Selected Interview: Richard Prince, 2005
WITH EVA PRINZ
EVA: Do you ever look at one of your pieces and ask yourself, “What was I thinking?”
RICHARD: All the time, especially with my early work. The other day, I saw a set of photographs I took of fountain pens in 1978 — what the hell was I thinking? It’s so precise. It looks as if I was in control. I wasn’t in control. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was so young.
EVA: You were working in New York at the Time-Life Building around that time.
RICHARD: In 1975, I was twenty-seven and working part-time in the employees’ bookstore. There was a large storage room three levels down in the basement. No one ever went down there, so I built myself a studio.
EVA: That’s where you started photographing photographs.
RICHARD: I got a job in the tearsheets department, ripping up magazines like People, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, and Time, and delivering the editorial pages to the appropriate departments. At the end of the day, I was left with the advertising pages. I started looking at the ads very carefully. These images of happy couples were supposed to represent something, but they didn’t really mean anything to me. So I began to use a camera to make fake photographs of the ads.
EVA: Why did you rephotograph the photographs?
RICHARD: By rephotographing a magazine page and then developing the film in a cheap lab, the photos came out very strange. They looked like they could be my photos, but they weren’t. Then I started noticing patterns in the photos, and I would make things up, pretending that there was more meaning there. Back in 1978, I did a piece called Three Women Looking in the Same Direction, in which I photographed three original color advertisements and printed them as black-and-white images. I wanted to present them in a very normal way, so I matted them, framed them, and hung them.
EVA: Much of your work is inspired by magazines.
RICHARD: Yeah. I used to read a lot of niche lifestyle magazines. For my Girlfriend series in 1999, I looked at American biker magazines like Easy Rider and Iron Horse. I would also pick up Muscle Car, Car and Driver, and Mustang to look at the advertisements when I was working on my Hoods series in 2003.
EVA: Did you ever want to shoot for any of the Time-Life magazines?
RICHARD: When I was growing up, Life was one of the few things in our house that provided some sort of entertainment. As a child, I used to pour over it. Back then, I was aware that Life had been the home of journalistic photography. But I was very suspect of photographs that were trying to tell you the truth. I never believed those editorialized photographs.
EVA: Where did you grow up?
RICHARD: My family moved from the Panama Canal Zone to a brand new suburb outside of Boston when I was six years old. Everything in our new neighborhood seemed like it was right out of Leave it to Beaver. All of the houses were exactly the same, and everyone was so affluent, with brand new cars, television sets, and wall-to-wall carpeting. It was very typical of the ’50s fashions.
EVA: What were your parents doing in Panama?
RICHARD: My mother and father were spies. During the Cold War, they worked for an organization called the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA. My father fought in Vietnam — that war was a big part of my life. One of the first casualties was our neighbors’ son — he died there in 1960.
EVA: Did your father encourage you to enlist?
RICHARD: Yes, but I started traveling instead. My sister was an airline stewardess, so I flew to Los Angeles the day I graduated high school in 1967. I remember ending up on Sunset Strip. It was such an awakening.
I was listening to the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, and the Doors.
EVA: Did you want to stay in L.A.?
RICHARD: I wanted to travel to Europe. In 1968, the hippie thing was just beginning, so backpacking trips weren’t popular yet. But I went to Spain to see the El Grecos, and then I went to Florence.
EVA: You moved to New York in 1973 when you were twenty-four.
RICHARD: Ever since I was a child, I always had this fantasy about coming to New York City. The first place I rented was on Prince Street and West Broadway in Soho. I didn’t know a soul. I would go days without talking. My only conversations were with bartenders. Since I didn’t come from a university background, I didn’t have the contacts that would lead me to people in the art world. But I’ve always loved art, so there was never even a question about my being an artist. Saturday was gallery opening day, and lots of people were out and about. I had a great time.
EVA: You were spending a lot of time in galleries.
