I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Marvin Heiferman I wanted to talk about abstraction, the idea that your works seem truly abstract and always have. I think that’s part of why everyone’s been so perplexed and confused about the work—for ten years—they didn’t know what they were looking at. They were pictures but didn’t look like pictures. They’re not factual, not quite fantasy. But they have, as you call it, a “look.” And if you give the “look” enough attention, it seems to approach the sublime.
Richard Prince Sublime or uncanny. You know, it’s very strange, I thought that the early pictures as objects, never mind the subjects, were very disorienting. I was always wondering, when does the disorientation become clear? It seemed to take a most unbelievably long time. I always thought the reason why it might have taken a long time for them to unwind was because it was hard for an audience to locate what was fiction and what was fact.
MH And clearly they weren’t about what they seemed to be about. I always loved those pictures of the guys in suits. You’d look at them and think “Who the fuck cares?” But they were advertising pictures, so you’d wonder who was buying those suits, who was looking at them.
RP It’s also about who was putting them out. It wasn’t just me that was putting them out. Someone had already made some kind of choices for them. These were actual photographs, literal rather than figurative. I simply attached the literal, the actual, to what was in fact a set-up, a version of a scene or something that was close to a movie still. I came along and made a real photograph out of what was essentially an image in a magazine. Let’s say People, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Life, whatever.
MH What do you think the confusion was? What do you think viewers weren’t getting in your work?
RP I think I was having the most trouble looking at photographs. I felt really uncomfortable with how the balance of fact and fiction worked in traditional photographs. I thought those kinds of pictures were fiction, where most people saw them as facts. The trouble I was having was that I thought my photographs had more non-fiction in them. What appeared to be fictional was, in fact, non-fiction. People usually look at photographs and expect to see fact, but in the end, don’t. When you go to the movies, you can be taken in, have the willingness to say, “Okay, I’m going to believe this scenario, this set-up.”
MH I was thinking about that, what it was like to go to the movies, to walk into a dark room and say “I’m going to believe, for the time being, everything that I see in front of me…”
RP Because you have this desire to.
MH Right. It’s like a lot of photography you run into in the course of a day.
RP It’s editorial. People use photographs as visual language, to provide information, to supply a window, to supplement text. Most editorial photographs sit beside a whole page of text. They work together. But what happens when you just hang a photograph alone? People look at them and see them on an aesthetic level. The problem with my photographs, when they were hanging up, was that there weren’t those levels to look at. So all of a sudden the audience is standing in front of them saying, “Well, I know what I’m looking at, I’m looking at four men looking in the same direction. They look like what they look like.” But after that, what are you left with? I don’t think the author of those pictures, meaning me—knew or wanted to know what was going on. There was a crisis for me, in terms of what one believed, what one thought art was, and what one wanted to see art be about. I was fairly dissatisfied at the time, I wasn’t seeing the kind of art I wanted to see. So the logical thing to do was to make it. It’s what happens when you give up. I gave up what I was doing, I gave up making art that looked like art.
MH I don’t remember which interview it was, but you’ve talked about not aestheticizing your work…do you still believe that you don’t? When you started making these, you didn’t know what you were doing. At what point did you?
RP Well, the only thing I knew was that I didn’t want to aestheticize in the sense of silk screening or painting or drawing on or changing it—I suppose when I say the pictures weren’t aestheticized, they weren’t aestheticized in the same old way. Obviously they were in the sense that I changed an image from a magazine which was on paper to a photograph. If anything happened it was like adding onto the history of collage—instead of ripping the page out and pasting it up, the gesture was photographing the page, but in a way in which it looked like a photograph. And it was, in fact, a photograph. So with that small gesture, the depression of the shutter, the image was quite different from what most people were doing with found images or public imagery.
MH Were you thinking about Warhol when you made the first photographs?
RP Warhol and most of the pop artists aestheticized their found imagery. Warhol was struggling with abstract expressionism. You could see it in the early work, with Dick Tracy and Popeye. There were still some gestures left over. You can see the influence of Larry Rivers, Rauschenberg. Mostly Rivers. What happened to Warhol that was interesting, was that he was trying to get into art while most artists were trying to get outside of it. He was trying to get in because he had come from the commercial world. He realized that his commercial background was something you could bring to art rather than the other way around. From those early Dick Tracy and Popeye pieces from ’61 to ’62, you can really see his transformation, how by ’63 he aestheticized the image radically. I wanted to use photography because it had another history. Painting, silk screen, drawing, they suggest something else. But photography suggested belief. It suggests fact. I thought that because I was choosing subject matter that was in fact, fiction, it might be better to use a factual medium to level that fiction, to occupy an area of “official fiction.” I could operate in that kind of gray area where the literal and the figurative become the same. That was the reason to add on or to make more than one image was like going to court, as I’ve said before; that was like evidence. Because if you don’t believe one, here’s two more.
