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Can Artists Really Disown Their Early Work?

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Like most of us, the artist Richard Prince wishes he hadn't done certain things earlier in his life. The things in question are paintings, drawings, collages and etchings that he produced in the 1970s, before he became in the 1980s a celebrated neo-conceptual artist known for appropriating -- and offering commentaries on -- images from advertising and elsewhere. Prince claims to have destroyed 500 of these early works: "Just ripped them up," he said in a 1988 Flash Art magazine interview, "put them in garbage bags." Why? "I didn't like the work I did 10 or so years ago."

He didn't destroy everything, however. He couldn't. A certain number of these pieces were sold during the 1970s, to corporations (Prudential Insurance owns the largest single number of them), museums (the Brooklyn Museum, Walker Art Center and Worcester Art Museum, among others) and private individuals, and it was from these collections that the Neuberger Museum of the State University of New York at Purchase borrowed works for an exhibition a few years back, "Fugitive Artist: The Early Work of Richard Prince, 1974-77." The artist refused to participate in the staging of this exhibit and, as he is still the legal copyright holder, refused to allow any images to be included in the catalogue or on exhibition announcements. Prince isn't disowning or disavowing these pieces (he acknowledges that he made them and cashed the checks he received for them) but is claiming that these early works no longer represent him. He is simply rescinding his approval of them as no longer representing his mature artistic vision.

Can, or should, an artist define what is his or her career output? Following his lead, recent monographs on Prince omit his artwork before the late 1970s; likely, his agreement to cooperate with the authors of these books -- as well as with museum curators interested in retrospectives -- was contingent on that omission. The artist's biography, listed on the Web site of his current New York dealer Barbara Gladstone, lists no exhibitions prior to 1980. Much of the remainder of the art world has followed suit. The Guggenheim Museum in New York, which is organized a touring Richard Prince retrospective, also dates the artist's career from 1980 on its Web site: "Since his first solo exhibition, at Artists Space in New York in 1980...." In this, the Guggenheim is following the lead of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which staged the last retrospective of Prince in 1992 and did not include a single early work by the artist, although a few mid-1970s pieces were mentioned in the catalogue. Nancy Spector, contemporary art curator at the Guggenheim who put together the Prince retrospective, noted that "we tend to respect the artist's wishes" when selecting works for an exhibition.

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which loaned a 1975 Richard Prince collage titled "Can I Say Rock N Roll" for the Neuberger exhibition that had been donated to the museum in 1984 by a private collector, otherwise keeps the artwork in storage, because "it's not our policy to exhibit a work without the artist's wishes," said Siri Enberg, visual arts curator at the Walker. "It's important to maintain a close relationship with the artist," adding that where there are differences in opinion "generally, we err on the side of the artist's wishes." The Walker Art Center will be one of the tour sites for the Prince retrospective.

Neither Prince nor Gladstone would comment on the artist's attitude toward his early work, although statements made in published interviews may offer a clue. While he claimed in 1988 that "I didn't like the work I did 10 or so years ago," Prince told an interviewer from ArtForum in 2003 that "Nobody bought my early work. I couldn't even give it away." Rosetta Brooks, who co-authored a monograph (Richard Prince, Phaidon, 2003), speculated that the artist's decision to destroy his early work was "a bonehead move on his part. He didn't think those '70s works would ever be worth anything, and he knows now that he has none of them left. He can't make any money out of them, so he might as well criticize them."

Another reason for Prince's actions, not stated by him but by supporters that, in accordance with the spirit of the federal Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, the artist's "decision whether to exhibit work or not should be respected," according to critic John Perreault. That law establishes that "the artist shall have the right to prevent the use of his or her name as the author of the work of visual art in the event of a distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation." Technically, Perrault conceded, the Neuberger Museum was legally "off the hook," but the artist's view of these works as damaging to his career needs to be supported rather than ignored.

Certainly, Prince isn't the first artist to destroy pieces he didn't like, nor the first to declare certain pieces outside of his true body of work. Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96) sought to write out of the historical record a large number of the two- and three-dimensional pieces he created during his career, calling them "additional material" and "non-works," "no longer acknowledged by the artist as constituting art and hence stricken-by him-from the oeuvre," according to an essay in the catalogue raisonne´ of his work completed in 1997. These non-works are not titled, as opposed to untitled, which are the titles of most of Gonzalez-Torres' creations. The Manhattan art dealer representing Gonzalez-Torres' estate, Andrea Rosen, noted that "we don't and wouldn't sell" these "non-works," although she acknowledged that these works show up from time to time at auction. "They sell for less" than the pieces the artist did view as constituting art, she added.

