It makes sense that Deutsche Bank is sponsoring
Prince retrospective at the Guggenheim. Prince is the ultimate art-world
hot commodity: he was the first artist to break the $1 million barrier for a
photograph, one of his cowboy photos sold
for $2.8 million in the spring auctions, and Linda Sadler reported
in June that his new paintings sell for between $5 million and $7 million. That
prompted me to call
a bubble, but Sadler sees Prince as a
Like Dow stocks, artists such as de Kooning, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat
and Richard Prince are relatively easy to buy and sell and have abundant collectors.
Many artists resemble speculative Nasdaq companies that may disappear when
the bubble bursts, said a hedge-fund manager who declined to be named.
I don’t believe that Prince’s new paintings are selling for $5 million each:
cut that number in half and I think you might be closer to reality. But even
at $2 million apiece, Prince is clearly fetching sums for new canvases that
very, very few living artists can command.
There are two reasons for Prince’s art-market success. The first is that he
is a genuinely important artist: he took the idea of appropriation, which had
been an interesting theme in art running from Picasso through Duchamp to Warhol,
and stripped away everything else. By doing so, he became arguably the last-ever
artist to rise to prominence by challenging received notions of what art can
be, and he became enormously influential among younger contemporary artists.
To this day it is still hard for people to accept that a rephotographed advertisement
can be worth millions even as the advertisement itself remains worthless, as
But Prince’s art-historical importance is only part of the reason for his art-market
success and for the fact that there’s probably no other artist who would impress
Deutsche Bank’s hedge-fund-manager clients as much. Prince’s abiding influence
comes from his early work: what Roberta
Smith calls "hip, hermetic mind games" and "an esoteric mode".
That stuff, no matter how important, doesn’t really sell, not on its own: I
don’t see works by Art & Language selling for seven-figure sums at auction.
Prince, you see, moved on:
For all its elegance, the early work had a spindly endgame air that seemed
to disdain anything as touch-feely as making an actual art object. But that
is just what Mr. Prince proceeded to do, regularly introducing new subjects,
mediums and techniques.
By the time you reach the end of the show, and the art that Prince is producing
right now, you are immersed in painterliness. Everything that Prince once stripped
out has now been put back in, and his paintings have more in common with Francis
Bacon or Willem de Kooning than they do with the austere conceptualism of his
What a collector gets, then, when he buys one of Prince’s new Nurse paintings,
is a twofer: he gets art-world cachet on the grounds that this is a Richard
Prince, but he also gets a lovely painting which would look great above the
fireplace. Call it user-friendly conceptualism.
Prince is not the first conceptualist to have trodden the path from formal
early works to large and expensive and expressionistic later works. But when
the likes of Barry Flanagan and Frank Stella do it, they essentially become
trophy artists, making big works for corporate lobbies while losing most of
their credibility in the art world.
Prince, by remaining a little bit outré (a huge recent painting at the
beginning of the show is painted over a ground of pornographic black-and-white
bondage photos) has leapfrogged the corporate world to become a darling of the
even richer art-collector set. Deutsche Bank might be happy to sponsor "Spiritual
America", which is the title of the show. But it would never in a million
years buy "Spiritual America", the photograph after which the show
is named. And it’s precisely that frisson of edginess which has great appeal
to the likes of Stevie Cohen.