Untitled (Girlfriend), 1993
Is Richard Prince a Feminist?
By Carol Squiers, Brian Wallis, originally published in Art in America, November, 1993
Two recent exhibitions by Richard Prince have elicited ire from critics who claim that many of his depictions – of self-styled “biker chicks,” various unknown actresses and the young Brooke Shields – are cruelly demeaning to women.
In the last several years, Richard Prince has I started getting flak from the art world for the objectionable, exploitative and sometimes just plain tasteless images of women that appear in his work. His recent exhibition at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery and his traveling retrospective, which opened last spring in New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art, only fanned the critics’ire. And no wonder.
The main subject of the Gladstone show was Prince’s favorite series of offensive images, a group he calls “Girlfriends.’ These photographs show young women-so-cared biker chicks – posed in various states of outlaw undress in close proximity to large motorcycles. Prince found these images published in biker magazines, where the appearance of the “chicks” evidently bestows celebrity on them and their proud paramours. In appropriating these photos, Prince evidently sought the ones that showed the rankest and often most pathetic exhibitionism. Defiant and sometimes embarrassingly bare-chested women precariously recline on motorcycles; others wear message-covered garb that proclaims sentiments such as “Fuck Off+die!’ In a post-Tailhook, post-Anita Hill era, only hard-core porn would be a more troubling subject for a male artist to use.
And his critics have responded in kind. In her New York Times review of the relatively well-mannered retrospective, Roberta Smith assailed Prince for using images that “demean women.”(1) In another review, by Paul Taylor, feminist critic Kate Linker was quoted as taking exception to Prince’s posture vis-a-vis his images of women: “Richard’s absence of any political perspective about the images he so acutely selects poses a problem.(2) And some feminist artists, among them Sue Williams, have attacked his work in their own. Williams included a parody of one of Prince’s joke paintings in her one-woman show at 303 Gallery. “In Williams’version,” Smith wrote in the Times, “Prince’s veiled misogyny, which is part of the general malaise of his art, was stripped of its ambiguity by her use of degrading Playboy cartoons.”(13)
Prince has long been in the business of outrage. But at the beginning of his career, it was not his subject matter that was seen as outrageous but his method: “stealing” commercial images reproduced mainly in magazines and not only incorporating them into his work but making them his work. Rephotographing details from glossy magazine advertisements, Prince would simply crop them, enlarge them and call the new work his. In the late 1970s, he began appropriating pictures of stiffly posed models of both sexes, emphasizing repetitions of pose and the extremely limited expressive register of certain commercial images [see A.i.A., Mar. '87]. The work was cool and distanced and could be seen as continuing the tradition of Conceptual art. So when he used photographic details of female fashion models in works such as Untitled (Three Women Looking in the Same Direction), 1979, he wasn’t criticized for using such chilly images of women. Rather, he was seen as challenging the social construction of gender through posing and stereotype, an issue also being explored by feminist artists such as Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger. He was perceived to be as astute as they, using appropriational strategies that commented on, interrogated and otherwise investigated the way mass-media images produce or reproduce regimes of social control.
By the early 1980s, though, Prince had started looking at more varied images, especially of women. Often these appropriated images were collected into gridlike groupings on a single photographic sheet; Prince called these works Gangs.” He abandoned middle-class fashion images and went after more trendy, high-fashion pictures. In one Gang” from 1982-84, for instance, the elegant women are coy and vaguely seductive, their eyes hidden by hats, shadows, large fashionable sunglasses. He also zeroed in on advertising images that showed women in the grip of hysterical commercial happiness. He began cropping the images even more radically than before, which made details such as big sun glasses look positively ludicrous and big smiles look pointless and vacant.
Then, in 1982 and 1983, Prince began working with much hotter and more problematic images of women. He moved away from shots of rarefied, idealized fashion models into images from the borderline-sleaze arena of small-time entertainers, would-be actresses and models who sported names like Jackee and Plastique. He began appropriating pictures from a lower register – lower in terms of the subject’s class and economic position and also in terms of the picture’s reproduction values.
Earl Wilson’s tawdry New York Post gossip column was both an inspiration and a source. Prince rephotographed the publicity shots that Wilson ran of aspiring entertainers who clearly were never going to make it big; he also collected promotional stills from the managers of the theaters and nightclubs where these entertainers worked. The movie The Sweet Smell of Success,’ a film about the manipulation of small histories i la Walter Winchell, is in those pictures,” Prince said.(4) Departing from the fashion and advertising images that were legible within the upper-class world of art, he began exploring images that were offensive to that world; he said these pictures showed the lifestyles of the poor and unknown.”(5) Rather than doing straight appropriations, he added garish color and graphic elements which further evoked the atmosphere of smoke-filled strip joints with their watered-down drinks.
