The most surprising thing about the Serpentine Gallery’s Richard Prince exhibition is not that it is happening, but that it is happening now. Why, in George Bush’s name, has it taken so long for this American controversialist to have a big show in Britain? He is nearly 60. He is among the most celebrated artists in the world. Last November, one of his classic photographs of a cowboy sold at Sotheby’s for $3.4m (£1.7m), which is still, I believe, the world record for a photograph. His paintings go for twice as much. Yet here he is, deep into his veteran stage, stepping out for his British debut.
I’ve been thinking about why it has taken all this time, and have concluded that it must be the fault of the work itself, which appears from this distance to be gassed up with all that regrettable American energy you feel when Arnold Schwarzenegger drives his Hummer into Vegas. Prince’s heroic cowboys ridin’ across the range, his primetime fantasies about naughty nurses in unbuttoned uniforms, his pimp-my-ride muscle-car epiphanies and his uniquely unjudgmental appreciation of lowbrow American trailer taste make us Brits nervous. Whose side is he on? Where is his shame? The edgier subjects he tackles – child porn, undressing biker girls – make most people uneasy. That he tackles them with the moist and noisy relish of a fat guy chomping in a diner makes us suspicious.
So that is why it has taken a surprisingly long time for our art world to welcome Prince. And why the twilight of the Bush years is a strangely poignant moment to invite this gas-guzzling, chick-baiting, trash-loving, elder cowboy of American sub-prime values to enter the genteel environs of Kensington Gardens, where the exceedingly unAmerican Serpentine appears to have discovered his pale and poetic side. What an unexpectedly ethereal event. It’s like ordering a T-bone steak – and having sashimi with marigolds brought to you instead.
The show is almost a retrospective, featuring work from as far back as 1980 and including examples of all his best-known topics – the ridin’ cowboys, the flirtin’ nurses, the cruisin’ cars – examined in all his different modes: photography, painting, sculpture. So, you would think it would add up to a representative-feeling sample. But it doesn’t. Prince, who curated and arranged the selection, treats the entire show as a single installation rather than as a flick through his back catalogue. And, although the journey is dotted with highlights from his past, the overall impression is of a fresh event with a tangible mood: the aforementioned ethereal air.
The opening room feels like a chapel designed by a Quaker minimalist who loves cars. In the centre of the gallery stands what seems at first to be some sort of mysterious altar, raised up off the ground on a pale-pink plinth. The strange object is rounded yet rectangular, coloured yet washed out. If you are not familiar with Prince’s work, it will take you a couple of circuits to realise that it is actually the bonnet of a car – one of those extra-large American muscle cars from the 1970s – that has been sanded down to its sculptural essence and endowed with an angelic pink paleness. Rothko meets Starsky and Hutch.
A matching set of ethereal, sky-blue abstractions on the surrounding walls, which seem to be floating in the air, turn out to be more car bonnets, stripped of their hot-rod colouration and their loudness, and decorated instead in exquisitely gentle pastel shades. Monet, in his water-lily period, has begun worshipping the ’71 TransAm Dodge Challenger.
All this is surprising. Prince is supposed to be a prober and dissector of contemporary American values, isn’t he? A carnivorous media cannibal? Yet here he is, responding angelically to the light-filled, delightful atmosphere that the Serpentine always delivers, whether there is an artist in there or not.
The chapel-like mood is continued in the central gallery, where another of the huge car altars is surrounded by a ring of pale paintings, on which Prince has written a series of sad jokes. “A girl phoned me the other day,” begins a particularly forlorn one, “and said, ‘Come over; nobody’s home.’ I went over. Nobody was home.” Lots of artists grow maudlin and reflective as they enter old age, but that isn’t what seems to be going on here. Instead, we should perhaps suspect that the poetic sadness that is such an unmissable feature of this show was there from the start. Indeed, that it is the driving force behind the cowboys, the nurses and the biker girls. Prince’s work, I suggest, has always been secretly fascinated by the beautiful decay of the American dream.
Also hanging in the central gallery is a superb wall-sized cowboy, galloping hard across the prairie as if he is delivering the mail to Tucson, and is late. Cowboys are Prince’s best-known images. Back in the 1970s, he worked as a picture clipper on Time-Life magazines, where his job consisted of cutting out news items from assorted publications and sending them on to journalists. Once the news items had been removed, Prince found himself staring at the adverts that remained, noticing their patterns and repetitions. The cowboy pictures came out of those observations.
Taking as his basis the famous Marlboro ads featuring a manly American cowboy going about his work, Prince removed the logos and the lettering, leaving behind the iconic image of the Marlboro Man himself: tall, handsome, sun-drenched, obsolete. This logo-less iconic cowboy would then be rephotographed so that the resulting work was – pay attention here – an original photograph of a mass-produced unoriginal image.
The cowboy pictures are a minefield. Buckets of critical ink have been spilt discussing the exact meaning of Prince’s brazen “appropriation” and the resulting confusion between an original and its original copy. My advice is to ignore all that. If cultural commentators wish to twist themselves into Baudrillardian knots deconstructing the cowboys, leave them to it while you look at the resulting art and enjoy these mighty images for what they are: exhilarating evocations of the American dream, seen through the sad filter of contemporary longing.
Part of what is being explored here is the tragic paradox that the hard-ridin’ all-American heroes are actually promoting a carcino-genic health risk. Smuggled within their macho message is the bad gene that will destroy them. Stripped of their advertiser’s clutter, the cowboy pictures are such spare and beautiful things. The one in this show quickens the pulse, with its mythic blue skies and resounding desert gallop. And, although common sense suggests Prince is against the macho posturings of the Marlboro Man, my reading of his actual position is that common sense has very little to do with it. Like the big cars and the sexy biker chicks, Marlboro Man represents something that has been lost from modern American life: the freedom of the road, a national positivity, a bigness of desire.
Once you recognise that Prince is secretly in the business of celebrating things it is currently uncool to celebrate, you begin to see everything here in a different light. Instead of the ad-trawling cultural smarty-pants we were expecting, we have here a bold American melancholist who wears his heart – and his gender – on his sleeve. The show might appear pale and wan on its outside, but on the inside it is driven by powerful yearnings. The unclad biker girls ought to be regrettable and shameful, but they’re not. Blokes shouldn’t fancy nurses, but they do. Electric cars are better than Dodge Challengers, but which would you rather drive across Utah?
In the hands of the wrong man, Prince’s political incorrectness might have made him noisy and got him onto Top Gear. Cars, chicks, nurses and lyrics are certainly what he loves. But in the hands of the right man, which Prince indubitably is, the results are so poignant and quiet.