(Adding, perhaps, more confusion to Gonzalez-Torres' career, a posthumous work that the artist described in notes but never physically realized, was created for the Venice Biennale in 2007, under the supervision of the Guggenheim's Nancy Spector. She stated that that the artist left drawings and descriptions of different kinds of materials, from local stone to just stone to concrete, so "it's kind of a variable range." There was also what she called "a suggestion of height." Presumably, the artist would have approved of the final results.)
Prince's intention to write out of existence his early work came as a slap in the face to some of the art dealers who had exhibited and sold those pieces. "If I were a sensitive type, I would be angry and extremely hurt," said New York City gallery owner Kathryn Markel, who showed Prince in the mid-1970s and owns several of these works, all of which were loaned to the Neuberger Museum exhibit. "It's not up to an artist to say when his career begins. What makes him that that he should have come out full-blown, as though from the head of Zeus, as a mature artist? Like every other artist, he has an early period, a middle period and a late period." Another Manhattan dealer who had shown and sold Prince's early work, Ellen Sragow, called the artist's stance a "publicity stunt. It has certainly gotten a lot of people to talk about his work, more than if he had not made such a big deal" about his early work. She, as Markel, owns a number of mid-1970s pieces, which were included in the Neuberger exhibition.
Neither dealer has made any moves to sell these artworks, but neither are worried that Prince's disavowal of them would affect the level of interest or prices adversely. "The art market generally pays no attention to what an artist says about his or her work," Sragow noted. "Artists are notoriously poor judges of their own work."

Some of the private collectors who loaned works to the Neuberger Museum exhibition seemed to agree. Rose Marie Frick, an art dealer in Brunswick, Maine who had purchased a number of early Prince works for the collection of the Prudential Insurance Company, when she worked there as a corporate curator, and two others for herself, stated that she had been looking to sell hers. "I had bought these works from Kathy Markel years ago and, recently, consigned them back to her to sell," she said. It was through Markel that Frick learned of the Neuberger Museum show, and the dealer had recommended that the two consigned collages -- "Untitled (Que la tortilla se vuelva)" and "Untitled (Table Beach Southern Maine)," both from 1975 -- be loaned for the exhibition. "I thought that was a great idea," Frick said. "The works would get museum exposure before I sell them." She claimed that, at the time, she was unaware that the artist had not cooperated with the museum and publicly denigrated his early work. ("I had called up the registrar at the museum, wondering if I should show up for the opening. I asked if the artist would be there, and she said 'Are you kidding?'") However, because of the exhibition and especially Prince's comments about these works, Frick wants the works back. "Maybe, I'll sell them. Kathy had thought before the show opened that they might go for $10,000 apiece, but maybe now I can do better than that, and without paying a dealer commission on the sale."

Another lender to the exhibition, Angus Whyte, a former gallery owner in Boston who had exhibited Prince's work there in 1973 and '74 and subsequently moved to San Francisco, stated that, "as soon as things are shown, and the show comes down, I'm going to sell all the Richard Prince works I have, if I can figure out how to do it." He expressed anger at the artist's "astonishing and pretentious" decision to deny his early work and the people who exhibited and sold that work. In mid-2006, Whyte contacted the sales staff at both Christie's and Sotheby's about the prices for Prince's early pieces and was given an over-the-telephone estimate of $15,000-20,000, "which would not be adequate. I think I can do better."

Readers of fiction are undoubtedly pleased that Franz Kafka's friend Max Brod chose to ignore Kafka's death-bed directive to destroy all his writings, instead giving the world a group of celebrated novels, short stories and the word "Kafkaesque." Few artists and writers haven't tossed out something and, sometimes, quite a lot; those works may be mistakes or, perhaps, the artist makes a mistake in discarding them. An artist's entire body of work is often sprawling, including student work, pieces that show someone else's strong influence, some serious drawings and others that are more like doodling, a number of strong, unique pieces and others that seem to rehash old ideas. One needs not only a clear set of criteria for judging art but for establishing when a career properly began, and all these determinations can seem arbitrary.

Perhaps, as a growing number of museums focus their acquisitions and exhibition programming on contemporary art, the competing issues of curators seeking to examine the work of living artists from an historical vantage point and the career and market concerns of those very artists will result in other stand-offs. "We're not a function of the commercial art world," said Tom Collins, director of the Neuberger Museum. "Our job is to mount important, strong shows like this, which demonstrates the transformation of a conceptual artist of the 1970s to an appropriation artist in the 1980s." Still, it is that very market, with its high prices that compels museum officials to court the favor of artists, that may determine how recent art history is told.

To Siri Enberg, "it can be frustrating to artists that, as soon as their work leaves their studios, they've lost control over how it is used, collected and exhibited. The gesture of disavowal may be a way to regain that control." Addition, "the act of publicly disavowing one's own art is making a new piece out of the act of disavowal," a conceptual statement that the older work is "not part of an artist's conceptual plan." Conceptual artist John Baldessari did just that in 1970 when he burnt all of the paintings he had created between 1953 and 1966 as part of a new piece, titled "The Cremation Project." The ashes from these paintings were baked into cookies and placed into an urn, and the resulting art installation consists of a bronze plaque with the destroyed paintings' birth and death dates, as well as the recipe for making the cookies.