In a 1927 article on fetishism Sigmund Freud allowed that a person who erotically fixated on an inanimate object had found a substitute for their perceived missing phallus. He gave as an example a young male patient who had fetishized the "shine on the nose" of a woman. In fixating on this elusive phenomenon, the patient had chosen as his erotic object a condition that characterized eroticized elements in general; that is, they cannot actually be possessed and therefore are eternally elusive. The desired thing is ultimately ungraspable.
In some ways the work of Richard Prince has been an investigation into the American fetish object for decades. His car hood sculptures, reproduced images of Brooke Shields and Hollywood movie star promo pictures, and silk-screened paintings of jokes and cartoons from those ultimate fetish-culture publications Playboy and The New Yorker have all been about aesthetic depictions of things that he perceived our post-modern culture to be in pursuit of, though never obtaining. Even his Hoods series of wall relief sculptures, with their shiny surfaces referring to 1960s L.A. Finish Fetish artists, such as Robert Irwin or John McCracken, follows Freud's theorization as a prescribed methodology.
Prince's recent exhibition 14 Paintings might be seen as either an extension of this investigation or an attempt to obviate his previous works. Following a simple, consistent method, Prince stretches black rubber bands, staples them into geometric, many-sided figures over a newspaper ground painted a mottled white, à la Jasper Johns. This programmatic approach, which emphasizes the "reveal" of his process, gives a nod to sculptors such as Richard Tuttle, as well as geometric abstraction paintings like those of Al Held at the same time. Pieces such as "Untitled" (2011) or "Untitled" (2011) are uniform equivalents. In fact, taken as a whole, this series comes across as more of a diagrammatic study of architecture or geometry than painterly studies. Where Prince does allow his usual sardonic humor to slip through is in his statement/press release. He writes, possibly giving us an entry into the thinking behind the work:
"Some people see leaves falling from a tree and see it as, leaves falling from a tree. Others see it as an inexhaustible mystery of the signified from the mundane closed-off simulation of a world sign.
"The world is intolerably dreary. You escape it by seeing and naming what had heretofore been unspeakable.
"The best images have sensations of unreality, illimitable vastness, brilliant light, and the gloss and smoothness of material things."
In essence, Prince is presenting us with something like a Rorschach Test of Minimalist painting. It is an aestheticized, fetish object, but only if we see it that way. In 1938, Theodor Adorno analyzed the phantasmagorical effects of Richard Wagner's theory of Gesamtkunstwerk, as developed in the Ring cycle of operas, arguing that the dreamlike escape from everyday life, which sought to envelope the spectator in an all-encompassing aesthetic experience of music, words, and images, relied on astounding arrays of effects and infinitely repeated musical motifs. Adorno called this "an atomization of the material -- which breaks it down into the smallest possible components," and he compares it to modern industrial labor processes, or modern architecture, with its emphasis on quotidian materials and ugly functionality.
The hostility of such works to the physical, sensuous body can be compared with a phenomenon described by Walter Benjamin in his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Benjamin writes that modern aesthetic techniques, such as film and photography (which we could expand to include digital media), has broken down the "cult value" or "aura" of the art object -- its "personality" so to speak. It has been rendered democratized, the aesthetic equivalent of Wonder Bread. In some ways this speaks directly to what Prince is doing in these paintings. He has created objects that mock the fetishization of his earlier works, yet in the process of debasing his concept through these manufactured, mundane works, he has come up with something that can best be described as abject fetishism. To paraphrase Marie Antoinette, Prince is having the best of both worlds, eating his Wonder Bread and having it too. - Bradley Rubenstein
303 Gallery is at 547 West 21st Street in New York, New York.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.