MH The work was evidence of that midpoint. It was about that tension, the evidence of that tension.
RP I was thinking more about proving my case. I was having a crisis, a social, political, critical crisis about the belief system—confronting all the systems that we were told were one way and, you later found out, were totally another way. And I thought that those were…
MH Real life politics?
RP Yeah, and I think it wasn’t just me who was coming to terms with it, everybody was.
MH Is there a conscious choice to play to a more generous concept of an audience?
RP I think that those are conscious things that are in the work. For instance, in the first photographs, there were certain accessories that were re-photographed. Whether they were pens, watches, jewelry, I remember not having anything to do with the objects themselves other than having a relationship with the pictures of those objects.
MH Were you any closer to the pictures of girl friends?
RP No closer. The people in the motorcycle magazines, I’m about as close to them as I was to a picture of jewelry hanging in a tree. What I did establish was a relationship with those things as images.
MH I was thinking of your extreme choices of subject matter…the Seaman’s furniture, the bottom of the line clothing, and all of a sudden you switch to Dunhill lighters, pens, pocket books.
RP They’re the extreme; cartoon like, ideal.
MH But then it comes back the other way, like oceans are oceans, available to everybody, but bikers’ girlfriends aren’t…
RP Oceans without surfers, cowboys without Marlboros…Even though I’m aware of the classicism of the images. I seem to go after images that I don’t quite believe. And, I try to re-present them even more unbelievably. If there’s any one thing going on through these images, it’s that I as an audience don’t believe them.
MH Don’t buy them?
RP The things that I probably know about are the things that I avoid dealing with. It didn’t occur to me that the girl friends were, in fact, girl friends. It didn’t occur to me that people take pictures of their girl friends and send them into magazines and then go out and buy the magazine. It occurred to me later. It’s like the watches. I must have taken a hundred pictures of watches, but never wore one. The way they were presented in say, the magazines, looking like living things. That’s what I liked. They look like they had egos. They were presented almost with a comic effect, when, in fact, they were just watches, alone or on a wrist. The more you saw them, the more unfictional they became. They would pop up around the city, on bus stops, all of a sudden—like the cowboy in the Marlboro ads.
MH I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the history of advertising in America, the way ads are constructed, the way people think about them. An idea that comes up again and again is that advertising is not made to get new customers, but is directed at users, people who’ve already used the product. If you own a BMW, you look at BMW ads. I was really surprised. I had assumed that the idea was to be seduced into doing something that you weren’t ready to do. But thinking about the early, confused responses to your work, maybe that was part of the problem. You showed people images, but it didn’t have the “look” that they “bought” or could believe.
RP It’s possible it’s one of the reasons I got involved. I know that some of the ideas for using advertising images were that they weren’t associated with an author, and weren’t believable. They were ads. If you look at editorial pictures, or editorial language, you have a real problem, because what was possibly true could turn out to be not true. With advertising, the untruth was a fact. At least you could count on those one or two things. And I think at the time I needed those one or two things.
MH So, at what point did you start to know what you were doing?
RP I knew what I was doing in the sense of two things, I thought that there was a point for instance, let’s say the photograph that you included in that group show, in the spring of ‘79. That photograph, number one, to me, didn’t look like art. And number two, it didn’t look like it was made by any other art process that I had known about. At that point you think, well, those were the two things that I was looking for. What I did was not necessarily new, but the way the feelings were expressed was just different.
MH Your early works are such weird objects. It’s as if there’s no substance to them as objects. It’s not like looking at a painting—they didn’t even seem to look like a photograph. You confused people even on that count.
RP That’s when I knew that what I was doing was going to be okay. I mean, I might not have known what they were, but I sort of knew what they weren’t.
MH When do you think people caught on?
MH It took nearly ten years for you to get a decent amount of recognition. I always thought it was the Sunsets—
RP People tell me now that they liked the Sunsets. Well. I know that when I did them, it was a catastrophe. I had to go through another type of rejection.
MH A rejection’s like an educational process for the audience: at your expense?
RP The Sunset show was just a bomb. But a year later, people started picking up on it. I mean the critics or the reviewers or the journalists who put it down, the very same ones, put it up in about a year and a half.
