Richard Prince wasn’t alone last night when he walked into the Yale School of Art to give a lecture. The “Visiting Artist in Sculpture” was accompanied by photographer Gregory Crewdson, who teaches at Yale, and who invited the artist to speak to his students, according to art dealer and TV personality Bill Powers who was also in the audience.
Mr. Crewdson opened by saying we were going to hear all about Mr. Prince’s early life as an artist and see some rarely seen work, such as his early postcard photographs and some of what he’s working on now. But with Mr. Prince’s first words, the elephant was brought squarely into the room.
“I was born in the Panama Canal Zone,” said Mr. Prince.
This factoid reminded us of Mr. Prince’s controversial Canal Zone series, a group of paintings he made by reworking images of Rastafarians by the photographer Patrick Cariou, which a court ordered him to destroy roughly a year ago. Mr. Prince appealed the decision, a move which is still working its way through Federal court in New York.
Mr. Crewdson asked Mr. Prince questions about the latter’s life and work, which Mr. Prince responded to with quirky colorful stories interjected with awkward reflections on artistic ownership, all while presenting a slideshow.
He discussed his “tear sheets” job at LIFE magazine, which required him to tear up magazines and collate hard copies of articles to send to authors. It was that post which first sparked his interest in re-photography, the practice of photographing other photographs. At the end of each day, he was left with the advertisements, which he would take down to his studio and photograph.
“Those images weren’t associated with an author,” Mr. Prince said. “At least not in my mind.”
He remembers hanging up his first work of “re-photography,” a term he claims to have coined though many other artists would practice it, and the initial response. “The reactions I would get—it was kind of embarrassing.” He said his guests would be confused. “They didn’t quite know what it was—was it my photograph?”
And while he was soon being introduced to other artists like Laurie Simmons, Sherry Levine and Cindy Sherman some of whom worked in re-photography, and who “had similar thoughts in their heads,” he didn’t feel like he belonged to that group. “I had a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I wanted things to be factual.”
He spoke of his series of photographs of cowboys, that would be known as his Marlborough Men, because they were re-photographs of advertisements for Marlborough cigarettes. He put up a picture of a cowboy riding a horse through a prairie against a blue sky. It was transfixing.
“The first time I titled an image,” he said, “I called it Cowboy.” At his first showing of the images, at an Upper East Side gallery Baskerville and Watson, not one image sold. The implied joke seemed odd in light of the fact that his works sell for large sums, particularly the Canal Zone works at question in his pending litigation, one of which sold for $2.3 million.
Mr. Prince stopped making photographs in 1986 and took up writing out jokes on paper. In 1999, he returned to photography, and cowboys.
“I was never interested in the cowboys,” he said. “I was interested in what they were in.” He looked up at the image on the screen of a generic-looking mountain range without any humans.
Then, he returned to the subject of cowboys, this time painting them. He likened the his practice to beach-combing. “It came in with the tide. You can claim it. You can take it home with you that day.”
He showed us slides of his early and rarely seen “post-card” photographs, beautiful images of monuments and urban European cityscapes that he took while he was a student in Europe. But he didn’t show us any images of sculpture, which he claimed to be working on.
“What kind of sculpture are you doing now?” we asked Mr. Prince after the lecture.
He said he was now making sculptures of cowboys. “A young cowboy,” he said. “The cowboy as a young boy. And humorous sculpture. Like oxymorons. A ten foot pole. A pole that is ten feet long.”