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Cars and cigarettes, nurses and nonsense–Prince’s dry toast at the Guggenheim

Richard Prince's crazy car in the lobby of the Guggenheim Museum.
Richard Prince’s crazy car in the lobby of the Guggenheim Museum.

“What’s the last thing you’ve seen in New York that really excited you?” Steve asked me after we saw Richard Prince’s Guggenheim show and felt like we’d had the life sucked out of us. I thought long and hard on that and came up with a list of public art and museum shows. Tim Hawkinson at the Whitney, The Gates, Janet Cardiff’s walk in Central Park. Even Doug Aitken’s MoMA videos last February. Could I think of a Chelsea show that marked my memory for the ages? Zoe Strauss at Silverstein on the plus side… Mike Kelley’s teen sock hop torture chamber at Gagosian on the down side.

Richard Prince, Guggenheim
How can a car compete with the aesthetics of this museum? My head turned away from my Prince and to my Guggenheim at every bend in the road.

Maybe contemporary art is played out. It’s been suggested by greater brains than mine. It’s not only that there seem to be no new ideas. But what’s out there is tired and doesn’t know it — or doesn’t seem to care.

Richard Prince, with his bad joke paintings (which took two whole Guggenheim spirals to get through) is dry stuff in the mouth. Even though he’s (presumably) mocking the bad, misogynistic material that is the mainstay of contemporary American jokes, so bloody what? We all know bad material when we encounter it. Tell us something new.

Let each man exercise the art he knows
From the entryway of the Guggenheim Museum.

Maybe it’s like the golden embossment in the museum’s entryway says, each person should exercise the art she knows, and Prince is doing just that. But don’t we want more from art than just what we know? We all know those Marlboro photographs are beautiful and that they’re used for selling something bad. We know that. Tell us something more.

The one thing I appreciated about Prince was his object-making ability. The baby-pink and baby-blue colored car hood sculptures are lovely to look at. The fact that they’re tricked out to resemble coffins or ash receptacles and thus seem imbued with death doesn’t detract from their ability to engage as objects. I was willing to look past the fact that these, too, didn’t say much to me (cars = death–tell us something new) because I liked their aesthetics. And I was looking for something, anything to like in a show that drove me again and again to look away from it and at the gloriousness of the museum itself, one hunk of a piece of art.

Ralph Lauren, Madison Ave.
Ralph Lauren window fantasy on upper Madison Ave.

After leaving the Guggenheim (which also has a traveling show of East European photographs — Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945 — from the National Gallery — two thumbs up!!) we walked down Madison Avenue and ran into a bit of advertising folly in a Ralph Lauren window that spoke to me more than Prince’s advertising-fueled works. Here, with manikins, faux horses, faux snow and woods, was a grown ups Hansel and Gretel fantasy with sex and booze and cowboy hats that made no pretensions to be anything other than what it was — completely over the top crazy. This window is so ludicrous it is having fun with itself and with the whole consumer fantasy thing Prince is poking fun at. That’s a joke I can laugh at.

Ralph Lauren, Madison Ave.
There are four Ralph Lauren windows, each with the horseys and booze and snow and princes and princesses. Decadent in the way of our culture and weird in the way of our culture but the earnestness and the play between wink, wink and sell, sell was captivating.

These windows with their Hollywood movie-chasing ambiance have an earnestness to them that makes them appealing despite themselves. Compared to what I’d just seen at the museum — work that seemed to be biting its nails and looking in the mirror and coming up dry and resorting to irony in the end — Ralph Lauren is refreshing.

Prince is making stuff and spitting it out there daring you to care for it. But it’s not enough; it’s just too dry and contemptuous. It’s bereft of humor and it’s telling you to feel bad. I have to reject art that wishes you a headache. It’s like those “welcome” mats that say “Go Away.” Who needs em?

More fabulous Guggenheim Museum shots at flickr.