Begin with this; I had no desire to revisit the controversy created by Richard Prince’s original appropriation of Norm Clasen’s cowboy photographs. Back in the 80s Prince copied images made by Clasen, taking Clasen’s work and making it into “his own”, a well-known story. Prince’s appropriations, the art world furor, the court battles and the Supreme Court outcome are all part of art history now. Like most photographers I found the legal outcome troubling at the time and Prince the bad guy. But recently the Los Angeles County Museum of Art showed new versions of the Prince appropriations and M+B Photo a Los Angeles gallery counterprogramed by showing Norm Clasen; TITLED (COWBOY), prints of the original images shown as an opportunity for people to see the originals and to engage viewers in contemplation about the issues raised by the original appropriations.
I went to see both shows with my attitude fixed. I’d seen the stories, read the opinions and understood the issues as a working photographer. I thought I knew what I would see. But it turned out after looking at the pictures that it wasn’t that simple.
Norm Clasen first. Norm Clasen spent parts of thirteen years photographing the Marlboro cowboys in the locations he made iconic. His pictures are beautifully and traditionally made. He found perfect locations, waited for perfect light, had the cowboys (working cowboys acting as actors at the moments depicted) doing real ranch hand chores. Because Clasen rode and understood horses he was not afraid to ask the cowboys to do difficult things, once getting on a horse to demonstrate the possibility of the shot he wanted to do. The results are iconic, deeply in the consciousness of anybody who grew up in the age of cigarette billboards and magazine ads. Clasen’s prints, newly made and shown on the walls of M+B are gorgeous and evocative.
Richard Prince didn’t do any of those things. Instead in this new work he once again ripped pages filled with Marlboro ads from copies of 1980s Life magazines. Then he scanned them and produced extremely large prints (6’ x 8’) of the reproductions. In theory the similarity between the images was clear. In reality I found the work startlingly changed. From the moment I walked into the room they filled me with a very different emotional response. Something had happened to the original photos on the trip from traditional photographic process to these re-seen images. They had become pictorialist homages to the original work, so different in tonal scale, palette and method of forming the image as to act in a very different way on the senses. When I say method of forming the image what I mean is that seen at the macro level the fundamental material of the image had become different. At the boundaries between colors the tiny dots of the magazine ink overlapped, fuzzing the hard lines, softening the image and making it more an impressionist interpretation than a reproduction. The inclusion of the torn edge of the pages, sometimes with scotch tape running across the gutters, made this as much about the magazine as the work it contained. The giant prints invited you to examine this phenomenon. They give you the opportunity to see deep into the image and explore what it was made of.
By the way, as far as I know my reactions to the emotions created by his process are not Prince’s argument for the legality of his appropriations and I don’t care. I’m sidestepping the legal question and I’m doing it consciously. I am not Solomon and I have neither the skill nor the desire to decide where those lines should be drawn. What I know is that these two bodies of work evoke very different emotional responses in me. Both are wonderfully made and both display qualities of art. In some world somewhere I’d like to see these pictures hanging side by side so that others could have the experience of seeing how much pictorial outcome is shaped by the artist and how different it can feel even when the source material is “identical.”
Andy Romanoff is a photographer and writer based in Los Angeles, USA.
Norm Clasen: Titled (Cowboy)
March 3 – April 21, 2018
1050 N Cahuenga Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Richard Prince: Untitled (Cowboy)
December 3 to March 25, 2018
5905 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036