On ViewGagosian Gallery
September 19 – October 25, 2014
A few hours before April Fools Day, Richard Prince was kicked off Instagram for posting an installation shot of “Spiritual America,” his infamous re-photograph of a then-10-year-old nude Brooke Shields. He was reinstated a few days later after a heavily publicized art world petition. Seven months removed from the event, Prince, who is neither a stranger to controversy nor above the occasional petty retaliatory move, debuted a series of Instagram photos in his exhibition, New Portraits, at Gagosian’s uptown gallery. The show consisted of 34 iPhone screenshots taken of other Instagram users’ pictures, commoditized into large inkjet prints on canvas.
The New Portraits are only semi-interesting, in the way that Instagram is only semi-interesting: a look not into who people are, but into who or what they want to be. That Prince curated them, combed through the app, and put them together on an uptown gallery wall does not add depth to the pictures; the canvases themselves contain neither the power of portraiture nor the conceptual punch of appropriation. But Prince knows this. He knows that the power of a show like this doesn’t exist on the canvases or in the gallery, but like so much now—the web, the cloud, the network, and Instagram itself—it exists elsewhere, somewhere, in the ethos, intangible, hard to understand, and harder to articulate.
Thirty-plus years into a career spent mining the gray areas of copyright law in the name of art, he has taken on what is perhaps the grayest era yet. Photographs no longer belong to the photographers. They belong to the platform through which they are put out into the world. More important now than property rights is the collective impulse to share every little moment of our lives with whoever is willing to look. This may be the defining temperament of the Selfie generation: a perpetual quest for peer validation by which one can gauge one’s self-importance. At their best, Prince’s New Portraits are both a commentary on and instigator of this phenomenon; they are a cheeky critique of the shameless self-promotion inspired by social media and an exercise thereof.
Prince’s pictures are all portraits, most of which were originally self-portraits. The subjects vary, but are largely beautiful female celebrities. Perhaps not coincidentally, several were shot by Terry Richardson; others pretend they were. There are models and artists, garden-variety hipsters and art-world faces, indie musicians and Internet personalities, as well as a few strangers. Some use their real names, like lauriesimmons and albertomugrabi; others, like karleyslutever and junglepussy, don’t, further complicating Prince’s investigation into Internet-era identities. He’s commented on all of them with cryptic phrases or sexual innuendos or both, accompanied by or written entirely in emoji. Underneath a picture of an apathetic Sky Ferreira in a car, he writes: “Enjoyed the ride today. Let’s do it again. Richard.” Below a picture of Kate Moss on a motorcycle in the woods: “I remember this so well / glad we had the tent.”
In theme, the New Portraits canvases tap into familiar terrain for the artist: at once criticizing and actively participating in the idolization of women unaware of the implications of idolatry, as was the case in “Spiritual America,” and turning generational symbolism back on itself, which he did with his Cowboys series. But these earlier works were more daring; the depth of Prince’s actions was not so far-removed from the canvases. They were taking a chance, artistically and legally. With New Portraits, there is no risk. No gravitas. There is no imminent threat of lawsuit, not because there isn’t a legal argument to be made but because no one cares to make it. The opposite, actually—people were happy to have their Instagram pictures used by Prince.
Prince now owns the images in his New Portraits. The show’s press release, devoid of descriptive language, made sure the viewer knew this: “All images are subject to copyright. Gallery approval must be granted prior to reproduction.” Photos were not only allowed in the gallery, but encouraged. It was a seemingly obvious move by the artist, but a smart one that accomplished a few things. On the outer most surface level, it provided a built in promotional strategy for the show. More importantly, it elicited a kind of active, if empty, engagement with the work. It goaded viewers into the very activity that the artist is criticizing, and trapped them into committing the same act of theft and potential copyright infringement that he committed. In a way, the artist vindicated himself not by reinventing the way we think about copyright law, but by masterfully taking advantage of the way we now share the art experience.