Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ 1977 LP Blank Generation was rereleased in 2018 by Sire/Warner in a remastered facsimile edition. Hell’s books include two novels, Go Now and Godlike; his autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp; and the 2015 essay collection Massive Pissed Love. He lives in New York and is at work on a new novel.
Richard Prince is an artist. He has always been an artist and he always will be an artist. I don’t know how an artist becomes an artist. And I don’t think anyone else does either. It is something deep and mysterious inside of a person that cannot be explained. It is something that no one understands. It is something that no one will ever understand. I asked Richard Prince once how it came about that he was an artist, and he said, “I don’t know. It is something deep and mysterious inside of me that cannot be explained.”
On the other hand, in the catalogue for Prince’s 2007 Guggenheim Museum retrospective, his good friend and a major contributor to the catalogue, Glenn O’Brien, quoted this from Richard: “Art is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality. Only those who have personality and emotions and sensitivity know what it means to want to escape from these things.” I’ve seen that statement in Richard’s published works too. O’Brien added, “To me, that goes to his essence.” I agree. The funny thing is that the quote wasn’t originally Richard’s but was written by T. S. Eliot in an essay called “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” published in his book The Sacred Wood in 1920. Eliot was talking about poetry rather than visual art, so Richard substituted “art” for “poetry,” along with, curiously, adding “and sensitivity” to the list of traits to be escaped. Eliot was arguing against the value of “self-expression” assumed by the Ramones. I mean, the Romantics. He preferred some distance.
As an artist, Richard lies and steals in a casual unconcerned way that’s also strategic and a statement about his doubts about himself, reality, and who owns what, not to mention history. This is all on the record. He’s like Bob Dylan in that way (whose Chronicles’ autobiographical prose reminds me of Richard’s a little bit too), or Andy Warhol (not to mention Guillaume Apollinaire and Jim Carroll). The trickery is not malicious but funny and haunting and edifying, if frustrating at times, and self-protective, like an umbrella. He told me, regarding the hippie drawings, which are the foundation of this new High Times series of paintings, but also regarding his fundamental inclination to appropriate the core content he uses, how, once he started to elaborate in color and decoration on his initial black-on-white imitations of his kids’ drawings, “I started to kind of like do my own drawings. [. . .] But it wasn’t as if I was drawing them. I was still very uncomfortable with the idea of doing things that solely came from me. I’ve always been uncomfortable about that, and that was my bag.”
Prince: The work always had to start in a public place or it had to have some sort of relationship to the real world.
Hell: It’s not like self-expression. It’s using imagery that’s there.
Prince: I thought I could get away with [the hippie drawing work] if I put it under the umbrella, this hippie thing that would repel the rain and I could stand under this thing. [. . .] I could become another persona.
Richard writes a fair amount about his experience and intentions but you can never be sure how much of it is “true.” Except all of it is true because it’s the actual underpinnings of his works, which are great.
After I interviewed Richard about his work in general and his new series of paintings I went and found Howdy Doody on YouTube. Richard refers to Howdy Doody. I started to drift, like doze, like die. Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob are cowboys. I’d forgotten that. I’d almost forgotten that Howdy was a puppet. Richard looks like Howdy Doody. Somewhere he said he was in the Peanut Gallery when he was five. (It was a lie. “What time is it, kids?”) I remember watching Howdy Doody, the way it was compelling when you were five. The powerful memory it is. (Richard and I are almost exactly the same age, August and October 1949.) Now I’m nearing death (which is to say I’m getting old) and Howdy Doody returns, even more powerful than ever. Richard Prince. How does Prince pick what to feature? Comforting, gorgeous, and scary, like the Marlboro man. Bikers’ girlfriends. Muscle cars. Sexy but bloody and threatening nurses. Though these subjects are nothing until transformed by Prince’s sensibility into the epic and funny works of sensual beauty he does.
The way he explains his signature motivation, what originally drove him to appropriate the work of others, or, as he has described his first uses of magazine ads, “rephotograph” them is that he says he didn’t like his own work so he started doing other people’s. I believe that. It has the ring of truth and it’s funny. I went to see a psychiatrist. He said “Tell me everything.” I did, and now he’s doing my act.
The High Times paintings incorporate drawings he published in a 2005 book called Hippie Drawings. Those drawings were candy colored, crude, flat (no illusion of depth), frontal figures that looked like the work of a psychotic or someone tripping on drugs, or doodles by someone who couldn’t draw, or like children’s drawings. I checked a drawing I’d kept from when my daughter was four. They’re children’s drawings. Prince told me, “I started imitating, as I usually do, other people. I was trying to imitate or channel what my kids were doing, because, you know, I can draw. But what I was interested in was the way they were drawing.” He guessed that it was the naïveté or childishness of the hippie that provided the link of child to hippie in his mind, but also, one can’t help thinking, it must have been connected to his preoccupation with recent American subcultures, especially the youth cultures he’s been exposed to, and that have preoccupied America too. The freak-flag color range as well.
As an artist, Richard lies and steals in a casual unconcerned way that’s also strategic and a statement about his doubts about himself, reality, and who owns what, not to mention history.
For the paintings, he scanned some of the hundreds of 8 1/2-by-11-inch hippie drawings he’d made in the late 1990s and had the images enlarged and inkjet-printed onto big canvases. He also painted such figures directly onto the inkjetted canvases and stapled to the canvases cutout versions of some of the inkjet enlargements. All these figures are arranged vertically and the spaces between them painted black or deep blue. There are also a few enlargements of his primitive black-on-white line-drawing copies of pictures of medieval and/or Renaissance warriors stabbing and viciously bludgeoning each other, copied from imagery he’d come across at the Met. All the figures are arranged tightly, with some body portions squeezed into spaces between the figures against that black, so that the ultimate effect is classic, flat, allover painting.
