American Idols

Courtesy Southeby's

With his clever appropriation of ads, jokes, and celebrity photos, Richard Prince casts a jaundiced eye on our nation's myths and aspirations.

Though his medium has varied over the years, Richard Prince's subject has remained the same. The multi-hyphenated artist—photographer, painter, sculptor, writer—has always dealt with the idea of America. He traffics in the nation's cultural refuse, from borscht belt jokes and pulp novels to magazine ads and celebrity head shots, repackaging it with his signature tongue-in-cheek attitude. Along the way he has continually challenged notions of what passes as art.

"Prince has been deeply critical of America, especially the consumer and media machines, but often in ways that aren't obvious to the viewer," says Nancy Spector, who has curated a retrospective of the artist's 30-year career, opening at the Guggenheim Museum in New York this month. "He is so relevant today with the focus on fandom and celebrity in our culture."

It all started back in 1977 in the tear-sheet department at Time-Life, where Prince was a photo archivist. Studying advertising images—swanky penthouse interiors, smart-looking couples, expensive watches, whiskey, cigarettes—he began to consider the insidiousness of consumer culture in this country. He created his first artworks by rephotographing those pages, cropping out the copy, and placing them in an entirely new context. Along with artists like Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine, Prince ushered in eighties Appropriation art, which was all about manipulating the power of images.

In 1983 he organized a show in a Lower East Side storefront he named Spiritual America (borrowed from the title of an Alfred Stieglitz photo). Inside he presented a single image of a ten-year-old, pre–Pretty Baby Brooke Shields glistening nude in a bathtub. He had unearthed the 1975 picture, by Garry Gross, at his Time-Life job. Prince's version, displayed shrinelike in a gold frame, walked a fine line between pornography and dark commentary on child exploitation.

While the provocation helped earn Prince a cult following, it didn't translate into major sales. He spent more time hanging out with bartenders than with mediagenic contemporaries such as Julian Schnabel and David Salle, who rode the roaring eighties art market to fame. He remained an elusive figure, prone to self-mythologizing. (Born in 1949 in the Panama Canal Zone, he has claimed that his parents worked for the CIA.)

Prince's most famous works from this period are his cowboy pictures lifted from Marlboro ads. In his hands, the Marlboro man (stripped of logos and health warnings) becomes pure icon, a brawny hero in a Stetson hat. The images evoke an ideal of life on the Western frontier. While Prince was also taking a jab at the cowboy capitalism of the Reagan era, these untitled works are epic and timeless—and, increasingly, irresistible to collectors.

Two years ago his 1989 picture of a cowboy riding full-gallop in front of an open sky became the first single photograph to break the seven-figure barrier at auction, when it brought $1.2 million at Christie's. This past May the auction house sold a similar image from 2001, which depicts a cowboy on a fence silhouetted by a sunset, for $2.8 million. Only two other photos have gone for more.

The artist's high-flying prices have stirred scholarly interest, and the Guggenheim exhibition is just his latest and most comprehensive museum show in the past several years. Prince is represented by powerhouse dealers Barbara Gladstone in New York and Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles, and younger artists are paying homage to his cut-and-paste style.

The appreciation was slow in coming for Prince, whose conceptual gambits raise questions about authorship and originality while slyly subverting art world pieties. His series of "Joke" paintings—with one-liners like "I never had a penny to my name so I changed my name" on epically scaled canvases—are takedowns of modern painting's holier-than-thou aura. Similarly, his sculptures of muscle-car hoods fetishize the ultimate emblem of white-trash culture, treating it like a sacred Minimalist object.

Some critics (Prince refers to them as crickets) have taken issue with the tawdry subjects of his "Nurse" paintings—based on the covers of sexy nurse pulp novels—and especially his "Girlfriends" photos of biker chicks, shown straddling, half-naked, their boyfriends' motorcycles. Spector defends the work. "He's not being misogynist," she says. "He is identifying with these women who exposed themselves to the camera in a desperate need for recognition."

Prince now lives far from the New York art scene, having moved in 1996 with his wife, Noel (a painter), and their two children to Rensselaerville, a rural town in the Catskills, north of the city. There he has found inspiration in the basketball hoops, satellite dishes, and pickup trucks captured in his "Upstate" series of photographs. The images have a John Waters–meets–nascar feel, yet they manage to be serious and seductive.

This is also where Prince created Second House, a stripped-down property that displayed a group of his "Hood" sculptures, paintings, photos, and prints, as well as a 1973 Plymouth Barracuda in the yard (on concrete blocks, naturally). The Guggenheim had acquired it as a permanent installation in 2005, but the house was badly damaged by a fire after being hit by lightning in late June. In a way, it was a perfectly bizarre fate for this monument to Prince's idiosyncratic, gimlet-eyed view of America.

"Richard Prince: Spiritual America" is on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York from September 28 to January 9. It travels next to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.