Executed in 2007, Untitled (The Velvets) is a scintillating large-scale work by Richard Prince. The artist presents a vibrant, mosaic-like diptych formed of repeated images of four members of the Velvet Underground. Arranged in ten rows of twenty-eight, their teeming, iterated faces appear to have been reproduced by silkscreen en masse when viewed from a distance; closer inspection reveals that in fact no sequence is repeated, and that each face has been individually collaged onto the canvas. The artist has transformed a 1966 press shot taken in Los Angeles, separating the band’s faces into individual “tiles” and reimagining the black and white original in red and black ink. Vivid acrylic paint—white, yellow, turquoise, purple and blue—bleeds between the gaps of the work’s grid-like arrangement, further disrupting its seemingly mechanical facture. The work’s composition echoes the monumental Marilyn Monroe diptychs like Marilyn x 100 that Andy Warhol made in the early 1960s; Prince also appears to be riffing on the Velvet Underground’s association with Warhol, who was the band’s manager and designed the cover of their infamous 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico. This work is no straightforward homage, however. Where his Pop forerunners relied on a clear, sometimes condescending divide between their artistic acts and mass-media subject matter, Prince, the king of Appropriation Art, blurs the lines between appreciation and critique in his work. A mercurial and chameleonic figure, he inhabits the roles of consumer and hijacker at once, recontextualizing his source material in ways that can make the familiar jarringly strange. The present work’s subtitle, The Velvets, implies a casual familiarity with the band, as if the artist is striking a pose of teenage fandom; its handmade appearance lends it an aspect of fetishism and devotion. The Velvet Underground embody a brand of rebellious New York cool with which Prince—a child of ’68 himself—is undoubtedly identified. But sincerity and irony are impossible to pull apart in Prince’s art. As Rosetta Brooks has written of his use of photographs, “The suggestion is that Prince is also reclaiming his own identity in these works, taking it back from the manipulators whose presentation of reality he, like everyone else, almost fell for. Of course, due to the muteness of intent … it would be wrong to set store by anything Prince may say about his work. His reluctance to specify his intentions is also our freedom to travel through the work” (R. Brooks, “A Prince of Light of Darkness?” Richard Prince, London 2003, pp. 38-39).
The Velvet Underground made their way into Prince’s writings as early as 1983, in a short text titled “Overdetermination.” Prince allows a glimpse into his artistic ideas in typically elliptical fashion, through a story about a fictional female character struggling to situate herself in the nexus of signifiers that forms the cultural world of New York. “One of his friends said she wanted, what she did, to have a kind of mix, a cross perhaps, between the Velvet Underground and the Beachboys… she just thought the worlds were interesting and there was, she felt, no reason she couldn’t be a citizen of both. This of course is not to say she wasn’t aware of the blackness, the leather, the shininess of the Underground… or the sunshine, surf and sand, associated with the Beachboys. But she knew too that these things were descriptions, ways of fabricating a sense (surrounding the attraction), a way to put your finger on them and make whatever they were supposed to be, easier to swallow … a lot of ‘things’ that were hardly thought about in the middle of a crowd, late at night, with eyes shut tight … jerking about in a room in a building, way down at the end of the city, where there was no such thing as the one and only, the honest to goodness, or the genuine article …” (R. Prince, “Overdetermination,” 1983, Richard Prince, London 2003, p. 117).
The girl’s characterization of the “descriptions” or images of the two bands as useful merely as a way “to put your finger on them,” or of “fabricating a sense”—an illusion forgotten in the whirl of the real world, where “the genuine article” has disappeared—sheds some light on Prince’s own approach to images and authenticity. Images, whether in the form of fine art, advertisements or cinema, are not inert or self-contained, but act to mediate our experiences and desires. What we take as “genuine” is contingent on a chain of other images. Prince’s appropriations and recontextualizations, which scrutinize all forms of visual media, are a way of taking back control. They aim to uncover the images’ ideological mechanisms, and destabilize our perceived sense of reality in the process. His Joke Paintings, Cowboys, Girlfriends and Nurses are all forms of cultural provocation, pirating the familiar to expose the image’s agenda as an artificial structure of meaning. Prince reasserts authorship of his visual and cultural surroundings, creating a picture that “appears to be truer than it really is” (R. Prince, “Overdetermination,” 1983, Richard Prince, London 2003, p. 117).
The Velvet Underground’s sunglasses—repeated dozens of times across the canvas of Untitled (The Velvets)—are a classic visual shorthand for impenetrable cool, and an apt emblem for Prince’s own mask-like opacity as an artistic persona. They are nothing more than an image, but Prince has dropped frequent hints that the rebel spirit that they signify has had a real and important impact on his life. He had posters of Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock on his bedroom wall as a child growing up in Braintree, Massachusetts, and he claims that it was a photograph of Kline—the macho hero of Abstract Expressionism—staring out of a window of his New York studio that prompted him to move to the city and become an artist. Whenever he saw photographs of film stars or musicians as a boy, he remembers thinking “Who gave him permission to look like that?! ... And where the fuck do you get clothes like that?! The answer was always New York” (R. Prince, quoted in S. Daly, “Repo Man: Richard Prince’s Outside Streak,” Vanity Fair, December 2007). Today, he maintains a vast library of rare and valuable editions of beatnik literature, underground magazines and other relics of mid-century hipster culture; a poster for a cancelled LA concert by The Velvets themselves even hangs on the wall. Rebellion is a state of mind, and Prince’s own attitude to critical opinion and copyright lawsuits makes him at once an insider and punk bandit of the art world. “Richard, I think, he does like to play the bad boy, the outlaw,” says Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth (K. Gordon, quoted in C. Swanson, “Richard Prince,” New York Magazine, April 18, 2016). Indeed, Prince’s rock credentials were cemented when Gordon chose one of his Nurse paintings for the band’s 2004 album cover. He is an icon of cool even as he dismantles its codes. Untitled (The Velvets)—an image of an image, real but illusory, stolen but original, coolly detached yet charged with the bright glow of desire—is a contradictory, enigmatic and captivating embodiment of Prince’s pictorial project.