Those unknowns’ are the same people who appear throughout Prince’s fiction writing, some of which was reprinted in the Whitney catalogue. They are the progeny of an ersatz underworld populated by bottle blondes and fast-talking tough guys who usually end up in cheap hotel rooms, or dead, or both. Vaguely imitative of B-movies from the 1940s and ’50s, this stylized context is one that Prince and his generation relished in TV reruns and that Cindy Sherman tapped for her early “Film Stills.” Intoxicating and highly artificial, that construct generated the baby boomer’s idea of sex and danger as primarily voyeuristic, visually appealing but best viewed at a safe distance. Oddly, Prince seemed to desire a more intimate relationship to this world where women consciously participate in their own exploitation.
Exploitation and sleaze were magnified a hundredfold in Prince’s work in 1983, when he debuted what is still his most controversial and disturbing work: Spiritual America, a rephotographed image of actress Brooke Shields at the age of 10, in the nude, originally taken by a commercial photographer named Garry Gross. Prince found the picture in a small booklet published by the Playboy Press, in which Gross reproduced images of Shields in various guises, as innocent girl-child on the one hand and seductive woman-child on the other. Prince first exhibited his version in a storefront gallery he had opened for the purpose, which was also caned Spiritual America.(6)
Shortly after Prince discovered the Brooke Shields image he learned that the photographer was in the process of selling it to a company that manufactured posters. The company’s plan was to market it in a limited edition of 1,000 posters that would sell for $1,000 apiece. Prince decided to make his appropriated Brooke Shields in an edition of 1,000 and sell it for $999. It would be considered an “original” work of art and would sell for one dollar less than the poster. When the owners of the poster company got wind of Prince’s scheme, they showed up at Spiritual America with their lawyer, threatening legal action.
Just what occurred after that is unclear, although Brooke Shields and her manager/mother Teri also got into the act at some point, trying to suppress Gross’s pictures completely. After years in court, the Shieldses lost their case when Gross produced a model release for the photo session with Brooke that was signed by her mother, thus rendering legal his use of the pictures. Because Shields was a minor, the model release stipulated that a responsible adult had given her consent for Shields to pose for the photographs, and that the photographer could use the pictures in certain prescribed ways, which included publishing them.(7)
The title of Prince’s new work and his name for the gallery were as appropriated as the image itself. Spiritual America is the title of a 1923 image by Alfred Stieglitz; the Stieglitz photograph shows the midsection and castrated genitals of a carriage horse. That his title should have been borrowed by Prince for this cheesecake photo and money-making scheme would have outraged Stieglitz. He believed in the importance and purity of high culture and struggled to position photography alongside painting and sculpture as an equally elevated art form. Spiritual America was one of Stieglitz’s most self-consciously political statements, a protest from a champion of virile, modernist, European-based culture against the small-minded chauvinism and cultural paucity of backwater America. For Stieglitz, the gelded horse’s sexual lack symbolized America’s cultural impotence.(8)
Prince’s Spiritual America is a direct commentary on Stieglitz’s photograph. First exhibited exactly 50 years after Stieglitz’s picture, Prince’s Spiritual America replaces Stieglitz’s vision of a castrated (male) life force with a grotesquely seductive vision of prepubescent female sexuality. The Gross/Prince picture looks like the product of some subterranean world of exploitative photography one step away from child pornography. In the context of Prince’s work, however, the image reads as just one more example of the way female bodies are sexualized and spectacularized in this culture.
In other words, one can interpret Prince’s deployment of the photograph as critical rather than purely exploitative. It is not that Prince is a feminist, because he isn’t. But the way he presents the Brooke Shields image, as a particular vision of the feminine that is at once singular and stereotypical, zeroes in on the deadly abjection that is embedded within even the most banal cultural notions of the feminine. And he does this in a particularly graphic and revealing way. Far enough outside mainstream representation to be attention-getting, the Shields photo is also close enough to normative representations to be horrifying.
That is the way many of Prince’s most repellent – and most effective – images of women operate. His joke pieces are filled with the buxom babes, lecherous husbands and irate wives that his parents’ generation found so amusing. As Glenn O’Brien writes of Prince’s cast of hapless fools, “These are our ancestors, this is where we’re coming from.”(9) And if it is undeniable that some of Prince’s jokes are hostile to women, so was Johnny Carson’s monologue for much of his “Tonight Show’ career. Misogyny is so pervasive and multifaceted in American culture that it can easily slip by an unwary viewer. But Prince attempts to foreground misogyny in his work, pointing to it, prodding it and burlesquing it with his continuous reworkings of dated jokes about pink elephants, thieving psychiatrists and ugly wives. Some of the jokes he chooses are funny, but many are simply creepy in the prejudices and hostilities toward women they lay bare: What does it mean when you get home and your wife treats you with love and affection? Your (sic) in the wrong fucking house, that’s what it means”; or I said to my mother, you ruined my life you fucking bitch.” By taking them apart and repeating. them over and over, Prince exacerbates their essential strangeness and reveals his own preoccupations in the process.
