Busted Open Abstraction: Fritz Chesnut on Richard Prince

Painter Fritz Chesnut first stumbled across Richard Prince, the artist whose repurposed photographs of cowboys, bikers and open roads made Americana sexier and more sinister, when still an undergraduate in Santa Cruz. “I think I was in the library just combing through books,” he says. “I remember discovering Rauschenberg the same way. Just grabbing this big glossy book and thumbing through it and being completely fascinated.” - Catherine Wagley, LA Contributor

Richard Prince |  Untitled (Upstate), 1995-99, Ektacolor photograph, 40 x 60 inches, 101.6 x 152.4 cm

Prince’s fascination with fandom and subcultures resonated with him. “It constantly reminds me of the dark side of American life,” says Chesnut, who moved to New York in the ‘90s and stayed for over a decade. In N.Y., he made photorealistic paintings of pop culture niches: characters in a crowd (like a group of teens outside The Today Show, wrapped in blankets and wearing bandanas on their heads) or karaoke singers (like the guy, head thrown back, singing AC/DC’s Back in Black).  “I look at this work now and can see a direct influence of Prince's work.” Like Prince’s images of heavy metal fans and biker girls, Chesnut’s painting got uncomfortably close to a culture he wasn’t quite part of.

Richard Prince | Untitled (Cowboy), 1989, Chromogenic print. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006)

Richard Prince | Untitled (girlfriend), 1993, Ektacolor photograph, 60 x 40 inches, Edition of 2.

But by 2009, he’d become an Angelino, and all the figures had disappeared from his work. “I remember being in N.Y., being close to people on the subway, looking at people right in front of you, and then, in L.A., driving off at night, looking a mile ahead,” he reflects. “When I moved to L.A., I felt like I had to do something different.” Amorphous marks that looked like perspiration, fog, or fluid dragged across a windshield by inefficient wipers replaced his former realism.

Richard Prince |  The Velvet Beach, 1984-85, Ektacolor photograph, 86 x 48 inches

Still, his work has more in common with the 1980s appropriationists and Pictures Generation artists than Neo Ab-Ex painters; his marks have a slick, photographic quality that suggests magazine ads and graphics are part of their lineage. “Many of these ‘80s artists busted open abstraction and made it new again the way it wasn't okay to do in the ‘70s,” Chesnut explains. “[In Prince’s work] I see some connection to the idea of freedom and how abstract painting works to depict freedom. Sometimes abstract painting to me can seem wonderful in dealing with vague associations. But sometimes I get I get a horrible nihilistic sense from abstract art. I think I see both nihilism and transcendence in Prince's work.”


Fritz Chesnut is a painter living and working in L.A. He is represented by Country Club Projects and recently exhibited at the Museum of Public Fiction and Pepin Moore gallery.

Fritz Chesnut | Doppelgängers, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 210" x 34"

Fritz Chesnut |  Reinvention, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 54 inches

Richard Prince is a painter and photographer who began making art with appropriated images in New York in the late 1970s. He now lives and works in upstate New York.

Catherine Wagley writes about art in L.A. and contributes to the LA Weekly, Photograph, the Art21 Blog and Dailyserving.com, among other publications.

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