HIPPIES, KATZ, AND DOGG: RICHARD PRINCE'S GOOD REVOLUTION
Interested in the role of subcultures and the vernacular in the construction of American identity, for years Richard Prince has been making work on the sprawling, cross-cultural, revolutionary realm of Marijuana culture—until he ended up launching his own weed strain.
Richard Prince tried marijuana for the first time in 1967 after a Doors concert and got hooked: he didn’t turn into a pothead (he never was addicted), but rather became fascinated with weed’s countercultural sway. Marijuana culture was already a vast, sprawling, cross-cultural, humorous, weird (and often intellectual), revolutionary culture. It was a consistent thread that connected disparate subcultures: the bikers, the Rastafarians, the hippies, the punks, the activists, the freaks, the Beats—all of whom would later become subjects of Prince’s work. If Prince is interested in the roles of subcultures and vernaculars in the construction of American identity, marijuana culture is a wonderful lens through which to look at his work.
This long-standing interest in marijuana culture only came out in the open a few years ago, with his “High Times” series, which takes its title from the eponymous magazine. The first “High Times” show took place at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, in 2016, and featured a curated selection of historical High Times covers, chosen by the artist to reflect subjects common to his oeuvre. The magazine’s editor-at-large was the late Glenn O’Brien, a very close friend of the artist, and most likely his introduction to the publication. Originally, High Times was supposed to be a single issue, as a mockery of Playboy magazine, only replacing sex with weed (rather than a Playmate, the centerfold featured the elected monthly strain)—but the joke took off, and as in Prince’s humorous artworks, it survived and became a trademark. (Prince would further explore Playboy’s history by riffing off its famous cartoons for his “Ripple Paintings” show at New York’s Gladstone Gallery in 2017.) Over the last four years, then, Prince has exploited the cultural ethos of two hugely influential yet countercultural publications. This impulse affirms a deeper interest of the artist, reaching back to 1985’s Wild History: a non-academic, underground yet powerful insight into popular culture. Conceptually, “Wild History” is where historical street credibility is achieved, relayed through magazines, bar conversations, street chit-chat and checks. Some peculiar knowledge can’t be taught in universities; access to this information depends on who you are, or who you know.
“Wild History” is at the very core of Prince’s work—and above it, pot smoke rings might appear, blown not by Prince himself, but by the characters he summons.
With his show “High Times: Hippie Drawings,” which took place during the fall of 2018 at Gagosian, New York, Prince took his “Hippie Drawings” to a massive scale. The seed of this project was actually planted almost fifty years prior: beginning in 1972-73, Prince had started doodling “Dead Heads,” simplified cartoonish heads of hippies in awe. When he moved to the city, he decided to abandon these drawings, only to come back to them some twenty-five years later while looking at his kids’ drawings. He started working on more complete drawings (i.e., full bodies) based on what he thought a hippie would draw. Thus, the “Hippie Drawings” series was born, eventually culminating with his monumental shows at Gagosian. The exhibitions featured a series of large paintings that reinterpret Prince’s original drawings through a variety of combined techniques (oil stick, acrylic, charcoal, collage, inkjet on canvas), Prince here “re-appropriat[ing] himself” as well as Willem De Kooning’s characters’ traits. This eerie army of happy zombies carries a joyful, vibrant ambiance, but with an almost childish sense of naivety. Prince’s hippie crowd is quiet but overwhelming, as each character seems to be singing an exhilarating note, climaxing, enticing the viewer in an infinite loop of ecstatic celebration. You might feel high just by looking at them. In a room annexing these colossal paintings was set an intriguing installation: a spiraling library designed by architect David Adjaye and filled with books supposedly drawn from Prince’s own collection, all bound as if from a prestigious library. “My library is my nightclub,” the artist once said. From this place emanates Prince’s fascination and vast knowledge of “Wild History” icons from the last fifty-years, which contrasts with the apparent anonymity and cluelessness of the hippies in the previous gallery. They are two sides of one coin: the Prince-Adjaye library is sophisticated, avid, curious, austere but open to the ether, while the giant paintings are dumb, stoned, two-dimensional but nonetheless colorful and pulsating. Deep vs. High.
