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Important Art by Richard Prince
Prince's most infamous appropriation presents us with a highly disturbing image and questions of authorship, ownership, and consent. Originally taken by a commercial photographer, Gary Gross, in 1976, this photograph of a young Brooke Shields is unsettlingly near to child pornography. Shields, age 10, stands at the center of the frame, her arms outstretched to expose her nude figure. Her gaze meets that of the viewer with a look that is disconcertingly alluring. Light from the window bounces off her glistening skin and the white smoke that rises up to her knees. This mature expression and seductive stance are in direct conflict with her undeveloped body and obvious youth. It is doubtlessly a provocative and highly sexualized image of a prepubescent girl.
While the image is visually troubling, the story of its origin is also unsavory. The original photograph had been taken with the consent of Shields's mother, who sold Gross the unlimited publication rights for $450. At the time, in 1976, Shields was relatively unknown. In 1983, the year of Prince's rephotograph, Shields and her mother had sued Gross in an attempt to suppress the image, but were unsuccessful. In the press surrounding this court battle, the photograph was never reproduced by the mainstream media, but Prince found it in an adult publication (Little Women), rephotographed it, and presented it in a gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Visitors to the show were only admitted by invitation, transforming the exhibition into an elite event; yet, as this was the only image on display, viewers had to acknowledge that they had come specifically to see this controversial work, making them complicit in the exploitation of the young Shields. Prince therefore exposed not only the salacious work, the dubious conditions of its origin and the consent of the subject, but also the public's fascination with scandal. The title of Prince's rephotograph and of the exhibition, Spiritual America, was taken from a pre-existing source, an Alfred Stieglitz photograph of a gelded horse, often interpreted as a critique of American prudishness or repression.
The recontextualization of this disturbing photograph reveals a distinction between fine art and commercial photography: in its original context, meant for distribution in adult publications, the work borders on child pornography; presented as an artwork, Prince joins a tradition of representing the female (including the prepubescent) nude. Rather than clarifying the distinction between high and low art, however, Prince's rephotograph lingers in the gray area between them; he has created a work that speaks the language of both the highest and lowest registers of culture, without resting completely in either one. The framing of Shields's highly aestheticized body between two figurative sculptures recalls a tradition of figurative painting. In the gallery context, viewers are expected to dispassionately appreciate her beauty, and yet, this new context does not entirely erase the traces of the image's origins, something uncomfortably tawdry remains. Even the lofty title, Spiritual America, does not transform the photograph into high art, but helps to position Prince's work as a critique of American culture, exploitation and ambition.
Unsurprisingly, the work remains highly controversial. In 2009, it was banned from an exhibition at the Tate Modern in London at the demand of the police. The photograph was replaced by a 2005 version, Spiritual America IV, in which Brooke Shields, then 40 years old, reproduced the original pose while dressed in a bikini. This work has been applauded for returning agency to Shields, who acknowledges the original photograph while choosing, as an adult, the terms of how she wants to display her body.
The Marlboro Man cowboy, emblem of Marlboro cigarettes, was both a stereotypical icon of the American West and a romanticized anachronism. Taken from 1950s advertisements, these photographs depict the stoic, lone hero, riding through an expansive and untamed landscape, his horse as his only companion. Relying heavily upon the American pop cultural phenomenon of John Wayne, Prince's cowboy series echo the pervasive interest in the mythologies of the American West which permeated television, film, music, and literature.
With the Marlboro Man, Prince singled out one of the most successful marketing campaigns and highlighted how effectively these generic messages suggested deeper levels of meaning. The Marlboro Man series of advertisements, which ran for nearly 40 years, had begun as an effort to rebrand Marlboro's filtered cigarettes (previously thought of as feminine), as a manly product. The cowboy, an icon layered with symbolism, idealism, and nostalgia, was an immediate success.
In rephotographing the original ads, removing the text, enlarging them nearly to life-size and reframing them as fine art, Prince forces the viewer to consider the images from a new perspective. Isolated as fine art, the viewer doesn't dismiss the construction of the image so readily; it becomes a text that demands confrontation, analysis, or contemplation. Prince's appropriation calls into question the authenticity of the Marlboro images and their subliminal messages. Removed from a popular context, the fantastical illusion of the rowdy and rugged cowboy as an American icon begins to crumble. This is not truly a cowboy in action, but merely an actor playing a part in a fantasy of American history; even after Marlboro began casting real cowboys and rodeo workers in their ads, these photographs were carefully staged and professionally directed. Although we see the rider set against a romantic sky, galloping across an endless expanse of wild terrain, he was posed by a commercial photographer to create a fiction, to sell a product. The success of the advertising campaign relies on the professional photographer's ability to play to the imagined ideal of the cowboy; the success of Prince's appropriation comes from the simple removal the cowboy from the slogans and logos and reveal how generic the image truly is.
The image is otherwise unaltered; the composition and execution of the original photograph is the work of an anonymous commercial artist; Prince only recontextualizes it through his appropriation. By selecting it, however, and framing it in this manner, Prince critiques both the trite nature of this advertising campaign and the viewer's unquestioning acceptance of the fantasy portrayed. His intentions are amplified by his many versions of this subject. Taken as a group, the cliches of the Marlboro Man become obvious, exposing the marketing strategies at work.
Prince's interest in cliches and stereotypes inspired his Nurse series, which he began in 2003. In appropriating the covers of 1950s pulp fiction novels, he explores the eroticized subject of the sexy nurse. He worked directly from the original sources, scanning the cover of the book, printing it on a large canvas, and then embellishing it with paint. The multi-stage process results in images that are both mass-produced and hand-rendered, manipulated through digital and analogue tools. While the subject is thoroughly popular, the painterliness reveals Prince's study of Abstract Expressionism; scholars have noted the blocky color fields of the background recall Mark Rothko, the dangerous woman and gestural marks suggest de Kooning.
In each image, Prince preserves the figure of the nurse, her face obscured by a surgeon's mask, and the title of the book, although he often manipulates the details, swaps titles, and changes the features of the women through his drippy application of paint. The repetitious nature of the paintings in this series captures the standard format of Prince's source material: a type of lowbrow popular novel, an escapist subgenre of inexpensive fiction. As literature, they were entirely forgettable, however, they were successful in promoting a popular cliche. Like his earlier Cowboy series, Prince leads his viewers to reconsider the images that permeate American visual culture. Isolated as art objects, the images require closer examination; it becomes immediately evident that these nurses are not really nurses, but constructed icons of stereotypical fantasies. They are even presented as labeled objects: Man Crazy Nurse, Surfer Nurse, Nympho Nurse, etc. While the original viewer readily accepted them and Prince's viewer easily recognizes them, they are merely another level of fiction. Yet, in this series, Prince is not directly critical of this cultural construct. His treatment of the surface, with its alluring palette and hand-brushed strokes of paint, implies a level of pleasure or celebration. He acts as a middleman between his audience and images of America's pop culture past.