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Spiritual America
Richard Prince at the Guggenheim Museum in New York

Kidnapped images: Whether it was nurses, Marlboro cowboys, or celebrities, Richard Prince plundered the images of American pop culture. Now the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is mounting the largest retrospective of the U.S. artist's work to date. The show is sponsored by Deutsche Bank.

Richard Prince, Debutante Nurse, 2004
© Richard Prince

The photographer Alfred Stieglitz christened his black-and-white up close-up of the haunches of a gelding Spiritual America. It was a provocative title, and the modernist pioneer regarded a castrated horse as an appropriate symbol for the cultural potency of his country. Fifty years later, Richard Prince used this same title for what is likely his most unsettling work, which shows the actress Brooke Shields posing in a bathroom with an oiled body - a modern Venus who steps into a steaming bathtub rather than the ocean tides. The photograph, which is bathed in glowing orange shades, was commissioned by Brooke Shield's mother.

Richard Prince, Nurse of Green Meadow, 2004
© Richard Prince

She had the ten-year-old girl photographed by a commercial photographer to further her career. Prince took this incredible photo and inserted it in a cheap golden frame. It was the sole work he presented in his gallery, which was also called Spirtual America. This controversial work put the most important proponent of Appropriation Art at the center of the art cosmos. In this work, however, Prince was not merely interested in appropriating "foreign" pictorial material. The picture also alludes to the seductiveness of mass-media images, the obsessions of a society that worships celebrities, and not least the disconcerting fringe area of desire.

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

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

Spiritual America is also the title of the large Prince show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The exhibition, sponsored by Deutsche Bank, gives a detailed overview of the artist's thirty-year career. It shows key works from his most important series in an installation made especially for New York which fills the entire rotunda of Guggenheim as well as two adjoining gallery rooms. While previous exhibitions of his work often stressed his central role as a catalyst of a postmodern critical stance, this show, which was organized by Nancy Spector in close cooperation with Prince, focuses on Prince's engagement with American everyday culture.

As opposed to Sherrie Levine, who at the beginning of the 1980s used icons of political realism in her re-photographed Walker Evans shots to question the notion of artistic originality, Prince favors staged pictorial material. When he worked in the clipping service of Time Life in the late 1970s, he was constantly confronted with "dissected' magazines - their articles were cut out leaving only advertisements. He started photographing the high-gloss world of consumption and recombining details from the pictures. It was a simple act with a big effect. Are these works originals? Who is their author? And where is the art in them? At the same time, Prince presents the fetishistic character of luxury goods as clearly as the stereotyped roles embodied by the protagonists of advertising. His cool camera cut-outs were also an alternative draft to neo-expressive paintings a la Julian Schnabel which caused a sensation not only in New York.

Richard Prince, Untitled (girlfriend), 1993
© Richard Prince

Whether Prince appropriated Marlboro Cowboys during the Reagan era, later re-photographed biker wives from motorcycle magazines for his "Girlfriends" series, or put sexist jokes on monochrome canvases using a silkscreen procedure and thus clashed trash with high art - he continually dealt with America's myths and obsessions. From the flood of media images he distills a few pictures, reworks them, and lets them talk, about the longings, fantasies, and desires of American society - and perhaps also about Richard Prince.

Achim Drucks

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