Richard Prince has been in the news a lot lately for his courtroom battles against the laws of copyright as they apply in fine art. Some have even suggested that Prince’s courtroom behavior—ambivalent responses to simple questions about his work—is the latest stage of the artist’s protests against authorship and authority. But Prince has been plugging along on a new suite of subtle paintings that use arbitrary configurations of rubber bands as a pictorial strategy. “14 Paintings” is currently on view at 303 Gallery in New York. (He shows with Gagosian in New York but has a long history with 303 that includes having been married to its owner, Lisa Spellman, making this project both sort of under-the-radar and very personal). He’s also opened a semi-public project space uptown.
Kim Gordon, the artist and Sonic Youth co-founder, and Prince are best linked in the public imagination for the latter’s illustration of the 2004 cover for Sonic Nurse, but their dialogue goes much deeper. Gordon has her own stories of creative attribution, and here they discuss why Prince decided against using a pseudonym for this current show, and what would’ve happened if someone else made joke paintings first.
KIM GORDON: Hi, Richard.
RICHARD PRINCE: Hey, Kim. How are you?
GORDON: I’m okay, I guess. How are you?
PRINCE: I’m all right. Where are you?
GORDON: I’m up in Northampton [Massachusetts]. Another gray day in June. Are you at the beach or are you in New York?
PRINCE: I’m actually in Bushwick right now.
GORDON: How’s your space uptown?
PRINCE: It’s going pretty well. The people that find out about it and make an appointment seem to enjoy it.
GORDON: What’s it called again?
PRINCE: Fulton Ryder. It’s a name I used to write under. Have you ever done anything under a pseudonym?
GORDON: Not really. I’ve thought about it, actually, when I had the Harry Crews band with Lydia [Lunch]. I tried to convince her to let me use my name backwards.
PRINCE: What happened to that project?
GORDON: Lydia wanted to do this tour, and it was really just a way to find commonality. We both liked the author Harry Crews, so we made up lyrics based on his books. I met him once, I interviewed him for something, and then I think he actually heard the band at some point, and he hated it of course. His idea of music was just something else. He was disturbed that we used his name, I think.
PRINCE: Oh, he was? I met him briefly at a book signing.
GORDON: Hey, aren’t I supposed to be interviewing you?
PRINCE: Is that the story?
GORDON: I don’t know.
PRINCE: That’s funny.
GORDON: I went to your show at 303. I liked those paintings a lot. They made me think of astrological signs—constellations that don’t exist. I know the process of making them is pretty random. Maybe you should describe that, so people know what I’m talking about.
PRINCE: Well, the backstory is that they date back to these abstract images I made in 1977. I wanted to update those abstractions.
GORDON: What were those first abstractions made out of?
PRINCE: The ’77 abstractions were made using a camera and it was about the ability of the camera to cover things and wrap them in plastic. When you look through the lens, you would look at something and would know after you clicked it would be wrapped in this plastic coating, because when you send your negatives to a commercial lab it would always come back under a glossy coating.
I kept thinking about that. It was a very nerdy, esoteric inside information type of situation, and I wanted to simplify it and make the process easily understood.
I’ve been working on these—I guess I refer to them as band paintings—for about three years.
It started out pretty silly. I asked myself a question: If Hollywood cast the part of an artist, what would they have the artist do in the movie? It sort of started that way. And I thought whatever Hollywood would have an artist do would be pretty simple and kind of stupid. My daughter had braces at the time, and I would find these tiny little rubber bands that were always popping out of her mouth. So that gave me an idea. I used the bands to make the letter O. Then I started to write the word “asshole” around that letter, and I decided to call them “the asshole paintings.” That’s how it started.
I dropped the Hollywood part. And then one day I decided to work with a larger rubber band. I decided to find out everything that had to do with rubber bands. And then one day, I stretched the rubber band I was using and I wanted to make the shape stay, and I realized I couldn’t stick it on with paint, that wouldn’t hold it, so I just picked up my staple gun and stapled it. The two gestures were married that afternoon. It was kind of a lightbulb moment. And somehow the blackness of the band created a line that didn’t look like a rubber band anymore. It became part of the surface. And yes, you’re right about the randomness of the shape. It’s just whatever. You can do them pretty quickly, too.
GORDON: Do you think people look at them and go, “Oh, I like this one?”
PRINCE: I don’t know.
GORDON: Because you know, the last time we met, we were talking about Damien Hirst’s dot paintings, and how there are some that are more interesting paintings than others—which sort of defeated his purpose. In a funny way to me, the band paintings are kind of all the same. And they’re different.
PRINCE: I hadn’t thought about whether or not one would be more interesting or likable than the other. The one thing I decided was that four of them should stay together as one piece.
GORDON: Why is that?
PRINCE: I don’t know. I just thought that they made more sense as a group, so you wouldn’t be able to decide which one to take away with you. You would have to take all four. And then of course you could maybe hang one, then I don’t have control…
I felt, too, that they were the start and the end of something. And they still reminded me of my hand-written jokes, in ’86, when I first started making jokes, writing them out by hand on pieces of paper, that kind of simplicity, I wasn’t sure if I was able to have that again in my life, and I felt that these band painting reminded me of that moment. And then, of course, the hand-written jokes turned into something that became very agreeable and I continue to work with the subject matter; the subject matter never seems to get old or stale. And I think the band paintings will continue to have a life like that.
