Heartbreak Nurse #2 is an early example of Richard Prince’s provocative series of Nurse paintings that the artist began in 2002, and featured in the series’ first London exhibition the following year at Sadie Coles HQ. Intoxicating in its rich, brushy application of heated tones, from fuchsia and persimmon to deep crimson, Heartbreak Nurse #2 embodies the forlorn melodrama of the original dime-store novel that inspired it. A self-confessed bibliophile, Richard Prince retains hundreds of these cheap and trashy novels that were so popular in the 1950s and 1960s at his home in Rensselaerville, New York. In Heartbreak Nurse #2, Prince appropriates the steamy cover of a 1965 novel that depicts a beautiful young nurse embroiled in an epic moment of drama and suspense, which he then enlarges to monumental scale and covers with a luxurious wash of acrylic. The flushed and ruddy aura that Prince creates accentuates all the latent desire and the fervent feeling of seduction that pervades the original novel, to create an image that’s even more provocative than the character in the original book.
Unlike his pop-culture predecessor Roy Lichtenstein, whose coolly-rendered paintings were crisp and aloof in their appropriated comic-book imagery, Prince teases out the heated undercurrents of latent sexuality and desire that lie hidden in the pages of these vintage novels. In Heartbreak Nurse #2, a steamy wash of aqueous acrylic surrounds the lonely female figure, as she is isolated within the large-scale, luscious backdrop of vigorously-applied paint. Prince lavishes attention to the nurse’s pretty features, from the bright yellow of her blonde hair, to the tenderness of her soft skin, which is rendered in delicate flesh-tones that seem to radiate from the canvas, as if lit from within by some ethereal inner glow. The softness with which the artist renders her lips, eyes and delicate fingers stands in blunt contrast to the deeply-saturated hues of crimson that make up the painting’s background, in which wide swathes of a vigorously-applied brush create an ominous, sinister tone. The directness of the artist’s technique is played up to dramatic effect, as drips of paint stream down the canvas like the falling of hot, wet tears.
The enticing tag-line of Richard Prince’s original source, a novel by the author Jane Converse, reads: “A lovely young nurse is forced to choose between her love for a brilliant young doctor and her pity for a dying man.” In Heartbreak Nurse #2, Prince calls attention to the underlying artifice of the original novel and its misogynistic tone. By enlarging the imagery of its cover and transferring it to canvas, Prince exaggerates the book’s portrayal of a helpless female nurse. He brushes over the title in thick yellow strokes, which has the dual-fold effect of both highlighting the book’s original title and vigorously scratching it out. He also brushes out other aspects of the original image, especially the presence of the heroine’s leading man, whose fingers can just be seen directly below her own, as they lay upon her starched white uniform. In this way, Prince calls attention to the inherent artificiality of these pulp novels, in their overblown emotionalism and keen sense of melodrama, not to mention their one-sided depiction of female characters. Ironically, most of these novels were written by women.
Prince is an avid collector, particularly of books, and has built up an extensive collection of pre-1970s romance novels featuring nurses. However, the Nurse paintings were initially conceived out of an aesthetic desire to portray a figure all in white, not necessarily out of a direct desire to focus on nurse imagery. It was only later, when he began to explore this idea further using his own library, that he soon realized the rich potential of the nurse as a subject, particularly as a way of investigating varying notions of identity. The white masks, for instance, became a way of adding depth to the image provided by the book covers. The masks, as he has put it, were a way of “making it all the same and getting rid of the personality” (R. Prince, Interview with G. O’Brien, Interview Magazine, December/January 2008-9, p. 201). He also came to realize, as the series progressed, that the nurse figure had an almost archetypal appeal to many people—he detected that they evoked an almost primeval sense of comfort and protection.
Prince has never shied away from the controversy surrounding the fetishization of the female nurse. To the contrary, he courts it, finding the contradictory emotions they inspire one of the most compelling characteristics of the subject. As part of the promotion for the inaugural exhibition of Nurse paintings at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in 2003 for instance, he chose to photograph the model Kate Moss in a shiny, white leather nurse’s uniform, hand on hip and with a come hither look in her eye. In a discussion with the artist Damien Hirst about the sexual stereotypes behind the nurse paintings, Prince made the point that: “Some people say the nurse paintings are all about desire—but isn’t that more to do with their proximity to life and death? Isn’t that why we find nurses sexy—because they embody this ultimate contradiction? You’re the artist, you can tell me. As kids we are interested in sex and death because we can never imagine either one ever happening to us” (R. Prince, quoted in “A Conversation” in Damien Hirst: Requiem II, 2009). In both subject matter and execution therefore, this painting is a rebellion. Blending painterly acumen with an innate understanding of the powerful effect of popular imagery, Prince has placed pop culture on the same footing as paintings that have attained canonical status, and taken a fantasy of heroism, comfort and sexual desire, and laced it with murderous intent and hidden danger.
By copying the original image, but then brushing over it with heated strokes of luscious, red paint, Prince reminds us of the artificiality of the original image. As the critic Randy Kennedy has written, “Mr. Prince mines the ways that society has portrayed women and how women have seemed to want to be portrayed. But his obsessions—images of half-clothed women taken from pulp fiction, biker magazines and other subculture publications—toy much more ambiguously and provocatively with sexism, exploitation and the conventions of pornography” (R. Kennedy, “Two Artists United By Devotion to Women,” New York Times, 23 December 2008, sec. C, p. 1). Indeed, Richard Prince’s controversial work seizes upon those archetypal images that express the stereotypical ideal—be it masculine or feminine—and the nuanced, highly tendentious nature of their depiction has frequently caused an uproar. From his earliest appropriation of a prepubescent Brooke Shields in Spiritual America to the scantily-clad biker chicks of his Girlfriends series, the artist has continued to push the envelope when it comes to sexuality and its overt (or not so) representation. He has said, “I’ve never wanted to be transgressive or to make an image that was unacceptable or that I would have to censor,” he said. “But that being said, I think a lot of the imagery I do create is sexual, and I hope it does turn people on” (R. Prince, quoted in R. Kennedy, Ibid., New York Times, 23 December 2008, sec. C, p. 1).