Richard Prince has to be one of the most hated populist artists of all time. His work consistently hits the sweet spot of “pretentious” — because it conceptualizes a sort of “theft” — and “mainstream” — because his subjects are very popular (Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll). His work is about Cigarettes, Cowboys, Motorcycles, Hot Chicks, Jokes, Sexy Nurses, Fast Cars, Cool Dudes With Guitars. These are all things that people like. But people don’t like Richard Prince’s process. He has been pissing them off since he started his re-photography work in the ‘70s.

When Prince photographs a photograph of a cowboy in a Marlboro ad, he shows that the selection of subject, the distortion of the lens, the cropping of the frame, the size of the final presentation and the exclusion of elements (such as the Marlboro logo) are all key factors in the impact of an artwork. Aside the high-art-conceptual-theory-bric-a-brac of how one changes the image through its reproduction, Prince makes calculated choices that are, at a base level — appealing. This stuck with me after visiting his latest show “New Portraits” at Gagosian.

Prince had gone on Instagram and commented on pictures he likes, took screenshots of whole posts and printed them on 4’ x 6’ canvases. Some of the people he’s chosen to “rip off” are old friends of his (like Glenn O’Brien) and some aren’t (like Sky Ferreira); some are famous, some are not.

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These comments appear to be mostly tongue in cheek, like “I remember this so well (tent emoji) glad we had the tent” under Kate Moss posing with her legs spread. The frequent use of emoji adds an extra graphic layer. The comments themselves create another level of participation in the work. If nothing else, you can’t say Prince didn’t add anything this time. His name’s right there. He’s saying something.

Generally, Larry Gagosian likes to populate his mega-galleries with gallerinas who treat you as less than human, unless you look like you might be a rich collector. Photography is not allowed. You are not welcome. But Richard Prince’s Instagram show was different. I walked into the room and nervously pulled out my phone to take photos, expecting to hear the humorless “No photos” from the guards at any moment. In other places, this is infuriating, but at Gagosian, you get the feeling the guards aren’t part of the conversation; they’re doing a job, so you comply.

Still waiting for the hammer to drop, with a gallerina behind me, a guard to my left, and another guard on my right getting closer, I was taking a photo of every work in the show.

asia_argentoI didn’t expect that around the 10th piece, a guard came over to say “My man, you can take all of them with you right here” and hand me a zine-style booklet of the works reproduced. I thanked him, saying that I was still going to photograph all the works on the walls.

He waited for a second, then walked me a few steps and pointed to his favorite — a piece with Asia Argento. “I love Asia Argento,” I agreed. “I’ve never seen a tat like that,” he said, echoing the comment on the canvas. “Yeah, she’s bad ass all around,” I said. The other guard laughed.

The nature of commenting on Instagram had become infectious, the normally tight lipped guards felt welcome to contribute their thoughts. Your average Instagram comment isn’t, “ah yes post-modern redux meets Warhol celebrity-bacchanal meets Benjamin’s age of mechanical reproduction flipped back on itself.” You say “I’ve never seen a tat like that.” Then you click like, because you like it, and sometimes that’s enough. 

“New Portraits,” Richard Prince, Sep 19 – Oct 25, Gagosian Madison, Manhattan (Photos: Rhett Jones/ANIMALNewYork)