RICHARD: I remember seeing Joseph Beuys’ performance I Like America and America Likes Me, in which he was locked in a room with a coyote at Rene Block, a European gallery. And I became friends with Susan Gibson from the Gibson Gallery in Soho — she sort of took me under her wing. I would occasionally bring some of my work to show her. It wasn’t about trying to get a show there, because the gallery was showing major artists like Vito Acconci, Dennis Oppenheim, and Bill Beckley.
EVA: Your first solo exhibition was at Metro Pictures in 1980.
RICHARD: I didn’t have the best experience when I first exhibited my own work. The best time was during the summer before the gallery opened, when all of the artists hung out together in the owner’s loft.
EVA: Back then, your photography was often grouped with the Pictures Generation, including Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine — artists who questioned notions of originality and authenticity.
RICHARD: I didn’t really know those people at that time. Everybody was talking about ideas like the death of the author, and I was pulled into a situation where my work was looked at as theory. I felt that it was being overinterpreted. I would tell these critics, “I’m sorry, but you’re wrong,” and because of it, I sort of got kicked out of the club. I was friendlier with the next batch of artists — Christopher Wool, Martin Kippenberger, and Walter Dahn.
EVA: You opened your own gallery on the Lower East Side in 1983.
RICHARD: I opened Spiritual America anonymously, and I hired a girl to front it. It was a Malcolm McLarenesque gallery on Rivington Street. We never advertised, and we never invited anybody. When the media or someone from the outside world would call, we’d say that it was just for friends. But we were open to the public. We only had four shows, though.
EVA: Who came to the openings?
RICHARD: A lot of people said they came, but I don’t remember who actually did. There were a lot of photographers there, but nobody thought to take pictures. I kept only a few invitations from those shows.
EVA: I’m surprised — you’re known as an obsessive collector.
RICHARD: It’s true. Book dealers call me up when something interesting comes in. My book collection has an arbitrary timeframe. It starts in 1949, the year I was born, and ends in 1984, because the first book I collected was a 1949 first edition of 1984.
EVA: What do you look for?
RICHARD: Film noir, trash, literature, letters, manuscripts. I try to get hold of the most pristine edition of the book available. I also collect publicity pictures from memorabilia websites.
EVA: You exhibited some of the autographed headshots you’ve bought in a show at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in 2001.
RICHARD: While I was browsing for autographed photographs, I noticed that memorabilia websites also sell cancelled checks. I started thinking about how much information there is on a personal check. Most fans collect them just for the signature, but I really like the way they’re presented on a plaque, with the cancelled check under the person’s photo. That looked kind of nice.
EVA: Whose personal checks have you bought?
RICHARD: I bought Jack Kerouac’s cancelled check made out for ten dollars to Nunzio’s Wine and Liquor. It’s all about whom you choose. I wouldn’t buy Richard Nixon’s cancelled check. I would much rather find one from Lee Harvey Oswald or Rod Serling.
EVA: Then you turned to your own cancelled checks.
RICHARD: I had this idea that I would take twenty checks and paste them on a canvas to make check paintings. I liked the idea that an invitation for the show might suggest that I’m doing something with grids or geometry. But they’re real checks!
EVA: You moved upstate in ’96. Was that a purposeful exile?
RICHARD: After twenty-five years, I was tired of the New York City lifestyle. I found it boring and repetitive — you know, going to another dinner. Living in New York feels like you’re always inside — inside buildings, inside subways. I needed a new experience, so I went to the opposite extreme. We have a small farmhouse in the Catskills at the end of a dead-end dirt road. Here I’m outside. There’s no traffic. I don’t have to walk down a set of stairs to get onto a sidewalk full of people. I walk out the door and step onto the grass. At first I found it all very exotic. I started taking my own photographs. I drive around in my truck and take my camera with me.
EVA: Those photos seemed like a move into the first person.