I knew the book Hippie Drawings. When I first saw these new paintings, the week I interviewed Richard, they looked great but also almost demonic, monstrous—a reaction of mine that probably had something to do with the black ground and the sprinkling of pictures of gruesome sword-fighting, though I didn’t notice the fighters at first. At the same time, the paintings were childlike and colorful, like Basquiat, or like Picasso’s late musketeer paintings—or even like the rhythmic and complexly colored allover abstractions that Jackson Pollock was making just before the extreme of his “drip” paintings, and the High Times paintings employ a similar palette to those works too. The works felt to me like Richard’s depiction of the idyllic, pastoral hippie era shifting to punk, when the flowers went to hell with assassinations, Manson, race riots, Altamont, and prolonged Vietnam. Anyway, they were powerful, a weird mix of childish whimsy, modernism, and foundational violence.
Some of my favorite paintings in the show extend further psychedelically by using as grounds inkjetted extreme enlargements of photos not of the hippie drawings but of people gathered in sunlit woods for some festivity, with hippie drawings in various sizes superimposed on them and yards of silk added, also with imagery on it, cut to hang and drape across the greater part of the canvas, like memory gauze or Ecstasy. These pictures are the remaining vestiges of an earlier concept of the show that would have added a few further subcultures to the original hippies and hippie-punks, and the exhibit would have been subtitled Beat, Hippie, Punk, Hop, Trance.
Regarding the vintage hand-to-hand combat sprinkled among the kindergarten figures, Richard said: “The fighting, the battles. I mean, it’s just not going to fucking end. This has been going on since the beginning of fucking time. So I decided why not put, instead of a contemporary drawing of a fighter . . . [. . .] They don’t have guns or machine guns; they have swords and they’ve got armor. I thought they fit in the context. Yeah, you know, I was thinking about the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and you know, the billy clubs and [. . .] it continues the narrative. I don’t know. I mean, again, I just think it’s cool. If I have to explain it, yeah, that’s all.”
Richard is an obsessive reader and bibliophile and books and magazines play a major role in his works. He collects mainly first editions and manuscripts of English-language fiction, poetry, essays, and autobiography published between 1949 and 1984, 1949 being both the year of his birth and, as he points out, the year of the publication of Orwell’s 1984. It can’t be missed, though, that those years, from birth to age thirty-five, pretty well comprise a person’s most impressionable and inspired period, and Richard’s collection is like a portrait of that period, as known to him, captured in books. He has also published much—often semiautobiographical—writing himself, and he almost always produces large-format trade picture books of various categories/series of his paintings, such as Jokes and Cartoons, Check Paintings, Cowboys, and Nurse Paintings. There are books from his collection included in this High Times show, and in its catalogue he prints extracts from ’60s and ’60s-oriented literature by Joan Didion, Eve Babitz, and Kim Gordon to complement the images. (Rachel Kushner contributes a hippie punk essay too.)
In a way, all of Richard’s paintings are history paintings. They run modern American culture, mostly from 1949 on, or its mass-media embodiment, and the basement cravings and drives of that culture—through Richard’s sensibility, with the understanding that mass media and electronic information are the nature into which we have been born. It turns out that one of the very first of the hippie drawings was the simple black-on-white line drawing that Richard thinks of as the “hippie punk.” He gives it extra play, he acknowledges its significance, by not only including this atypical (or early) black-and-white image in multiple paintings in the series, but by using it as the frontispiece for the show’s catalogue. So I felt as if my first reaction—of the paintings’ capturing the pivot point of flower child to punk—had been accurate enough, even though Richard seemed mystified by my reading of the High Times hippie population as ultra aggro. There’s also an interesting pattern in the way these paintings are created and exhibited now, in 2018, when so much media is being devoted to the fiftieth anniversary of the international youth-led revolutionary turmoil of 1968, and we feel the similarity of the Nixon America that festered then and the Trump America we face now.
Another major aspect of Prince’s output, apart from his surfing of modern American culture, is that it explicitly plays on modernism in art, uses it as a subject or a running subtext, playing on it amusingly, which, of course, is typical of postmodernism, which trend in painting Prince helped to create. I don’t think it’s merely coincidental that these High Times paintings recall his mental environment of Basquiat and Picasso and Dubuffet; it’s because the imagery and style of those painters are just as legitimate in the way of technique or of raw material for Prince as is all recent generations’ lifelong environment of mass media, and as legitimate a material as landscapes and historical subjects were for earlier painters.
In the tangled twenty-first-century wilderness, in the wild history that is Richard’s opus, once you isolate a theme or a tendency or see a pattern at all, it suggests ideas and implications and specific analyses—both backward (precedents) and forward (implications, intimations)—that fascinate and continue to proliferate like some kind of wildfire of meanings. The High Times paintings are spectacular, suggestive, and scary, and seeing as how, to me, art is personal, they pass the ultimate test of quality, which is that I’d like to have one on my wall even if nobody’d ever heard of Richard Prince.
All artists are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Making a piece of art is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows, that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can paint nothing worthwhile unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.*
* Thanks and apologies to George Orwell, author of 1984, for this final paragraph, which is very slightly modified from his “Why I Write” (1946); also, to Joe Brainard for the first paragraph of the essay, from his “Ron Padgett” (c. 1966).