Sometimes when I walk into a gallery and I see someone’s work, I think to myself, “Gee, I wish I had done that.” When I have that reaction to something I make, then I think I should stay with it, and go with it. It’s not like I have that reaction a lot. Very, very few times do I ever have that reaction. I remember thinking that if I had seen someone make the hand-written joke and call it their work, I would have said, “I wish I had done that.”
It’s strange, the gesturing of the staple has become really more a part of the work, especially the ones I’ve done since the show. I’m trying to manufacture my own staple gun. I’m making my own rubber bands, and maybe it becomes more complicated.
GORDON: Do you think, being embroiled in this big appropriation lawsuit, that the rubber bands might be a relief from that aspect of your work?
PRINCE: People have suggested that, and it is a release that I don’t have to deal with those issues. Certainly showing them at 303, that decision has a history. It’s funny that I asked you about a pseudonym; when I first approached Lisa we were going to put the show out under a pseudonym. Back in the ’80s she showed John Dogg, which was a pseudonym I was using with Colin Deland. We talked about it. And then she convinced me I should just do it under my own. She reminded me that the hand-written jokes were shown in the back of her gallery, back in the ’80s. And she’s my ex-wife, which added a bit of—not melodrama, I don’t know what you would call it. There’s a real connection, it’s as simple as that.
GORDON: You like showing in places that aren’t galleries. And in a way, to show at another gallery that’s a different space is almost like choosing another context.
PRINCE: There was a lot of consideration, a lot of thinking. I guess even though I dropped the Hollywood angle, I did wonder where the director and the producer would want this work shown. It was sort of like a casting director came along and whispered in my ear, “303, 303, that’s where you should be showing these.”
GORDON: This brings me to a point that I have to bring up. But there’s this article, I think it was in the Observer, talking about what you said in defense of your art in the court case. It said you didn’t make any of the predictable defenses of your work. The writer was saying the court has become an extension of your artistic expression. And the writer couldn’t believe that you wouldn’t defend your work. Because you were just saying, “I put a guitar in his hand because I wanted to make a great painting.” And you also mentioned that it was part of a scripture writing, where the world is ending and a family is vacationing in St. Bart’s. If this is a movie about an artist and he was being sued, is this what he would say to defend…?
PRINCE: I read that. The thing is, I have never really commented on the lawsuit, and I’m not even sure that I’m allowed to. I never felt like I needed to defend myself, first of all. And second of all, I was just being honest about the comment they quoted about the guitar. That sounds like something I would say. And you know, I’m not an intellectual, I’m not an art historian, I’m not a genius.
To answer your question, I can’t comment on what I’m being sued for, but yeah, it gets tiring. But it’s also very surprising that anyone pays any attention to what I’m doing. I find the whole thing a waste of time. That’s the only comment I can make. But I don’t think these rubber band paintings address the idea of making something so that someone will come out of the past or the present and say, “you can’t do this.”
I wouldn’t mind people saying, “You can’t do this because this isn’t enough.” I don’t mind that reaction, because I think it’s more than enough.
GORDON: But what about the change, putting your name on the J.D. Salinger… PRINCE: Well, oh. That’s just a favorite book. I’m aware of the implications. It’s kind of the Disneyland of book publishing. You don’t mess with images from Disney. You don’t near it. And Catcher in the Rye is also on lockdown; it’s almost become an institution, it’s very sacred. It’s very rare to get a great first-edition copy.
I reread the book. If you have a book in your collection, it has to be a well-written book. I don’t collect books just because other people collect them, and I’m not going to have books in my collection if I think it’s badly written. Unless it’s deliberately bad or it has to do with the culture. I love deliberately badly written books. But when I reread Catcher I realized how contemporary the writing was, and then I was talking, I had the idea of putting it out again. And I think the idea of republishing Catcher, my contribution to that book was simply—and I know this is going to sound terrible, or maybe it’s not—but I just wanted to double the price.
GORDON: To make it have the value you think it ought to have?
PRINCE: Yeah, I just wanted to make sure, if you were going to buy my Catcher in the Rye, you were going to have to pay twice as much as the one Barnes and Noble was selling from J.D. Salinger. I know that sounds really kind of shallow, and maybe that’s not the best way to contribute to something, but in the book collecting world you pay a premium for really collectible books. I thought, we charged, I think on the book flap it’s $62. There’s a certain kind of adolescent thinking there that I can’t seem to get away from. And I don’t know if I should get away from it, but I certainly acknowledge that it might not be the most interesting way to contribute to the making of that particular object, but I like the fact that the price is twice as much. And it’s enough.
GORDON: Well, it’s an appropriate book for an adolescent gesture.
PRINCE: Exactly, you’re right. You nailed it.
GORDON: I have a million more questions I would ask, but I have to run off.
PRINCE: Well, when you’re in the city next, we’ll have to get lunch again, I really enjoyed it. You’ll have to come by Fulton Ryder.