Thursday, December 13, 2007


From films that make one consider the power of painting, as translated into another medium, let's turn to paintings that make one consider the banality of the medium. The weekend before last I attended the Guggenheim's retrospective on the career of Richard Prince, a career I was rather blissfully ignorant of, but for the cover of Sonic Youth's Sonic Nurse, which, come to find out, is one of the more spectacular things he ever did.

My daughter and I began the exhibit at the top, where the Nurse paintings are. We didn't know they were up there, it's just that I thought (wrongly) that the earliest stuff would be at the top, then we'd spiral our way down to the present. As it turns out, you're supposed to start at the bottom and walk to the top, at which point you can take the elevator down (taking elevators up always makes more sense to me) or else walk down past the same unprepossessing canvases you already saw. A line from Dylan occurs to me here: "you know what they say about being nice to the right people on the way up / sooner or later you're gonna meet them comin' down." Well, I preferred meeting these paintings "comin' down." We started with the best stuff, and so ended with the insipid photographs of ads for VO whisky with which, the wall texts told us, RP had his big "breakthrough" -- while working for Time magazine . . . that's right, Time magazine. Ok, maybe I'm just an aesthete snob to think that no worthwhile artistic idea could come from Time magazine or from anyone who works for it, but I can't help it. Honestly. I remember Time magazine in the '80s (when RP was working there). It's like if I wanted to pick a detail which would completely deflate someone's supposed claim to cultural authority, that might be the one I would come up with: he worked for Time magazine in the '80s. How could you live that down?, you (meaning I) might ask. Wrong question. No need to. The breakthrough is that banality is the new profundity, or something. Pictures of "heroicizing" paintings of cowboys are not celebratory of the West, or of ads or films about the West, they are in fact wry send-ups of the Reagan administration and its claims to a rugged Western mythos. Or maybe they're comments on how Marlboro sold cigarettes. In any case, on the wall, they're just pictures of kitschy cowboy art.

But I'm doing this wrongly. We ended with that stuff -- good planning because then we could get out fast, patience exhausted. But we started with the Nurse paintings: they may only be huge inkjet repros of trashy nurse novel covers, painted over in bold colors and drippy paint, but they are, as one says, the most "painterly" canvases in RP's oeuvre. I suppose that might be conjectured to mean something about the return of some kind of "action" to the canvas. But it seems RP got a bad conscience about that, so he then set about to cut out "dirty" pictures and paste them onto repros from a de Kooning catalog. The end results were at least cartoonishly amusing, and I suppose it's always fun to see a little porn with your high art pretensions (snicker snicker). In fact, my favorite moment of the visit was in that very room as the obliging museum personage, conducting some ancient couple into the room, was jawing about the value of RP's prints -- the couple seemed prospective buyers and I was amused to think of them trying to decide if they wanted to buy the piece with the biggest boobs or the biggest dick.

Walking through the exhibit the wrong way also took some of the suspense out of the retrospect: we got to see the "joke paintings" in their fully evolved form (the entire joke, not just the punchline, layered colors, a surface pasted with decorative personal checks -- I liked the ones with Hendrix on them, you?) and the more colorful fiberglass castings of car hoods first. As we spiraled down, we got to see the joke paintings become "monochrome jokes" -- usually just a punchline and a canvas of one color -- and the car hoods become less car-like, more like monochromatic pieces of fiberglass.

Here and there were series of photographs: pictures from the back of biker mags of biker chicks and biker hosses . . . studies of landscapes that showed us how, when RP left the Big City, he found a kind of rural desolation. Gee. One picture I did like a lot: a basketball net in a completely overgrown field. It looked like a totem from some lost civilization. And I will say this on behalf of the car hood pieces: they too looked impressively totemic. I don't know how many times one has to see it to be struck by it, or why, having made one impressively totemic car hood, one would be compelled to do another and another, but I suppose it's a contrast between "the art object" and the factory-made object. The wall text tried to tell us that the "jokes" in the joke paintings are a kind of "found object" of popular culture that "reveals" (once the jokes are on the museum wall, apparently) how bigoted and sexist and aggressive our humor is. It makes you think. I won't bother making the comparison of joke texts to pretentious wall text, but, yeah.

There was another room which had photos of celebrities, many autographed. I was amused by a poster, author photo and book cover for Leonard Nimoy's I Am Not Spock. RP, it seems, collects Americana and memorabilia. In that same room were first editions of things like Dharma Bums and a book by Lenny Bruce. I thought of maybe stenciling a statement on a big canvas, RP-like:


Anyway, I do want to comment on the one joke painting that, at whatever stunning year for the history of the world -- sometime in the '80s -- it appeared, at least carried a point. It's a monochrome brownish color (I think) and the writing is sort of yellowish (as I recall) and it says, stenciled across the center of the canvas: "I didn't have a penny to my name, so I changed my name." The pause in the line, I think, was marked by a place where what appeared to be two canvases were joined. In any case, these technical matters (color and placement, etc.) really don't matter as far as I can see. They're arbitrary, not significant. The point of the joke paintings is that nothing signifies. But at least this one example makes a significant gesture, arguably, out of not signifying. Or at least that's what I think because, being a text person as I am, I can't help reading that one-liner as not only funny but as commentary.

Most of the other jokes don't work as jokes (not particularly funny), nor as commentary (they aren't "captions" to "our moment" in any decisive way). But this one might be. In one sense: the "struggling artist" without a penny to his name, changes his name: becomes "a name," a celebrity. In another sense: art, which is morally and aesthetically bankrupt, changes its name -- in the sense the joke means: I was worthless, so I changed my name. Now I'm not worthless any more. If only by the law of non-identity. If only it were that simple. But, the joke being on the speaker, of course one's name and one's lack of funds are not logically related -- nor causally. Changing my name to Donald Trump doesn't do anything for me financially. So when art changes its name to "commodity" or to "fetish" or even to "totem" it doesn't by that fact become those things (nor does a bad joke become worthwhile by becoming bad art). It's still worthless, no matter what we call it. But of course, it's worth a lot of money, and so, no longer penniless, it has changed its status in changing its name. So, who is the joke on?

I thought of quoting Elvis Costello from "How to Be Dumb" -- but I think I'll just end with the words of another prince, the one from Denmark:

Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretched heroes the beggars' shadows. Shall we to th' court? For, by my fay, I cannot reason.

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