When I put the Gangs up, people really started to get it. I think because the subject matter changed. Rather than being about a section of a magazine, the gangs were about an entire magazine. It was all in one place—the white of the photographic paper became a wall—the frame itself became an object.
MH The idea of the same within the difference became much more clear.
RP Even the term was funny; it was a non-fiction term—you “gang” together images for the sake of economy. The other thing about the Gangs that was great is that it’s difficult to work in a large photographic format because of the expense. Even though it’s not part of the criticism, artists know that you have certain kinds of economic things going on. The gang was a perfect way to get the most out of your negative. It sounds funny, but for an artist those things are really kind of what matters the most sometimes. It frees you up, to be able to work less expensively. All of a sudden, the limitations of the medium disappeared. Economically and spatially the gang satisfied everything. I could have one great picture in the middle, surrounded by eight supplemental images. It was so simple, I’d been using slides from day one and the arrangement of the gang are just slides taped together, the distance between the images is Just a slide mount.
MH In looking at your writing and pictures and then thinking of the relationship of text to images in magazines…there’s a funny, controlled seamlessness.
RP I suppose, to some extent, there seems to be this idea that there’s an artist character—almost like I’m looking at him while he’s looking at it. I know that writing was a way in which to pinpoint what was going on, sit down and say, “Okay, what is it that I’m looking at.” Trying to be as strict as possible. Then the writing took on a story-telling or fictional element that seemed to supplement what was going on in the images. It was just my own way of dealing with the lack of critical or uncritical attention.
MH You were answering things for yourself.
RP When you know that no one’s looking, that no one’s going to read it, that provides a great amount of freedom. Because you don’t have to be that guarded. It’s probably a fairly good situation for an artist to be in.
MH Do you believe that one hundred percent?
RP Do I believe that? Oh sure. You obviously want some people to look at it, you know you’re not doing it for a bunch of trees in the forest. In the beginning, your audience is people you know. It’s a very small audience. And for most artists that notion of the audience never leaves them. They really believe, I’ve said this all along, that there’s about 250 people out there. You spend so much time alone, you do art in private for the private. It’s only been a recent phenomenon that the artist is conscious of larger audiences. My feeling, politically, is that that is going to backfire, eventually. Because with larger audiences comes interference. The art world has always been a private world. The minute you have an audience, you start censoring yourself unconsciously or consciously.
MH As you get more successful do you do that? Do you stop yourself from doing…
RP Sure. If I was aware of an audience in 1977, I couldn’t possibly have done the kind of work that I did. It comes out of some sort of crisis, and not necessarily an aesthetic one. I feel comfortable with a certain kind of privacy because I feel I can protect the work in a way in which it won’t be interfered with by the public, because I think the public knows nothing about art. And has no desire to know anything about it and I find that completely okay. The less they know about it the less they’ll interfere with it. If the kind of art that one makes disorients the art world, imagine what it would produce in the world outside it.
MH It wouldn’t necessarily be a threat. They could just say “screwy artists.”
RP That’s the one thing the artist has going—I mean, you don’t walk in and say “screwy dentist.” We wouldn’t walk in and tell dentists what to do, how to behave, how to drill teeth. Or an open-heart surgeon. But people feel that they can do that with artists. Why, I have no idea, but they just feel that they can.
MH When you started doing jokes, was there as weird a reaction as there was to the photographs?
RP There hasn’t really been a reaction yet, because it’s been so private. I think the few reactions I’ve gotten remind me of the reactions I got from the early photographs because they’ve made people uncomfortable. They don’t really know where it is coming from; it being the actual object
I’ve used normal support systems and I tried to make it look pretty nice—I haven’t goofed it up any more than what we normally associate with jokes—I haven’t made it crazy. I’ve made it conservative. I’ve used consciously a conservative look to let the joke be more of a joke. If anything I think they’re tragic.
MH You could say that the early pictures are conservative.
RP I thought that they were. I mean they were just photographs with mats and ordinary frames in ordinary galleries. I’ve always used those structures as a way to let the image, in this case the joke, be what it was originally. With the jokes I can point to them and at least say they’re jokes, which they are. That’s what I think is going to make people uncomfortable. Because it’s like a Beckett endgame. If anything, I have an uneasy feeling people will like them. Now people can say, “Oh, he’s the artist who does the jokes.” They can finally latch onto something, which I think people like to do. And if that happens, how am I going to get out of that situation?
MH Where are the jokes from?
RP Joke magazines, books, same thing as the other images.
MH I think about how jokes are told. It’s not unlike re-photographing. Every time you tell the joke it’s embellished or altered. People recast them in the way they want to.
