Richard Prince (born 1949, in the Panama Canal Zone now Panama) is an American painter and photographer. Prince began appropriating photographs in 1975. His image, Untitled (Cowboy), a “rephotograph” of a photograph taken originally by Sam Abell and appropriated from a cigarette advertisement, was the first “rephotograph” to raise more than $1 million at auction when it was sold at Christie’s New York in 2005.
Starting in 1977, Prince photographed four photographs which previously appeared in the New York Times. This process of re-photographing continued into 1983, when his work Spiritual America featured Garry Gross’s photo of Brooke Shields at the age of ten, standing in a bathtub, as an allusion to precocious sexuality and to the Alfred Stieglitz photograph by the same name. His Jokes series (beginning 1986) concerns the sexual fantasies and sexual frustrations ofmiddle-class America, using stand-up comedy and burlesque humor.
After living in New York City for 25 years, Prince moved to upstate New York. His mini-museum, Second House, purchased by the Guggenheim Museum, was struck by lightning and burned down shortly after the museum purchased the House (which Richard had created for himself), having only stood for six years, from 2001 to 2007. Prince now lives and works in New York City.
Richard Prince was born on August 6, 1949, in the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone, now part of the Republic of Panama. During an interview in 2000 with Julie L. Belcove, he responded to the question of why his parents were in the Zone, by saying “they worked for the government.” When asked further if his father was involved in the military, Prince responded, “No, he just worked for the government.” Prince later lived in the New England city of Braintree, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston.
He was first interested in the art of the American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. “I was very attracted to the idea of someone who was by themselves, fairly antisocial, kind of a loner, someone who was noncollaborative.” Prince grew up during the height of Pollock’s career, making his work accessible. The 1956 Time magazine article dubbing Pollock “Jack the Dripper” made the thought of pursuing art as career possible. After finishing high school in 1967, Prince set off for Europe at age 18.
He returned home and attended Nasson College in Maine. He describes his school as without grades or real structure. From Maine he was drawn to New York City. Prince has said that his attraction to New York was instigated by the famous photograph of Franz Kline gazing out the window of his 14th Street studio. Prince described the picture as “a man content to be alone, pursuing the outside world from the sanctum of his studio.”
Prince’s first solo exhibition took place in June 1980 during a residency at the CEPA gallery in Buffalo, New York. His short book Menthol Pictures was published as part of the residency.
In late 2007, Prince had a retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, a comprehensive show hung in chronological order along the upward spiraling walls. The show continued onto the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Maria Morris Hamburg, the curator of photography at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, asserted, “He is absolutely essential to what’s going on today, he figured out before anyone else—and in a very precocious manner—how thoroughly pervasive the media is. It’s not just an aspect of our lives, but the dominant aspect of our lives.”
Prince has built up a large collection of Beat books and papers. Prince owns several copies of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, including one inscribed to Kerouac’s mother, one famously read on The Steve Allen Show, the original proof copy of the book and an original galley, as well as the copy owned by Neal Cassady (the Dean Moriarty character in the book), with Cassady’s signature and marginal notes.
Describing his career and methodology in a 2005 New York magazine interview, Prince said, “It’s about knocking about in the studio and bumping into things.”
Re-photography uses appropriation as its own focus: artists pull from the works of others and the worlds they depict to create their own work. Appropriation art became popular in the late 1970s. Other appropriation artists such as Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, Vikky Alexander, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Mike Bidlo also became prominent in the East Village in the 1980s.
During the early period of his career, Prince worked in Time magazine’s tear sheets department. At the end of each work day, he would be left with nothing but the torn out advertising images from the eight or so magazines owned by Time-Life.
Prince had very little experience with photography, but he has said in interviews that all he needed was a subject, the medium would follow, whether it be paint and brush or camera and film. He compared his new method of searching out interesting advertisements to “beachcombing.” His first series during this time focused on models, living room furniture, watches, pens, and jewelry. Pop culture became the focus of his work.
In December 2008, photographer Patrick Cariou filed suit against Richard Prince, Gagosian Gallery, Lawrence Gagosian and Rizzoli International Publications in Federal district court for copyright infringement in work shown at Prince’s Canal Zone exhibit at the Gagosian gallery. He appropriated 35 photographs made by Cariou. Several of the pieces were barely changed by Prince. Prince also made 28 paintings that included images from Cariou’s Yes Rasta book. The book featured a series of photographs of Rastafarians that Cariou had taken in Jamaica.