Gender confusion is a prevailing theme in the jokes Prince chooses. “I met my first girl, her name was Sally,” reads one of them. “Was that a girl, was that a girl. That’s what people kept asking.” Another joke goes: “Two girls meet on the beach in Miami. One says, So what’s new?’ The other says, ‘Wait’ll you hear! I was at the doctor’s this morning, he gives me an examination, and you know what he says? He says I’m gradually turning into a man.’ So what else is new.?”‘
Prince’s interest in the slippery nature of sexuality – including his own – was economically illustrated in 1980 when he and Cindy Sherman dressed up in boyishly feminine red wigs and tailored outfits and photographed each other so that the gender of each was indeterminate, but more feminine than masculine. Four years later he went a bit further, doing a self-portrait in suit and tie accessorized by eye makeup and lipstick. Then, during a 1992 interview with Brian Wallis, Prince made a startling but not totally surprising assertion: “Well, as far as the biker chicks are concerned, I just wouldn’t mind being one…. I like what I think they look like, or perhaps what they are.”(10) Prince’s attitude toward the female stereotypes he portrays is more complex and more self-conscious than he has been given credit for if he is trying on those identities, even empathizing with them, rather than merely choosing them for voyeuristic display.
Part of what confounds Prince’s audience P is his seemingly perverse need to brandish the proverbial red flag. Accordingly, when he mounted an entire show of “Girlfriends’ at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery last May, seven color photographs blown up to an in-your-face size of nearly 5 by 4 feet, it certainly seemed like a defiant response to the feminist criticisms that had been leveled against him in the past. But there has been a change: Prince has abandoned the more repulsive earlier images in favor of a much subtler set of portrayals. These motorcycle-loving women are less intent on projecting an outlaw image. In fact, the vestiges of their former suburban, high school-attending selves are more than evident. One smiles in the obligatory black leather vest and pants, her breasts bare. But the way she gingerly touches the motorcycle next to her and shyly turns one foot under makes her look more like an uncertain young wife than a brazen motorcycle mama. Similarly, a chubby blonde sporting a skull-and-crossbones-emblazoned bandana in place of a blouse hunches up her shoulders as she confronts the camera like a self-conscious little girl in a new frock.(11)
Prince has often been cited for his deconstruction of the mythical American cowboy in his work on the Marlboro Man. The Marlboro Man is indeed resonant, as he represents an ideal of individual freedom and solitary, go-it-alone strength, as well as an icon of white male superiority. If Prince wanted simply to match the Marlboro Man with a female counterpart, he could have chosen Miss America, Vanna White or the “supermodel” as his subject. But each of those roles is at once too overdetermined and too narrow – too obvious a target. What he has done with the American female myth is more complex and more risky. He has chosen to look at images of less powerful and less public women who are battling to make it into the spotlight, reconfiguring themselves in terms of (often peripheral) media-made images.
Since the mid-1980s, Prince has appropriated photographs of real-world women, rather than commercial images of women, who are working various transformations upon themselves. These women are engaged in a struggle, which they often lose: to signify themselves as absolutely individual while boxing themselves into prefabricated roles. They are doggedly trying to become something else, yet what they are cannot be completely eradicated.
Prince seems fascinated by their strenuous attempts at self-transformation, which ultimately don’t quite work. Like the Marlboro Man, the women he portrays posit themselves as outlaws and individualists. But ironically, the way they attain outlaw status most often is by displaying their sexuality for men to admire. So, when the biker chicks go riding off into the sunset, they’re topless on a Harley-Davidson. The women Prince chooses never achieve the seamless images of movie stars or fashion models; there’s something smutty and disreputable about them, they remain a patch-work of wishes and desires.
Despite his oft-quoted reverence for the manipulated factuality of the images he uses (“I’m interested in the closest thing to the real thing”(12)), prince produces a tortured vision of masculinity. (One of his self-deprecating jokes reads: “I do think your problems are serious, Richard. They’re just not very interesting.”) Prince claims not to understand the criticism of feminists; he insists that he likes women and even that he is a feminist himself. And while it’s tempting to dismiss such laments and protestations as the indefensible whining of the Poor White Male, it is more – a sensibility (and one that’s not exclusively male) that is caught between what’s “right” and what exists, what’s clear and what’s murky, what is oppressive yet also gives pleasure. Women understand this dilemma differently and have to contend with it on a daily basis: How does one reconcile contemporary standards of behavior, beauty and even emotion with one’s political beliefs?
