Prince Parses Pollock at Guild Hall

In Richard Prince’s exhibit at Guild Hall, “Covering Pollock,” he literally covers well-known photographs of the artist with repeated images of musicians, celebrities, pornography, and even Pollock himself.

Despite the jaded ho-hum reaction many bad boys and girls of appropriation garner these days, it appears to be one of the most consistently marketable veins of contemporary art. Collectors snapping up the work might like the familiarity of the images that are being regenerated while patting themselves on the back for buying something still considered subversive.
    Richard Prince remains one of the darlings of this genre, possibly because he is represented by the powerhouse dealer Larry Gagosian, but just as likely because he still manages to push the limits of appropriated images past areas expected and on to the less predictable. He also still gets into trouble — a recent cache of his works was ordered to be destroyed by a federal court in March because they infringed upon the copyright of the images’ original creator. Mr. Prince has challenged the decision and the works have since had a reprieve of sorts, with a judge ruling recently instead that the owners of the images cannot display them.
    While the artist still shifts creatively in and out of old and new series of subjects, one of his latest efforts has been focused on the imagery of Jackson Pollock, the product of which has taken over the exhibit space at Guild Hall. These are not the reproductions of the paintings produced by the artist, although they play a part in the background. Instead, he has used familiar photographs of the artist painting or with his wife or mistress, reproducing them digitally and then painting and applying collage to them.
    There is something irresistibly naughty in the work, which feels doubly iconic given the art world’s fetishistic obsession with all things Pollock as well as the more localized legend of the hard-living, fast-driving, but inevitably short-lived artist.
    That the mass market has also embraced the lore of this outsider, recalled almost as much for his inebriated antisocial behavior like pissing in a fireplace at a soirée hosted by Peggy Guggenheim, has to be irresistible for an artist such as Mr. Prince, who first became known for the images of cowboys he lifted off Marlboro advertisements.
    Mr. Prince said in an interview with Lisa Phillips, the director of the New Museum in New York City and the curator of his first solo museum show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1992, that he was very “attracted to the idea of someone who was by himself, fairly antisocial, kind of a loner, someone who was non-collaborative.” The artist lived in a remote town in upstate New York for two decades beginning in 1986, creating a compound of various living, work, and display buildings for himself before he returned to the city and a more social scene on the South Fork.
    Now 62, his own early work was informed by Pollock, whose images he grew up with, along with later conceptual practitioners he followed in art school. Repurposing images from magazines and other publications is something that came to him during a day job of clipping articles for Time magazine in the 1970s. More recently he has been inspired by Abstract Expressionists such as Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, whose “Women” series he has literally drawn upon for inspiration. The resulting works, which had their genesis in catalogs of de Kooning’s paintings, were digitally reproduced and enlarged so that he could add more collage and drawing to them on a grander scale. They were recently displayed in Paris.
     What he has brought to Guild Hall is a dizzying blend of vintage black-and-white images of Pollock alone or with his wife, Lee Krasner, or his mistress Ruth Kligman, who survived the car crash that killed him, with superimposed imagery in checkbook-size blocks, much of it recycled from earlier works, but that functions here just as well. Sid Vicious, mop-topped Velvet Underground members, Kate Moss, and Gene Simmons are some of the well-known appliqués. He rounds out the imagery with erotica and pornography that has a grainy, midcentury aesthetic to it.
    “Covering Pollock,” the title of the show and title of the series, is quite accurately descriptive. In very few instances can the viewer actually see the subject. While Krasner and Kligman might be left alone, other times they are covered too. In a very few works, he actually covers the larger images of Pollock with check-size blocks of pictures of Pollock, with and without Krasner, that he has covered up in the larger format elsewhere. It’s all a bit dizzying.
    Mr. Prince said the series was inspired by what Pollock might be looking at and listening to if he were alive today. Yet, for a noted jazz aficionado and reputed loud-mouthed critic of anything he did not find to his liking, the idea that he might have taken up the bad-boy music of Punk and the Velvets is more likely fanciful parallelism than predictive.
    What is instinctively more resonant is that these bands were somewhat non-organic creations, merged from strong Svengali-like figures who gave them an identity or brand and helped mold their sound. The Sex Pistols, which was Vicious’s band, were mostly brought together from an early precursor in England by Malcolm McLaren, a music impresario and boutique owner. The Velvets’ success was largely attributable to their being the house band for Andy Warhol’s Factory, where he found them a record label and decided that they should include a German singer named Nico in some of their songs. In both cases, their managers thought the look of the band was as important as the sound.
     While neither band was commercially successful, both have had an influence on future music that is still vibrant and relevant several decades later, much as Pollock’s work is to generations of painters, including Mr. Prince. The images that use the band members as the overlay have this kind of Roman ruin effect, in which viewers might find themselves excavating the visual information to dig down to some obscured cultural antecedent, an activity that is both captivating and involving.
    The cheekier overlays of Kate Moss or other topless females touch on culture’s lower forms and regions, not to critique, but to embrace. For all of Pollock’s rumored alcohol-induced impotence, he still ranks in reputation as a prime skirt-chaser and stud. Add in the use of and references to heroin by the musicians depicted and the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” flag is flying high here. Other references to Led Zeppelin and Jean-Michel Basquiat have that same effect, underlying a loudness or brashness that evinces a similar mind-set or spirit.
    Sometimes the forced transgressiveness can seem juvenile, but then the exhibit breaks up the monotony of boobs and bush with different concoctions, including the artist’s own version of drip imagery and pictures of Pollock with collaged and painted blips, dots, and stars scattered about the composition. These have an oddly cheerful demeanor that belies the subject’s taciturn expression, which makes them quirky and delightful. It is also instructive to see in the images of the applied photographs how the tangle of limbs and bodies of those subjects begins to take on the appearance of the drip compositions Pollock is working on in the studio or has propped up nearby on the walls.
    Like most of Prince’s work, this show will leave viewers awash in imagery and left to sift through what works for them and what does not. The starkness of the black-and-white reproductions with mere monochromes of red or flesh tones added here and there, with an occasional colorful outbreak of actual painting by the artist, makes for an overall somber presentation, but one that is enlivened by the imagery itself, given a new life and meaning by the artist. The exhibit is on view through Oct. 17.