On March 18, 2011, US District Judge Deborah A. Batts ruled against Prince, Gagosian Gallery, Inc., and Lawrence Gagosian. The court found that the use by Prince was not fair use (his primary defence), and Cariou’s issue of liability for copyright infringement was granted in its entirety. The court cited much case law including the Rogers v. Koons case of 1992.
Prince’s series known as the Cowboys, produced from 1980 to 1992, and ongoing, is his most famous group of rephotographs. Taken from Marlboro cigarette advertisements of the Marlboro Man, they represent an idealized figure of American masculinity. The Marlboro Man was the iconic equivalent of later brands like Ralph Lauren, which used the polo pony image to identify and associate its brand. “Every week. I’d see one and be like, Oh that’s mine, Thank you,” Prince stated in an interview.
Prince’s Cowboys displayed men in boots and ten-gallon hats, with horses, lassos, spurs and all the fixings that make up the stereotypical image of a cowboy. They were set in the Western U.S., in arid landscapes with stone outcrops flanked by cacti and tumbleweeds, with backdrops of sunsets. The advertisements were staged with the utmost attention to detail.
It has been suggested that his works raise the question of what is real, what is a real cowboy, and what makes it so. Prince’s photographs of these advertisements attempt to prompt one to decide how real are media images.
The subjects of Prince’s rephotographs are the photos of others. He is photographing the works of other photographers, who in the case of the cowboys, had been hired by Marlboro to create images depicting cowboys. Prince described his process in a 2003 interview by Steve Lafreiniere in Artforum. “I had limited technical skills regarding the camera. Actually I had no skills. I played the camera. I used a cheap commercial lab to blow up the pictures. I made editions of two. I never went into a darkroom.”
Prince’s rephotographs led to his series known as the Gangs, which followed the same technique of appropriating images from magazines as the Cowboys did, but now the subjects moved from advertisements and mass media toward niches in American society. Prince in this series paid homage to “sex, drugs, and rock’n'roll” in American niches, seen through magazines. He depicted the bizarre in subcultures such as the motorcycle-obsessed, hot rod enthusiasts, surfers, and heavy metal music fans.
These Gangs are recognized in his series Girlfriends, featuring biker girls. A motorcycle magazine he used featured photographs of motorcyclists’ girlfriends, were sprawled on their boyfriends’ bikes.
Prince’s Gangs works are single sheets of white paper covered with a grouping or “ganging” of 9×12, 35 mm photographs. Prince did not intend any distinct relationship between the “ganged” photographs. An example can be seen in such works as his 1984 Velvet Beach, twelve Ektacolor-printed photographs of massive waves, clearly from a surf magazine. Another example is his 1986 Live Free or Die, gathering nine images of loosely dressed women on motorcycles.
Prince has said numerous times that he would like to be a biker chick.
Prince’s first Joke piece came about in 1985, in New York, when he was living in the back room of the 303 Gallery, located on Park Avenue South. His first Joke was about psychiatrists, a subject he later worked with often. Prince described the discovery of the idea for the Jokes beginning when he posted up a small 11 x 14 inch handwritten joke on paper. He realized that if he had walked into a gallery and had seen it hanging from the wall, he would have been envious. Prince’s Jokes come in several forms. His first Jokes were hand written, taken from joke books. His jokes grew into more substantial works as he began to incorporate them with images, often pairing jokes with images that had no relevance with one another, creating an obscure relationship. An example of one of these peculiar combinations can be seen in his 1991 Good Revolution, which depicted black and white images of a male torso in boxing shorts set amongst doodles of a kitchen stove. These were set above the text “Do you know what it means to come home at night to a woman that will give you a little love, a little affection, a little tenderness? It means you’re in the wrong home, that’s what it means.” In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Prince, like his contemporaries Lorna Simpson and Barbara Kruger, played with image and text in a style that was becoming increasingly popular. Prince put jokes among cartoons, often from The New Yorker. Prince described his early discovery of jokes and his sense of humor, as “I never really started telling, I started telling them over. Back in 1985, in Venice, California, I was drawing my favorite cartoons in pencil on paper. After this I dropped the illustration or image part of the cartoon and concentrated on the punch line.” Prince’s jokes were primarily satirical one-liners, poking fun at topics such as religion, the relationship between husband and wife, his relations with women. The jokes are simple, often relying on a punch line: “I took my wife to a wife-swapping party, I had to throw in some cash” or “I never had a penny to my name, so I changed my name.” Prince commonly repeats his jokes.
