Richard Prince most recently came to the bemused attention of people outside the art world in 2005 when his ‘re-photograph’ of a cowboy, lifted with deliberate crudeness from a Marlboro cigarette advertisement, became the first photo to fetch more than a million dollars at auction. A similar photograph of a photograph, showing another American icon riding his horse against a cloudy blue sky is on display at the Serpentine Gallery, as part of Continuation, a retrospective of Prince’s career which opens today [Thu 26th June 08] Since the seventies he’s enjoyed a controversial reputation on the international art scene for his witty appropriations of popular culture, which have given rise to as many lawsuits as they’ve raised philosophical questions about authenticity and authorship – in 1983, for example, he was sued by Brooke Shields, whose naked prepubescent image he re-photographed, under the title ‘Spiritual America’. His cowboys are jostled by kitsch nurses taken from fifties and sixties pulp novels, by biker chicks and hot-rodders and rock stars. He’s framed celebrity cheques and made large text-paintings of cheesy Borscht-belt jokes. In the bon mot of New York scene commentator (and long time friend) Glenn O’Brien “he is to Andy Warhol what Jean Luc Picard is to Captain James T. Kirk”. In short, he’s about as far away from the Romantic notion of the artist as original creator, breathing life into raw material through the operation of his unique genius, as it’s possible to get.
All of this means he might not be the first person you’d expect to hear rhapsodising about the relationship between James Joyce and il miglior fabbro Ezra Pound. Yet Prince the appropriator, the repeater, the image-thief, is also a compulsive collector. In fact, he’s one of the world’s great bibliophiles. In recent years, his passion for books, particularly twentieth-century modern literature, has been fuelled by enormous injections of cash, thanks to the eye-popping prices his work now commands: the latest cowboy photograph to come to auction sold for $3.4 million. Those photos are in editions of two, by the way, plus an artist’s proof. Do the sums. By contrast, books are cheap. The record price for a signed first edition of Ulysses is $460,000. As one of the victors of the art-boom, Prince now has the financial muscle to compete with institutions for archives and estates. His library, a converted 1820’s building in the tiny town of Rensselaerville, in upstate New York, houses a major collection of twentieth century first editions, proofs, manuscripts and letters, including work by Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Sylvia Plath, Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs and Vladimir Nabokov, alongside an extraordinary array of magazines and ephemera, from detective pulp to Black Panther propaganda. Some of this work has found its way into art, in the form of recent pieces incorporating first editions into pieces of furniture. Prince brought much of this work to the UK for the Serpentine exhibition, but decided against showing it. “It didn’t work. I would need these walls to be out about five feet more.”
In the flesh Prince isn’t a flamboyant figure. There’s a cultural trace of the seventies New York downtown scene in the cropped greying hair, the rumpled black suit and tennis shoes. He speaks with the deliberation and confidence of someone who owns a lot of real estate and runs a studio operation that has grown in complexity and ambition to include a fully-working car bodyshop. Friendly without being the slightest bit ingratiating, there’s an awkwardness about him that suggests he finds socialising not altogether straightforward, a reserve that doesn’t quite mask a strain of fierce acquisitive pride, the raw machismo of someone who gets his kicks out of finding and possessing something no one else owns. “As a book collector, what you want is the copy that you wouldn’t dream of having, that you wouldn’t think was out there,” he says, before listing several such copies he’s recently bagged, tagged and dragged back to his cave, which takes the form of a fire-proof, water-proof, electronically secure walk-in safe in the library, a “depository”, as he terms it, for the three thousand odd “really rare” items (he has no idea how many books he has in total), each lovingly conserved and presented in a slipcase made by a local craftsman. His collecting practise seems to bleed seamlessly into his art – there’s the same wish to enshrine things, to make connections between them.
Here are some cool things Richard Prince owns: Nabokov’s desk copy of the Olympia Press first edition of Lolita, heavily corrected and annotated, a letter written by Sylvia Plath the day before she killed herself, the only known copy of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key to retain its original dust-cover ($175,000 to you, sir), Jimi Hendrix’s letters to his dad, Neal Cassady’s copy of On The Road, Kerouac’s previously unknown original scroll manuscript of Big Sur (twice as long as the published book), the manuscript of The Godfather as well as the letter in which the editor suggested changing the title from “The Mafia” to “The Godfather”, letters by Thomas Pynchon written in the late sixties, while he was at work on Gravity’s Rainbow, and … I’ll stop for a moment and let you catch your breath. Is there a logic to it? Or is this just a man who loves reading, and has the money to indulge his tastes? “A slight logic,” Prince admits. “An artificial limit. The collection is supposed to start in 1949, the year I was born. Since Orwell’s 1984 was published in 1949 – I’ve got a great copy – I decided to end it in 1984. I thought that’d be funny. I set that up about five years ago. There’s also obviously some art books, but mostly there’s photography, and there are three cultural aspects – beats, hippies and punks – any book that has to do with those social movements, as well as fine literature. Some authors are very specific, like Kerouac, Kesey, Richard Brautigan. I love Brautigan. But I do go outside - I have Hemingway. You have to have a Joyce.”
That’s how you tell when someone has a real collecting kink. I have Hemingway. As frankly fetishistic as his paintings of masked nurses. I find hearing about Prince’s collection hugely enjoyable. I know I probably ought to feel bad about that.
Is there an end point ? Now he has a “dream copy” of Ulysses and can spend Saturday mornings alphabetising in his own personal two-storey library, where is there to go? “I think the end point will come when the catalogue is done. I’ll design it and it’ll be an artist’s book. Probably three volumes. I’ll be able to enjoy the collection sitting down on a chair in my place. Anyway, I’m beginning to think it needs someone to take care of it, someone who can really take care of it. Eventually it’ll either go up for auction, or to an institution, or an institution will come and say we want to run the library, keep it intact. So those are the three options, and whether or not I will cherry pick fifteen of the books and some of the letters, I don’t know. I have - it’s going to be very difficult to part with my letters from Kerouac to Neal Cassady…”
- an edited version of this piece appeared in the Daily Telegraph