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Answered Prayers
Richard Prince's Retrospective "Spiritual America" at the Guggenheim Museum

As magnificent as it is controversial-the Richard Prince show at the New York Guggenheim Museum, sponsored by Deutsche Bank, is the most comprehensive presentation of the master of Appropriation Art to date. Are the works subversive commentaries on the obsessions of American society, or are they mere slick crowd pleasers? Oliver Koerner von Gustorf had a look at the image pirate's exhibition.

Richard Prince, Courtney Love, from the series all the best, 2000
Deutsche Bank Collection

"Sexy" is the catchword, by now passé, that young creative and media people use to refer to something that's desirable, innovative, and in some way profitable: even if no one wants to be told anymore that designer sofas, advertising campaigns, coffee machines, or works of art are supposed to be "sexy," this adjective perfectly describes the large Richard Prince retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. From the very beginning, Spiritual America aims right into the heartland of capitalist eroticism.

Richard Prince, Untitled (cowboy), 1989
© Richard Prince

Visitors to the show encounter American Prayer on the ground floor of the museum, a new sculpture that Prince made from the sanded-down body of a Dodge Charger. The Charger, built in 1969, is a classical muscle car, one of those souped-up middle-class cars used for races in the late sixties and early seventies, at the time a true teen status symbol. Prince had the salvaged car immersed in a cement block to create a fetish that is both a retro collector's dream and an abstract minimalist work of art: a cross between Donald Judd and Hot Wheels. This already has a certain sex appeal. But every yang needs its ying, and so, as though Prince and Guggenheim head curator Nancy Spector wanted to balance this phallic white trash fantasy with a feminine counterpart, next to it is the gigantic cast of a tire planter - a flower pot made from wheel rims and cut-open tires of the kind that adorns millions of gardens in the American South.

Richard Prince, Point Courage, 1989
© Richard Prince

This crude and extremely funny act of creation forms the overture to one of the most magnificent and probably most controversial American exhibitions of the year. Richard Prince was already honored in 1992 with a major show at the Whitney Museum, but his works have never before been shown on this scale. Arranged in loose chronological order, the show marks the stations in a more than 30-year career; its title Spiritual America also refers to one of Richard Prince's most famous works.

Richard Prince, Untitled (labels), 1977 (detail)
© Richard Prince

In an art world where everything is allowed, you can find yourself longing for a true scandal-like in 1983, when Prince exhibited the photograph of a ten-year-old Brooke Shields in a New York gallery. The naked, made-up girl is staring unflinchingly into the camera; she is standing in a bathroom mist with her skin oiled. Is it the paedophilic dream of an artist, or a case for the youth welfare office? No, it's actually a recycled commission. The photograph was taken by Gary Gross back in 1976 for Shields' mother, who wanted to see her daughter immortalized as a precocious sex symbol, two years before she became world-famous for her role as a child prostitute in Louis Malle's film Pretty Baby. Richard Prince's stroke of genius was simply to photograph the photograph and call it Spiritual America after Alfred Stieglitz' legendary 1923 photograph of a castrated horse. The fact that Prince exhibited the "stolen" motif as a work of art unleashed a long battle over copyright; it also contributed to making the Appropriation Art movement much better known.

Richard Prince, Untitled (fashion), 1982-84
© Richard Prince

Ever since the advent of Modernism, generations of artists have been appropriating found material-one need only think of the Dadaists, the bottle racks and urinals Duchamp turned into Readymades, or of Warhol's silkscreens. And since the late '70s, artists such as Elaine Sturtevant and Sherrie Levine have been questioning ideas of authorship, originality, creativity, and intellectual property with their copies of art historical masterpieces both painted and photographed. In the early '80s, "Appropriation Art" was also the name of a new scene in which women played a dominant role for the first time-including Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince's girlfriend at the time. Between 1977 and 1980, Sherman created her famous series Untitled Film Stills: 69 black and white photographs in which she personified various female stereotypes: secretary, laborer, country girl, seductress, murder victim in a film noir, librarian, housewife. Sherman's models were taken from magazines, films, and television. Her figures were all objects of male desire, trapped in their role and defined by their poses, their make-up, their clothing. Just as her work addressed sex and gender, identity, and difference while questioning the notion of the "original" work of art, Prince also scratched away at the bigoted surfaces of American pop culture.

Richard Prince, Untitled (fashion), 1982-84
© Richard Prince

For almost a decade, he'd worked cropping images for Time Life, archiving articles and amassing his own collection of mass media images from the leftovers. In the act of rephotographing, Prince found the appropriate instrument for revealing the hidden longings and fears of the American psyche. Thus, as he writes in his text I Second That Emotion (1977-78), "by generating what appears to be a 'double' (or ghost), it might be possible to represent what the original photograph or picture imagined."

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