Little House in the Library

Little House in the Library

A recent and intriguingly provocative exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale (BnF) in Paris highlights how space, art, literature, allusions, and inspiration can overlap in physical, metaphysical, and dematerialized ways.

Richard Prince: American Prayer, the first major show of the American artist’s work, focuses on his beloved and extensive collection of classic first editions and pulp fiction, published between 1949 to 1984 (plus James Joyce’s Ulysses.) Curated by Bob Rubin, who owns and has restored Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre, the exhibition—closing in Paris on June 26 but negotiating an American venue—offers an “unprecedented encounter between contemporary art and the book” in the words of the BnF president Bruno Racine.

The centerpiece of the installation is a shingled house designed by architect David Adjaye, who has designed for and collaborated with a long roster of artists including James Casebere, Olafur Eliasson, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Chris Ofili, Lorna Simpson, and Jürgen Teller.

Together Rubin and Adjaye conceived of the house as an archetypical shelter for both the rarities and the curiosities in the collection—there’s a copy of Roots dedicated by Alex Haley to Buckminster Fuller—as well as the idea of free-flowing information finding its way, in a sense home as inspiration.

Rubin described the house that is clad completely in Montana cedar shingles as representative of the French concept l’Amerique profonde, translated variously as “the heartland” or “the hinterlands.“

Rubin also wrote in an email, “I found the shingles in Montana. You can’t get any more "profonde" than the Big Sky state. Needless to say, the BnF people were shocked at the idea. The house seemed way too big on paper (of course, it’s perfect), and the shingles needed to be there months in advance to be fumigated and fireproofed.”

The following is an adaptation from Rubin’s essay in the exhibition catalog:

“What’s the connection between the artist who gave us entertainers, cowboys, nurses, partying Hells Angels and their biker girlfriends, and the hallowed turf of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France—library of kings, repository of how French (and therefore, until recently, the world’s) culture was made, stomping ground of Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, and other titans of Eurocentric critical theory?”

C’est evident.

Books are a huge influence on Prince’s art. Not just what’s in them. He makes art out of books, or parts of books, or even the detritus of publishing. Plus he happens to own one of the finest collections of modern Americana in private hands: first editions, manuscripts, author’s letters, and inscribed copies of Nabokov, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Salinger, Capote, Kesey, Pynchon; multimedia material from Warhol, the Velvet Underground, Jim Morrison (whose poem and posthumous album An American Prayer are the inspiration for the show’s title), Bob Dylan, R. Crumb, and Jimi Hendrix; and iconic material from four American authors Philip K. Dick, Jim Thompson, Richard Brautigan, and Chester Himes, whose reputations are bigger in France than in the United States. For American Prayer he mixes the gems of his collection with his own art. The resulting gestalt is a typology of American subcultures—science fiction, fantasy, pulp, porn, comics, and rock and roll—and their denizens—cowboys, space cowboys, bikers, beatniks, hippies, and punks. The links are telling: Richard Brautigan’s fishing license comes with an inscribed first edition of Trout Fishing in America. Ken Kesey’s autographed helmet from the bus sits next to the original manuscript of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Koolaid Acid Test. Then there’s a plaster cast of Jimi Hendrix’ penis (remember the Plaster Casters?) with Jimi’s handwritten letters from the road to his father. Blend in the obscure smut that the BnF automatically receives from publishers as a matter of French law, dépôt légal. Until Prince (a fan of nurses in uniform, and not) came along, most of this stuff had never seen the light of day. A few boxes of photo-book porn from the BnF’s deep reserves were sent to Prince and came back stickered with Prince’s signature dots, to strategic effect.

The 600-page English catalog for the show, co-published by the BnF and Gagosian Gallery and distributed by Rizzoli, is a collage of texts from the Beat, Hippie, and Punk eras. There is also a catalog in French, introduced by the cult magazine Purple’s own Jeff Rian.

Prince has sometimes been called a thief, or, worse yet, an appropriation artist. But, as American novelist Jonathan Lethem explains in the catalog, the use of others’ intellectual property should not be considered theft but rather the beauty of second use. And, to paraphrase Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, it’s better to rob a book than a safe because at least you can carefully examine its contents before perpetrating the crime.”