked girl, up for grabs. Maybe I’m idealistic, but I don’t think art should simply reiterate the status quo.

 Most artists use Instagram either as a way to promote their work, because that’s just what any emerging artist has to do nowadays, or to critique the practices of social media. Prince became successful long before this was common practice. To him, Instagram is a throwaway, useless or fun place to check out rather than something he has to use to promote his work or help his career along. The artist has no empathy. Like a one-trick pony still trying to do the same thing that worked before, he’s just continued appropriating content without considering the new pressures under which it is being produced. The lack of creativity in the Instagram appropriation series is straight up gross and lazy.

That said, there were a few conceptual gems in his show at Edward Cella that harken back to why appropriation was interesting 30 years ago. The typewritten “Practicing Without a License: Richard Prince” document is notable to witness, particularly in the ways he frames reality through re-photography: “ . . . a reality that has the chances of looking real, but a reality that doesn’t have any specific chances of being real.” Conveniently, he never defines what is “real”, so apparently anything goes. (See full document below.)

photo courtesy of Alicia Eler

Photo courtesy of Alicia Eler.

But lest we wonder about Prince’s motives, look no further than part two of a letter to Douglas. Not only does he come off as tacitly homophobic, but he also rips off a queer lady and has no qualms about it, aka complete white male privilege. Here is the excerpt; see full document below:

“Found a great piece of slang last night from one of the dyke proof readers — ‘Pissing on Ice” — it means living well. I’m using it as a title for a new portfolio of work (privately available).”

photo courtesy of Alicia Eler

Photo courtesy of Alicia Eler.

It makes one wonder just how many women and people of color he’s ripped off in his long artistic career. If the recent Gagosian Gallery show of Instagram “appropriation art” is any evidence, the actual reality here is that this sort of appropriation behavior has never been about sticking it to neoliberalism, aka “the Man.” It’s about equal opportunity ripping-off under a techno-industry version of pseudo-liberal idealism. It’s about this entitled dude deciding that the definition of “real” just means that he can take what he wants, put his name on it, and never answer to the people who actually make the art. That’s not what it means to make art. That’s just what it means to steal.

Richard Prince: The Turnbaugh Collection (1977–1988) continues through July 11 at Edward Cella Art & Architecture (2754 S. La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles, 90034).