Of course, Prince claims he isn’t hampered by political beliefs. In explaining his appropriational practices, Prince often draws this analogy: “It’s like that playground routine where you say to the school bully, ‘If you want to fight me, cross over this line.’ And then he does, and usually you step back and draw another line. That’s essentially been my practice.”(13)
To feminist critics, Prince’s work on women, if they concede a critical component in it at all, is at best evasive, putting on exhibit what oppresses women but never condemning it. While that charge is partially true, Prince’s work on women is so unsettling – indeed, so weird – that it can’t be taken as mere regressive display, especially when seen in the context of his other concerns. Rather, Prince marshals his penchant for ambiguity, his acute selection of images and his calculated display of them into a complex matrix of causes and effects that he sets up for maximum impact: to create a kind of “provocation” analysis. While infuriating his audience he also confronts it with sexual stereotypes that seem excessive and exotic: small-time “entertainers,” a sexualized child, the infamous biker chicks. But he also mines the source of that exoticism and exploitation – and finds its origins right next door. What Prince’s work suggests is that the cultural constructions of both the “good” girl and the “bad” spring from a common source. That’s the site of his inquiry and his iniquity.
(1.) Roberta Smith, “Richard Prince, Questioning the Definition of Originality,” New York Times, May 15, 1992, p. C24.
(2.) Paul Taylor, “Richard Prince, Art’s Bad Boy, Becomes (Partly) Respectable,’ New York Times, May 17, 1992, Arts & Leisure, p. 31.
(3.) Roberta Smith, “Women Artists Engage the ‘Enemy,’” New York Times, Aug. 16,1992, Arts & Leisure, p. 1.
(4.) “Richard Prince: An Interview by David Robbins,” Aperture, no. 100, 1985, p. 13.
(5.) Ibid., p. 12.
(6.) This version of the story is based on a conversation between Prince and the author which took place just after the Spiritual America storefront showing closed. There is a somewhat different version in the Whitney catalogue essay by Rosetta Brooks, “Spiritual America: No Holds Barred,” in Lisa Phillips, ed., Richard Prince, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992, pp. 85-101; and a third version in Taylor, “Richard Prince, Art’s Bad Boy,” p. 31.
(7.) What Prince was doing here was going one step beyond the kind of theft and trespass central to the appropriation strategy. He was attempting to intervene directly in the market system which arbitrarily establishes value. Sherrie Levine also crossed that boundary when she appropriated Eliot Porter’s landscapes, Walker Evans’s Depression-era photos and Edward Weston’s nude images of his son, prompting threats of legal action from the photographers’ estates. Whereas the aura of art has generally been protected by the discretionary manipulations of the gallery system, Prince’s foray into the nitty-gritty of dollar values proclaimed art’s place within the marketplace of more mundane types of goods.
(8.) Stieglitz drew the equation between sexual potency and superior culture clearly in a letter to his mistress, Dorothy Norman: “In Paris I once saw two teams of black stallions pulling wagons going along side by side. The traffic was stopped…. Along the curb many women were at market. The horses stood throbbing, pulsating, their penises swaying – half-erect – swaying – shining. I stood transfixed, wishing I had a camera! No one cared to be seen staring at the animals yet it was clear that everyone was aware of them, wanting to look. In New York such a thing would not have been permitted, all the horses in the city being geldings.” Alfred Stieglitz, quoted in Dorothy Norman, Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer, Millerton, N.Y., Aperture, 1973, p. 240.
(9.) Glenn O’Brien, “The Joke of the New,” in Phillips, ed., Richard Prince, p. 117. (10.) Richard Prince, interviewed by Brian Wallis in a symposium at the Whitney Museum of American Art, May 13, 1992 [see sidebar]. Wallis has explored Prince’s investment in the constructions of masculine imagery in “Power, Gender, and Abstraction,” Holliday T. Day, Power: Its Myths and Mores in American Art 1961-1991, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, 1991, pp. 100-13.
(11.) Just to show he hasn’t thrown in the towel, at his Barbara Gladstone show, Prince showed a series of tiny and much more explicit images along the back wall of the gallery.
(12.) “Richard Prince: An Interview by David Robbins,” p. 13.
(13.) Prince, interviewed by Wallis, May 13, 1992.
Carol Squiers is a photography critic and senior editor at American Photographer.
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(© Art in America, 1993. All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)