RP Actually, I have a joke here—that I found three times, but told differently. The one about, “I went to the psychiatrist. He said, ’Tell me everything.’ I did, and now he’s doing my act.”
MH So you just go to a book store? And look under the humor section?
RP They’ll have 4,000 of the world’s best jokes or you can pick up the Post every day and read Joey Adams’ column.
MH It’s hard, I’ve tried.
RP I have books by Morey Amsterdam and Myron Cohen. These jokes seem to be more generic. I think I’m working with about 15 jokes. There have been times when I just pick out what I think is the funniest joke I’ve seen in a long time.
MH Do you use jokes which you think aren’t funny?
RP No. I’ve used jokes which I don’t get, so I don’t know if they’re funny or not. I’ve used a joke which I don’t really understand.
MH Which one is that?
RP There was a joke about going down to.. . it’s very complicated. It’s about selling silk in Florida. It’s an ethnic joke. I particularly like Jewish humor. I think there’s a real kind of history of that type of humor in American middle class life. It’s funny how it’s been rediscovered. We grew up with it on the Ed Sullivan show.
MH I hated that stuff when I was a kid.
RP Well, see, I actually kind of liked it.
MH You’re not Jewish, that’s why.
RP Exactly. It’s funny how you’re attracted to what you aren’t. I didn’t get the psychiatrist joke for a long time, to tell you the truth. Also, with a joke, it’s funny where you locate yourself. In the psychiatrist joke, I realized that I identified with the psychiatrist. I identify with the person who says, “Tell me.” I don’t identify with the “I” or the pronoun. Now it’s as if I have 15 jokes, a routine, and every once in a while I incorporate another into the act.
MH I was walking down Times Square, and I looked at the Spectacolor sign, and you were on it. What is someone to think, in Times Square, when they read the psychiatrist joke after seeing some slash movie?
RP My feeling is that they don’t. One—they don’t see it. And two, if they do, they don’t think about it. Most people, if they saw a joke on the Spectacolor machine, would probably think that that’s what it is. Just a joke. They certainly wouldn’t connect it with the art world or an artist. If they saw my joke t-shirt they might buy it. The joke would then become something they’d wear and to get some reaction from family or friends. I would imagine they would be thinking about the reaction from their own audience.
To tell you the truth, I never saw the Spectacolor sign.
MH I want to get back to the idea of the sublime. Barnett Newman is one of my favorite painters and I stand in front of the big red painting at the Modern to get lost and to feel like a real person. My reaction towards it seems to put me in a place that is almost exactly between confusion and comfort. I was thinking about the level of abstraction I see in your work and was wondering if the confusion between fact and fiction is similar.
RP Newman’s stripes are—abstract and they’re not abstract.
MH They’re not arbitrary. That’s what I think is great about them. There’s something so perfect about some of those paintings-they go way past the object.
RP That’s what happens when it gets to be uncanny or sublime. If the work has that effect, whether or not it’s representational or abstract ceases to be an issue. It becomes something that starts to have its own kind of life. Maybe you just feel connected to it sympathetically.
MH What I’m interested in is being able to look at something and get into a state of free fall. When I look at a Barnett Newman painting, it’s like free fall.
RP Maybe the reason that you perceive a free fall state, is because for the artist, art is, basically, second nature. And this basicness is, in the end, unbelievable.
MH It’s like going to a movie—a movie is 90 minutes of it, if it works.
RP I feel the same way about certain pieces of art, ones that put me in a similar willingness to believe what is less true. Christian Metz called it a general lowering of wakefulness. That’s what he felt like at the movies, for instance. We’ve all been to the movies where, all of a sudden, the end comes up and you realize, “My God, I’ve been sitting here for two hours and I’m not even aware that I’m in the theatre.” You’re so “taken” by what you’re seeing projected from behind you. Whatever you saw that put you into that state of consciousness was perhaps unbelievable.
MH Maybe it’s about the perfect center line between extremes. That’s why I was thinking of your work. In terms of this fact/fiction schism; when I look at your work, I know what I’m looking at. I basically know where it’s coming from. Not the page of a magazine but…from instinct. If art’s about thinking, is the idea to get people into a thinking state?
RP There’s this old argument that it’s not about thinking. It’s about being innocent—that’s the way Hollywood tells it.
MH Is the idea to get people to ask certain questions?
RP I don’t know. I just think sometimes when you’re making a work of art or you’re looking at a work of art, it’s this thing about lives. People’s lives. My life, your life. My friend’s life. The lives of people I don’t know and the lives of dead people. That’s why when I was asking you when you were looking at the Newman if there was some sort of communication. You know you’re looking at something done by another human being, done with a certain kind of energy that is essentially positive.