Jokes became the complete subject of his prints, set atop monochromatic backgrounds red, orange, blue, yellow, etc. These works range in size from 56 x 48 inches as seen in his 1994 Untitled, to 112 x 203.5 inches, as seen in his 2000 work Nuts. His early jokes were modestly sized, but as they caught on he executed larger pieces. These Monochromatic Jokes question the importance of the unique, in high art. What is it that set these jokes apart from one another, the background color, the color of the text, the jokes themselves? Compared to other Appropriation Artists working in the same time period, Prince has a distinct quality between works and series. Works are distinguishable from one another or identifiable as a particular artist, but with Prince’s Monochromatic Jokes, we are presented with yellow text upon a blue background as in his 1989 Are You Kidding? Differing from Jeff Koons, for example, are not only technique and style, but also the significance given to making the artwork identifiable. In 1988 Koons was working with porcelain sculptures like his Michael Jackson and Bubbles and Pink Panther. These are two works produced in this year that are distinguishable. In the same year, 1988, are Prince’s Fireman and the Drunk and his Untitled (Joke), which raise the serious question of what sets these two works apart.
In a 2000 interview with Julie L. Belcove, Prince called the Joke paintings “what I wanted to become known for.” When asked to identify the artistic genre of his Jokes, Prince responded, “the Joke paintings are abstract. Especially in Europe, if you can’t speak English.”
Celebrities is a series that plays with the American obsession with movie stars. Following Warhol’s lead, Prince would search out actors’ headshots, promotional photographs which frequently lack copyright protection. Prince signed them himself, using the actor’s name.
Car Hoods is a series that works off of the early Gangs series. It featured images from car enthusiast magazines, as well as Prince’s own interest with automobiles. Prince ordered classic vehicle car hoods. He then used the hoods to cast molds, which he washed in different colors.
The Check Paintings series is like the Celebrities. It was made possible by Prince’s own interest in collecting. Prince began to seek out canceled checks from famous figures in history ranging from Jack Kerouac to Andy Warhol. He put these checks onto paint-covered canvases and often paired them with images of the individual they once belonged to.
The Nurse Paintings are a series inspired by the covers and titles of inexpensive novels that were commonly sold at newspaper stands and delis (pulp romance novels). Prince scanned the covers of the books on his computer and used inkjet printing to transfer the images to canvas, and then personalized the pieces with acryclic paint. They debuted in 2003 at Barbara Gladstone Galleries, who along with Larry Gagosian, represents Prince. They received mixed responses, not all selling at the asking prices of $50,000 to $60,000. Titles include Surfer Nurse,Naughty Nurse, Millionaire Nurse, and Dude Ranch Nurse, the books from which they were appropriated. Prince said, “The problem with art is, it’s not like the game of golf, where you put the ball in the hole or you don’t put the ball in the hole. There’s no umpire. There’s no judge. There are no rules. It’s one of the problems, but it’s also one of the great things about art: it becomes a question of what lasts.” The Sonic Youth album Sonic Nurse used Nurse paintings, and included a song called “Dude Ranch Nurse”.
Richard Prince used the technique of modern rephotography and some think this series is notable for the technique of layering digital and analog media: the application of an analog medium (acrylic) to a digitized print (ink jet) of a digitized image (scan) of an analog print (book cover) of an analog artwork (original art portrayed on the book cover).
In the series of paintings, the nurses all wear caps and their mouths are covered by surgical masks, although in some of the paintings the red lips bleed through the masks. The final presentations preserve the title and nurse image from each of the book covers, though almost all else is obscured. Titles include A Nurse Involved; Aloha Nurse; Bachelor Nurse; Danger Nurse at Work; Debutant Nurse; and Doctor’s Nurse.
Prince’s series of paintings from 2007 on appear to be a throwback to more traditional genres of figurative art, and a departure from the pulpy and kitchy content of the Nurse and Jokes series. They are pornographic ink-jet prints overlaid with acrylic paint in a style trying to imitateWillem de Kooning. Prince makes the most direct treatment to the faces, hands and feet, which are bulged and distorted. These works lack the obvious linguistic re-contextualizing of the Jokes series, opting instead for a purely visual idiom.
In 2007, Prince collaborated with the fashion designer Marc Jacobs on his Spring 2008 collection for the French label Louis Vuitton. The collection was inspired in part by Prince’s Nurse Paintings. In an interview for style.com Jacobs stated that after he asked Prince to collaborate with him for Louis Vuitton, Prince started to look to cheap paperbacks that were set in exotic cities “after dark.” As Marc Jacobs put it, “[Prince] asked me, what about Louis Vuitton after dark?”