RICHARD: Again, I was just using what was around me. I noticed certain repetitive elements in the neighborhood up here — basketball hoops, tire planters, tree-houses. But I’m not sure if I would refer to myself as a photographer. I’m certainly not a real one. I make a lot of mistakes. I use indoor film outdoors. I don’t spend time in the darkroom. I’m still playing with the camera.
EVA: How much of your work is personal and how much is commentary?
RICHARD: It’s fifty-fifty. When I start out I don’t know anything about my subject matter. I didn’t know anything about publicity pictures when I started collecting eight-by-tens. I definitely didn’t know that there are autograph collector conventions. Maybe the more I get to know about a subject, the more it becomes art. The one thing I do know about is art — but I don’t know what makes art.
EVA: In the late ’80s you moved from photography to painting.
RICHARD: I had always wanted to paint — but I had no subject matter.
EVA: Then you stumbled upon the jokes.
RICHARD: Lifestyle magazines often run cartoons. I redrew them, and then I decided to drop the image and just concentrate on the punch line. I was misrepresenting the cartoons by calling them jokes.
EVA: Did you ever consider painting the ’80s ads instead of photographing them?
RICHARD: I like to present what I do in a format as close as possible to the way it first appeared. At that time, the very idea of presenting these jokes seemed fairly abstract, and radical. It didn’t need radical presentation as well. I wanted to present the jokes in the most traditional medium possible, and to me that was painting on canvas.
EVA: In the course of the ’90s your joke paintings went from a conceptual, matte, understated style, to a much more painterly feeling.
RICHARD: Right. I went from flat paint to an almost abstract expressionist feel. I wanted to abstract the joke even further. I wanted to handwrite the text onto the canvas instead of silkscreening or stenciling it. I had started out handwriting the jokes on pieces of paper. Writing out the jokes along the bottom of the painting and putting an abstract image above it also brought the paintings closer to the initial concept of the cartoon. I liked the idea that I had come back full-circle to the original image.
EVA: How did the art world react to your move from photography to painting?
RICHARD: There was no reaction. Nobody ever bought my photographs, and nobody bought the joke paintings. I had a few friends who liked what I did, but the art crowd left me alone. It didn’t feel good at the time, but with hindsight it probably was. I never had a market to satisfy. I didn’t wake up in the morning thinking, “Oh, I had better do another one of those.” Being invisible gave me the freedom to do what I wanted.
EVA: When did you start to feel less invisible?
RICHARD: Well, there was a cover article and some write-ups around 1987. But I was always going to do whatever I wanted to do, regardless of the reaction. I make different bodies of work in different media. I don’t think too much about what’s in or out of style. My heroes are people like Man Ray and Bruce Nauman, who just do what they want to do.
EVA: Some of your work addresses the notion of celebrity. How do you requite that with the fact that you’re now an art world name?
RICHARD: I think celebrity can be dangerous. The big advantage is that I no longer have to worry about whether or not I can afford to buy that extra paintbrush when I’m in the art supply store. The other advantage is that I can take time to experiment. I can fail a bit more often. I don’t have to put out the work that I don’t like.
EVA: What are you working on now?
RICHARD: I have enough bodies of work behind me that I can curate my own work. I can take an early photograph and place it next to a cartoon painting, next to something I’m doing now. I’ve done two shows like that — one show called Women in Los Angeles, and a show called Man in Zurich. I never know if it will work. I don’t particularly like to plan what I’m going to do — usually one thing just leads to another. When I’m in the studio, I bump into things and rediscover old work. I just unearthed a recording I made in 1985. It’s called The Loudest Song Ever Recorded. I was thinking of making a sound piece with that — but it is pretty loud.
EVA: They might tell you to turn it down. That’s the problem with sound art.
RICHARD: Well, you don’t have any control. That’s why you have to go private. I have two museums now that I fund myself. I’m the artist and the curator. It’s not about committees, donors, or collectors. I can do what I want, the way I want.
Interview Source: http://www.indexmagazine.com/interviews/richard_prince.shtml