Beyond the city limits

France has not produced a world-class artist since the mid-20th century and Paris’s postwar collapse as global art capital, usurped by New York, then London, was total. Can the city regain momentum to become a 21st-century cultural centre and, if it does, will it change the way contemporary art is perceived?

When plans for Bernard Arnault’s Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation were halted by bureaucratic obstacles in February, Frank Gehry, architect for the glassy cloud-shaped project, called his opponents “uncouth philistines ... With their little tight-fitting suits, they want to put Paris into formalin.” This sounds familiar: five years ago, Arnault’s rival François Pinault abandoned attempts to build a museum in Paris and relocated to Venice. At the same time, German collector Frieder Burda, noting that “for the French, only French art is important”, jettisoned plans to house his collection in France in favour of Baden-Baden in southern Germany.

Yet, this spring, international contemporary art is fighting its corner in the French capital with a series of dynamic interventions, each co-opting the Parisian setting and its traditions to add gravitas and piquancy. I have not yet seen the largest: Anish Kapoor’s site-specific sculpture in the 35-metre high nave of the Grand Palais – Paris’s answer to Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall extravaganzas – which will be unveiled next week. But Kapoor’s promise of “a single object, a single form, a single colour” already suggests a resonance with the formal purity still associated with Parisian art.

I have, however, been entertained and detained by Richard Prince’s clever, comic American Prayer at the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand – an exhibition going to the core of Prince’s role as godfather of appropriation art, and revealing the intellectual bones beneath his celebrated fleshy images of nurses and the Marlboro Man.

The first incongruity is the setting. A wooden prairie house reconstructed within Dominique Perrault’s glass-and-steel library, designed as giant tower-block book-ends, parodies cutesy folkloric America – a milieu thus surprisingly positioned against postmodern Paris. Across this mock-home’s plain walls, shelves and vitrines, Prince alternates his “re-photographs” and paintings with his hitherto unseen rare book and manuscript collection, dating from 1949 (the year of his birth) to 1984, and ranging from letters by JD Salinger and Jimi Hendrix’s handwritten lyrics to a copy of Naked Lunch boasting William Burroughs’ own unpublished illustrations, and porn titles such as Nympho Nurse.

A tour of the American subcultural types – beatniks, cowboys, punks, biker chicks, nurses, nymphets – on which Prince’s oeuvre turns, the show unravels the thought and multilayered references behind his best-known pieces. The most notorious, “Spiritual America”, the re-photograph of Playboy’s depiction of 10-year-old Brooke Shields posing nude, for example, resonates closely with Lolita, that ambivalent masterpiece of adolescent sexuality. Prince owns more than 20 first editions, some inscribed, and displays them alongside men’s magazines and erotic paperbacks from the Bibliothèque’s holdings that, he contends, derived their iconography from the novel and were ancestors of Playboy.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Parisian-American games – the sarcastic trope by which abuser Humbert Humbert is a suave Old World Parisian corrupting New World innocence – is paralleled by the novel’s publishing history: like many volumes in Prince’s collection, it was rejected across puritanical America and initially published in Paris by Olympia Press. But Lolita, a story of forbidden encounters in seedy motels, is, nonetheless, a classic American road novel, appearing two years before Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Prince owns every first edition of Kerouac’s novel, plus multiple manuscripts, including one formerly belonging to Neal Cassady, model for Dean Moriarty, as well as the world’s largest archive relating to the work.

Juxtapositions here with Prince’s cowboy pictures explain the obsession: both Kerouac’s and Prince’s themes are the American dream, the provenance of fetishistic American ideals of independence, representations of masculinity. Prince’s “Girlfriend” series – photographs of half-nude girls posing against their boyfriends’ motorbikes – is the ironic feminine counterpart.

Against an exquisitely chosen soundtrack – Neil Young’s “Motorcycle Mama”, “Candy” by the Byrds, Gregory Isaacs’ “Night Nurse”, Bob Dylan’s “I am a Lonesome Hobo”, The Clash’s “I Fought the Law” – an inventory of Prince’s influences and strategies unfolds, concluding with a room of working drafts by French precursors (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Duchamp) of acerbic modernism. I cannot imagine a better way to dignify Prince’s biting wit, or make cosmopolitan his essentially American worldview – a lesson not lost on his dealer, Larry Gagosian, who is displaying concurrently Richard Prince: de Kooning in his chic new gallery in the eighth arrondissement.

Gagosian’s arrival here six months ago was a mark of global confidence in Paris’s future. His energetic show of Prince’s glossy collages, which transform prints of de Kooning’s “Women” into graffiti-like hermaphrodite horrors against lush painted backcloths in sugar-pink, Mediterranean-blue and dusty grey, is typical Gagosian seduction: the hallowed underwrites the contemporary. De Kooning’s depictions of women link him to Picasso and a European heritage; thus Prince joins a lineage going straight back to the Ecole de Paris. So far, each of Gagosian’s Paris shows have played this trick: he launched with the most European of American painters, Cy Twombly – he also supported Twombly’s 2010 commission to paint a ceiling at the Louvre, the first artist invited to do so since Georges Braque in 1952 – and this year showed photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto alongside Auguste Rodin.

The Musée Rodin has just gone one better: Works in Progress, Rodin and the Ambassadors, which opened on Friday, presents the 19th-century sculptor juxtaposed with a score of 21st-century “ambassadors”. The proto-existentialist “The Thinker” is set against Urs Fischer’s outsize, expressive yet amorphous aluminium figures “Miss Satin”, “Zizi”, and “Marguerite de Ponty” (all 2006-2008), where an instinct for form fights a disintegration into chaos. Rodin’s 28-piece “Clemenceau” series (1911) stands alongside the fragmented wax blobs, neatly arranged on shelves, comprising Ugo Rondinone’s “Diary of Clouds”, created 100 years later. An abstract Twombly bronze from 2009 confronts Rodin’s “Sappho” and Joan Miró’s late metamorphosing abstract/figurative “Woman with Pitcher”.

Dialogues between Rodin and modernist icons – “The Kiss” and Duchamp’s ghastly “Wedge of Chastity”, a sculpture resembling a woman’s genitals fitted on to pink galvanised dental plastic, which the artist presented to his wife at their wedding; Rodin’s “Balzac’s Dressing Gown” and Joseph Beuys’ grey felt and leather “The Skin”, emblazoned with a symbolic red cross – are outrageous, absurdist, yet explore the route from Rodin to postmodern appropriation. With its unrivalled pre-20th-century museums, Paris has a unique ability to invite such readings of the contemporary through the longer lens of historic context. These shows signal what is possible – the city’s distinctive role in showcasing new with old, enlivening both.

‘Richard Prince: American Prayer’, Bibliothèque François Mitterrand, Paris, to June 26; Richard Prince: de Kooning, Gagosian Gallery, Paris, to May 21; ‘L’Invention de l’Oeuvre, Rodin et les Ambassadeurs’, Musée Rodin, Paris, to September 4; ‘Anish Kapoor Monumenta’, Grand Palais, Paris, May 11-June 23

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