"Primed. Flaked. Stripped.
Nine coats. Sprayed. Numbered. Advertised on. Raced.
Fucking Steve McQueened."
The enigmatically titled, Anyone Can Find Me, 1989–1990, one of Richard Prince’s oblique, wall-hanging sculptural renditions of muscle car hoods, exudes a red-blooded American machismo made strange by its refined Minimalist aesthetic. This radical transfiguration from its utilitarian form is accomplished by means that are cleverly uncomplicated. By repainting and re-contextualizing the car hoods he appropriates, Prince subverts utopian ideals about the character of both geometric abstraction and the male psyche. These radically simple interventions recall the irreverent spirit of Prince’s predecessor, Marcel Duchamp, whose concept of the readymade is clearly a crucial antecedent to Prince’s Hoods. When Duchamp submitted his notorious urinal to The Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York in 1917, his only “artistic” involvement was to flip the urinal on its side and emblazon it with a crude signature; Prince upends the re-painted car hood and pins it to the wall. Whereas Duchamp was drawn to the urinal for its abject quality, Prince is drawn to the car for its symbolism of testosterone, freedom and recklessness, among other associations. Alongside that tragic American antihero, the Marlboro Man, the car has become one of the artist’s central recurring motifs, subverting popular iconography with an air of both nostalgia and cynicism.
Prince began working on the Hoods two years after his flight to Los Angeles from New York in 1985. Concurrently, he began to explore a burgeoning interest in painting, a fundamental departure from the detached process of appropriative photography that had defined his practice until then. In his early Joke paintings, the artist experimented with layering pilfered cartoon illustrations and their pun-riddled, Freudian punchlines on canvas with a silkscreen while also inviting incidents of chance, dripping and other fragmentary evidence of his hand. Despite these distinctly painterly qualities, painting was still apparently no more than a means to an end for Prince, a far cry from passionate expression. Never intended for public exhibition, the first Jokes nonetheless maintained the strong sense of otherworldly removal and latent cultural critique that defined Prince’s seminal photography of the early ‘80s, and represent an important shift in the artist’s process that would lead to the Hoods. When Prince eventually did show the Joke paintings, they had become increasingly similar in function to his previous forays in photography. Mechanical and minimal, these paintings feature a single joke silkscreened at the dead center of an unmodulated field of color. As Lisa Phillips writes in her introduction to the catalogue for the artist’s first retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1992, “They seemed to be a joke on painting and a joke on the idea that art is something to be labored over. Prince was beginning to test what his relationship to painting could be” (L. Phillips, “People Keep Asking: An Introduction,” Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 45).
When the artist returned to Los Angeles in 1987, he began sending away for car hoods as advertised in the back of the muscle car magazines he collected. The sleek surfaces and hard-edged geometry of the hoods provided Prince with a relief support to create paintings that at first glance could be mistakenly attributed to a reverential disciple of Donald Judd or John McCracken. Prince effectively transforms these eroticized symbols of unbridled masculinity into icons of aesthetic sophistication by painting them and mounting them on a wall. Masquerading as yet another example of the least offensive, most intellectually bent paintings of the era, a Prince Hood is in fact a deadpan coronation of the devil-may-care American badass. As the artist explains, “There’s a lot of extended adolescence in the work. Some of these cars like the Challenger and Charger were in movies like Vanishing Point and Bullitt. I don’t think it was an accident that Dennis Hopper was driving a ’69 Charger in Blue Velvet” (R. Prince quoted in ibid., p. 132). In particular, the reference to Hopper’s incendiary portrayal of famously unhinged villain, Frank Booth, a terrifying sociopath with demented sexual proclivities and a penchant for mania-inducing inhalants, is telling. While the Hoods exemplify the pinnacle of clarity in American abstraction, they are also obscure icons of a berserk male ego. In this way, they can be read both as guileless decorations and provocative metaphors, riffing on the basic function of concealment that the car hood performs, and the colloquial suggestion to take a “look under the hood” when something appears broken.
Notwithstanding the implicit cultural criticism that underlies the Hoods, it is also important to keep in mind that Prince himself holds the automobile—and the pure freedom it represents—close to his heart. Nancy Spector writes that the car is symbolic of “dreams fueled by a desire for escape, pure velocity, and the romance of the road. Prince admits to sharing this passion from the very beginning. According to the various biographical hints in his writings and interviews, a poster of Steve McQueen hung alongside those of Kline and Pollock in his bedroom as a teenager” (N. Spector, “Nowhere Man,” Richard Prince, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2007, p. 43). Star of the 1968 film, Bullitt—the same that Prince references in the above quotation—Steve McQueen is another analogy for American manliness, and an overtly heroic one. In the film, he plays a rebel detective behind the wheel of a “highland green” 1968 Ford Mustang GT390 Flashback. Prince would eventually pay homage to this mythic vehicle by way of the poster for his 1989 survey exhibition, Spiritual America, at IVAM Centre del Carmen in Valencia which reproduced a still from the film’s enormously famous car chase. Perhaps the fabricated, unreal quality of McQueen’s heroism in this film, and especially the way it extends to—and is accentuated by—his car is central to a thorough understanding of the Hoods. Consider, for example, the irony of the necessity of certain ideals and the impossibility of achieving them. As J Mays, the former Group Vice President of Global Design and CCO at Ford, explains, “Everyone wants what they can’t have, clearly. Reality ain’t much of an aphrodisiac. So when you sit down to design a car, you’re actually thinking, ‘Well, how do I design this in such a way that it looks almost unattainable?’ Your house reflects who you probably actually are. But your car is a reflection of how you want to be seen—how you project yourself” (J Mays quoted in op. cit., p. 302).