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11 things to know about Richard Prince

From the ‘Fashion’ photographs of the 1980s to the celebrated ‘Cowboys’, ‘Upstate’ and ‘Nurses’ series, we chart the work and life of one of America’s most important living artists

  • 1
  • His parents were spies

Richard Prince was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1949 — a small territory of the United States initially created to build the Panama Canal. Both of Prince’s parents worked for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the forerunner of the CIA. When Prince was four his parents took him to stay with Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, at Goldeneye — the author’s house in Jamaica. Fact and fiction always seem to have been intertwined for Prince. He has written: ‘Right from the beginning it was always hard to tell the truth.’ Indeed, in a 2007 interview with Vanity Fair, titled ‘Richard Prince’s Outside Streak’, writer Steven Daly wrote: ‘[the artist] faked an interview between himself and British author J. G. Ballard, and you can’t quite tell if Prince is serious when he repeats the old story about his father working for the Office of Strategic Services... and defoliating forests in Vietnam.’

  • 2
  • Prince spent his 18th birthday detained at Panama airport

His family left the Canal Zone for Hawaii when he was nine. Just before his 18th birthday Prince returned to Panama to secure dual American/Panamanian citizenship. As he told J. G. Ballard in that Punch magazine ‘interview’ in September 1967, on arrival in Panama he discovered the photograph had fallen out of his passport, and he was held at the airport for five days. He was then sent to the Bahamas, which sent him to London, which sent him to Jamaica, which sent him back, and so on. He crossed the Atlantic five times in three weeks, clocking up 20,000 miles and costing British Airways $13,500 in food and flights, until finally he was allowed to remain in detention on British soil.

  • 3
  • Jackson Pollock inspired him to become an artist

A 1956 Time magazine article on Jackson Pollock made Prince believe art could be a career, and he became ‘very attracted to the idea of someone who was by themselves, fairly antisocial, kind of a loner, someone who was non-collaborative.’ After high school he visited Europe, then attended Nasson College, Maine, where he came across a photograph of Franz Kline staring out of his 14th Street window. Seeing also in Kline a ‘man content to be alone, pursuing the outside world from the sanctum of his studio’, Prince took a studio in New York.

  • 4
  • Prince is a pioneer of appropriation art...

...in particular through the technique of ‘rephotographing’ — photographing an existing image rather than something in the natural world. This approach put him in the vanguard of what has come to be known as ‘The Pictures Generation’ — the title of a 2009 exhibition of their work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They were a disparate group of artists working in late 1970s and ’80s New York who took to appropriating images from consumer culture and the media, sometimes changing very little from their source material. In rephotographing, the only thing changed by Prince, arguably, is the context, removing images in order to comment on the values and aspirations they transmit. His first appropriation artworks were drawn from Time, where he had a job providing tear sheets of articles and adverts to advertisers and journalists.

  • 5
  • Prince’s first breakthrough was his series of ‘Cowboys’...

...taken from adverts for Marlboro cigarettes from 1980 onwards featuring the ‘Marlboro Man’. Originally photographed by Sam Abell, the adverts present sanitised versions of the Old West. Prince cropped all the text relating to the product and photographed the cowboys. In doing so, his rephotographing highlights the highly posed nature of the photographs, designed to create an image of ideal, contemporary American masculinity that is intended to work subliminally in the original advertisements.

  • 6
  • ‘I had limited technical skills regarding the camera,’...

...claimed Prince in a 2003 interview with Artforum. ‘Actually I had no skills,’ he added. ‘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.’ Nevertheless his eye for American self-presentation continued to win him acclaim, and he began his ‘Gangs’ series in the early 80s. Here Prince focused on images of sub- and counter-cultures such as surfers, hot-rod enthusiasts, itinerant rockers, heavy metalers and Hells Angels, presented as grids of juxtaposed images of that particular ‘scene’. In 1992 he began a related series entitled ‘Girlfriends’, concentrating on images of biker girls sent into magazines by their boyfriends.

  • 7
  • Richard Prince can take a joke

In about 1985 he began to work with jokes, sometimes incorporating images and text, sometimes using images and text that had no relevance to each other. In the late 1980s he refined the idea, painting simple one-liners onto a monochrome background, often taken from joke books or New Yorker cartoons.

  • 8
  • His private museum was struck by lightning

In 1996 Prince moved upstate, buying land around his home in Rensselaerville, New York (he owned about 300 acres in 2014 according to the Wall Street Journal). He began photographing banal, wan vistas of semi-rural America, cut off from the cultural mainstream. In 2005 the Guggenheim bought a ranch-style shack where he was displaying his series of painted car hoods. Two years later the building, called Second House, was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Prince bought its ashes back from the museum.

  • 9
  • He collaborated with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton...

...taking inspiration from his series of ‘Nurse Paintings’. Begun in 2003, the Nurse Paintings use cover images from pulp romance novels with titles like Surfer Nurse, Naughty Nurse, Millionaire Nurse, and Dude Ranch Nurse, blown up and hand-finished with acrylic so that all but the book’s title and the nurse image is covered. In 2007, Marc Jacobs asked Prince to collaborate with him for the Louis Vuitton Spring 2008 collection, at which time Prince was concentrating on a series of ‘Nurse Paintings’ set in exotic cities ‘after dark’. Prince suggested a collection of Louis Vuitton ‘after dark’.

  • 10
  • Richard Prince’s art has pushed the boundaries of copyright law

In December 2008 the photographer Patrick Cariou filed suit against Prince for copyright infringement. The photographs were a series featuring Rastafarians that Cariou had taken in Jamaica, collected in his book Yes Rasta, and appropriated by Prince for his 2008 series ‘Canal Zone’. It was the first time Prince had ever used source material from another artwork, and it began a long legal battle ending in a landmark ruling in April 2013: no infringement had taken place because Prince’s works, although appropriated, were ‘transformative’ of the originals. Prince has since said that he wishes he had sought rights to the photographs.

  • 11
  • He remains no stranger to controversy

In 2014, Prince exhibited 38 new works at Gagosian in New York entitled ‘New Portraits’, consisting of screenshots of his Instagram feed printed onto large canvases. The images were generally taken from the accounts of models, artists and celebrities, with comments from Prince’s own account underneath. The response was passionate, with critics, commentators and the original photographers themselves coming out strongly both for and against the ‘New Portraits’. Karley Sciortino — a Vogue sex columnist — called her inclusion ‘an honour’.