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For their September issue, the editors of W magazine invited a bunch of artists and photographers to have their way with Kate Moss—to depict the waifish muse however they wanted: naked, clothed, flipping burgers, lying around, and fondling a pet monkey. Among the artists commissioned was Richard Prince, who photographed Moss decked out as a nurse in a shiny, white vinyl uniform with a zipper up the front, her hand on her hip, and a come-hither look in her eye. The nursing profession was not amused. In its next issue, W ran several letters objecting to the naughty nurse stereotype. "A REAL NURSE would not even dream of wearing pleather or patent leather, as we would sweat ferociously with all the hard work we do," explained one reader, adding, "This uniform would never hold up for what we do in one shift alone!" No sponge bath for you today, Mr. Prince!
As it turns out, the photo in W was a preview of Prince's latest project, a series of paintings of white-uniformed nurses based on the covers of pulp-fiction paperbacks from the '50s and '60s. (One of these paintings appears in the background of the Moss photograph.) An ardent bibliophile, Prince has amassed an impressive collection of naughty-nurse literature, including such classic titles as Surfing Nurse, Man-Crazy Nurse, Registered Nurse, Park Avenue Nurse, Washington Nurse, Tender Nurse, and Nympho Nurse. To make the paintings, which were recently on view at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York, he transferred the book covers onto canvas, often manipulating them in the process—changing the colors or format or matching a nurse from one cover with the title from another. He then slathered the canvases with layers of drippy paint in lurid, sunset hues like magenta, wine red, and deep purple. With their faces obscured by white surgical masks that both reveal and obscure their red-lipsticked mouths below—like displaced lingerie—Prince's nurses are ciphers of femininity: accessible yet forbidden, wholesome yet on intimate terms with strangers' bodily fluids.
Now, there's certainly nothing new about the fetishization of nurses. The naughty nurse is one of those deeply ingrained stereotypes that just keeps surfacing—on soap operas, on Halloween, in the pages of glossy fashion magazines. But are they what we expect from Richard Prince, an artist best known for his sophisticated critiques of the insidious myths of American consumer culture? Are these paintings ironic appropriations meant to deconstruct a regressive stereotype? Or has an element of sheer pleasure snuck into the irony?
Richard Prince came of age in New York in the late '70s, as part of a loosely knit group of artists, including Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and Jack Goldstein, who used photography to re-contextualize art and media images, challenging received ideas about authorship and originality. (These artists, now known as the "Pictures" generation, are currently featured in the exhibition "The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography, 1960-1982" at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.) Prince started out as an aspiring painter with a day job in the basement of Time-Life, where he clipped articles from magazines to send to staff writers. At the end of the day, he was left with a pile of ads for products like watches, liquor, cigarettes, and cars, which he began to re-photograph, cropping and enlarging the images to reveal the mechanics of their subliminal seductions. One of his best early works brings together four images of female models taken from four different ads, all demurely gazing in the same direction. It makes no difference what products are being advertised: The models' airbrushed elegance and coy, sideways glances enact an economy of perpetually deferred desire—the very essence of consumerism.
In 1983, he showed a group of photographs called "Cowboys," in which he re-photographed Marlboro cigarette ads, cropping out the text and blowing them up to nearly life-size. These heroic images of Madison Avenue cowboys perfectly embodied the screwy zeitgeist of the Reagan years: a B-movie cowboy for president and a pill-popping first lady whose political mantra was "Just Say No." The "Cowboy" pictures made his name; their appropriations were like projections from inside the vaults of the cultural unconscious.
Around this time, academic critics like Hal Foster championed Prince's work as part of a postmodern critique of commodity culture and as a definitive break with the fusty traditions of high modernism. Prince's deadpan, re-photographed pictures were seen as harbingers of "the death of painting"—or at least as a challenge to the cherished notions of authenticity that painting stood for. A few years later, some of these critics ate their words when they found that the strategy of appropriation had lost its critical teeth. Displayed in the homes of wealthy collectors, the pictures of cowboys that once advertised Marlboro cigarettes had now become high-end advertisements for a new brand-name in the cultural marketplace: Richard Prince.
Throughout the '80s, Prince continued to lift images from magazines, gravitating toward icons of blue-collar masculinity: heavy-metal rockers, biker chicks, race cars, monster trucks. At this point, his work seemed to get more personal; although the presentation of these images was wry and self-parodying, there was always a palpable sense of the collector's enthusiasm for his latest acquisitions. After a few years, he started making paintings that incorporated authorless, borscht-belt-style jokes, which he often stenciled onto his canvases. His favorite joke, which he has repeated in many different forms, is itself a barbed comment on the act of appropriation: "I went to see a psychiatrist. He said, 'Tell me everything.' I did, and now he's doing my act."
Now, with his pictures of nurses, Prince has returned to painting, appropriating a retro subject and rendering it in a retro style—a drippy, brushy, self-consciously painterly version of Abstract Expressionism. Stylistically, the paintings are clever pastiches: The built-up layers and floating blocks of color are winking allusions to Mark Rothko, while the figures of the nurses, their white uniforms swiped and splattered with paint, mimic the gestural fury of Willem de Kooning's women. Their juicy colors and sensuously worked surfaces are unabashedly beautiful and irresistibly appealing. (The paintings in the show sold out before it even opened in New York.)
And here we find one of the primary pitfalls of ironic appropriation. Presumably, Prince is not really a macho, misogynist, gestural painter—he's just impersonating one. His is an art of cultural quotation: His cowboys are always "cowboys," his nurses are always "nurses," his paintings are always "paintings." But at a certain point, the beauty of the work itself overrides the artist's irony, beating the scare quotes into submission. Over the past 20 years, the expectations of the art world have changed and Prince's work has kept pace. In the early '80s, critics wanted art that poked holes in the status quo; today, art is judged by its capacity to make you swoon with delight. And above all, Prince's new paintings are about the pursuit of pleasure: pleasure in moving paint around, pleasure in looking at luscious, sexy surfaces.
Which brings us back to the nurses. By mining his own collections and probing his own libido, Prince readily acknowledges that the icons and desires he explores in his work are not just out there but in here as well. As his art has hovered closer to his own obsessions, it has become both less subversive and more seductive—a revelation of what happens when irony turns into its opposite.