Though the “High Times” exhibitions felt in some ways like new territory for Prince—beyond (or perhaps because of) his choice to appropriate his own output rather than others’, his work had never seemed less guarded, less mordant or (per his critics) less prone to visual or conceptual one-liners—they built on themes he’d established in prior series. One could point back to his “T-Shirt Paintings,” first shown at Salon 94 Bowery, New York, in 2010, which found Prince stretching commonplace garments over canvas before submitting their surfaces to any number of treatments, the results messily painted in abstract acrylics, adorned with buttons bearing irreverent messages, and silkscreened with characteristic content (deadpan jokes, newspaper clippings) as well as some then-unfamiliar, classically stoner touches: a portrait of Jimi Hendrix; CD labels from Led Zeppelin albums; graphic renderings of the word “Woodstock.” One might also look to the artist’s most (in)famous output: 2008’s “Canal Zone” series, which featured altered images taken from porno mags and, as confirmed in the lawsuits that followed, French photographer Patrick Cariou’s 2000 book Yes, Rasta. In the series’ best-known work, Prince selected a Cariou photo of a Rastafarian man standing in the brush, painted blue orbs over his mouth and eyes, and collaged onto his torso a clipped shot of an anonymous musician’s hands soloing on an electric guitar: symbols of music, marijuana and mass media, all condensed into a single image. In both series, then, one finds threads formal (overwriting, willfully primitive mark-making, the blurring of printing and painting) and conceptual (appropriation, subcultural iconographies) that help situate Prince’s pot-friendly works within his broader practice.
Of course, after the “High Times” exhibitions, the natural next step for Prince was to design his own strain of marijuana, which he called Katz + Dogg (Joan Katz and John Dogg being two of Prince’s numerous suspected pseudonyms). A year after the New York show, Prince encouraged visitors of his “High Times: Hippie Drawings” exhibition at Gagosian San Francisco to visit a nearby cannabis lounge where samples of Katz + Dogg’s branded joints and cannabis vape pens, sold in packaging adorned with his art, were on offer. As the company website claims, Katz + Dogg “can aid carving out your own headspace but is also inherently social, bringing all of us freaks together.” Prince goes full circle: born from a fascination for counterculture, he closes the loop by catering to that very audience.
Prince would like to make Katz + Dogg successful (as Larry Gagosian put it, “[…] like [George] Clooney with tequila”), but like any good hippie, he rejects the capitalism of corporate worlds. He figured that the most enjoyable way to make money besides art would be to start a business with an underground clientele. This way, he could remain a disruptor, a maverick, an outsider—a true hippie, in a way. (His previous collaboration with AriZona for Lemon Fizz was born out of his interest in the Arnold Palmer signature drink, but I doubt people really got it.) Capitalism, ownership and identity are mutually reinforcing notions; Prince has always tried to escape them, or at least trick them. As he once wrote on his blog, “Art is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” It’s something marijuana users might like to contemplate upon using his product.
With this latest venture, Prince continues to explore and revisit cultural realms in an unparalleled way. If Glenn O’Brien and Andy Warhol were first in crossing the rubicon of isolated, impermeable cultures (art and advertising; punk, reggae and psychedelic; poems and copy for advertising), Prince now shows us that following the breadcrumbs of potheads can lead you just about anywhere. In his universe, “Hippie Punk” is no longer an oxymoron.
Although Prince insists that he doesn’t produce work while high, everything about these works relates nonetheless to that state: the controlled sloppiness, the organized mess, the multilayering of techniques, the constant reference to music and wild lifestyle. It’s as if Prince emulates the artist producing art under the influence. Everything is set to make us believe the hallucinated quality of his work—the only part missing is the actual high. So here’s a Katz + Dogg vape. Will you try it?