RP I’m not saying it’s better, it’s just that…
MH I know what you mean, there’s more room. That’s part of the problem people have with photography. Photography is so constricting to some people.
RP Maybe you’ve got it right there. I hadn’t thought about that. Maybe there’s too much already there in photography to think about in any other way other than what it is supposed to look like.
MH That’s what I was curious about, whether the question “What it is supposed to look like?” is in your mind or in the work.
RP When I first saw The Slaves, by Michelangelo, or even the Tomb of the Medici Night and Day, I didn’t understand how he made the decision not to carve the man’s face. That was an unbelievable decision, or how those slaves are in fact, finished. That wasn’t really being done at the time, so I sometimes think about the idea that artists are the ones who give themselves permission to transfer their “thinking” to an object.
MH So sex…
MH We were talking about painting being sexy, as an action, but photography being sexy on a mental level. Is there sex in The Jokes?
RP Well, I don’t know. That’s one way of talking about it. The other way is just the way they look and feel like sex. I’ve heard that my work is really cool and I’ve always wanted to feel it’s just the opposite. It’s only recently, since the Gangs, that people talked about sex.
MH Do you think the coolness that some people talk about is the sexiness that others recognize?
RP Maybe because of the images themselves—bikers’ girlfriends. For instance, there were two reactions to the first girl friend piece; people thought it was ugly or they thought it was sexy. You can talk all you want about the art—but those girls took me with sex. They were very sexual looking. And the thing is, I’ve never been attracted to the Playboy thing. I’m attracted to people who aren’t necessarily desirable. In terms of the way most people look, I’m just the opposite. The more imperfect they are, the better I like them. Those first girl friends were portraits of a specific type of person. They were tough. In the end, they’re almost Arbus-like. In the end, that piece was about me as an artist coming across in terms of what I thought was sex. For instance, I had tried to do a boy friend picture for three years and I finally did one.
MH What did the picture say?
RP Of all things, it came out as a cartoon. That has to tell you something that’s pretty weird. It’s a cartoon of a man. I couldn’t deal with a real image. This is like the cartoon of a man who’s got a cowboy hat on and cowboy boots, you know the one. It’s a new Gang put out last fall.
MH I don’t know it.
RP I swear, it took me so long. I got lost in it. I wanted men’s torsos and crotches; these Gangsare clearly sexual. Male sexual. What’s interesting is that this work has been returned fourtimes, and I always ask who sent it back.
MH Who sent it back? The galleries?
RP No, people who’ve bought it.
MH People have bought it and sent it back? Great.
RP I always ask, what member of the household sent it back? And it’s invariably the male. There you go. I don’t know if it’s because of his rather large member. What’s interesting to me, and the reason I’m satisfied with it is because it’s a cartoon. It’s not even a real image. That’s why I’m wondering why it’s being sent back. I see this as one of my favorite pieces so far because of the amount of times it’s been rejected. Now, have I had any problem with the girl friends? No. They’re popular. But these four male Gangs — this is really the point about sex. And it’s funny. When you asked before when did people start getting it? It’s when I started the Gangs. I started putting more sex into the work. Maybe that’s what people got out of it. I was surprised that people liked them, of all things! I remember when I first showed the girl friend gang, a lot of people didn’t. I understand, if it was a political thing- but people even asked, “Are these your girl friends?” Some women critics thought it was a sexist piece. When it was up at the Whitney Biennial, a reviewer for the Village Voice, the one who should be reviewing pottery, called it “sexist,” and I read sexy. I was so disturbed that she didn’t say sexy—she said sexist—I couldn’t believe it.
MH Do you think the Joke paintings are sexy? Is there sexiness in them?
RP Look at them. I’m not sure. Sometimes I sit here and don’t even know what’s going on yet. Sometimes I look up and say, “What is this stuff? Is this where you’ve come to—jokes? How did this happen? What does this have to do with anything, in terms of art?” Someone’s going to describe me as the person who does jokes? Sometimes I feel that’s pretty strange. How did it get to this point? It’s like Valley of the Dolls.
MH Probably a good place to be.
RP Maybe. There’s a lot of self doubt about this work. But what happens is there’s so much self doubt that it becomes abstract. It’s all or nothing. Either this is going to be completely wrong or it’s going to be right.
Marvin Heiferman is currently editing The Picture Library of Everyday Life, with Carole Kismaric for Vintage Books, New York, to be published in the spring of 1988.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee