In the 1970s, there was a decisive shift in the way an image was perceived. Where Pop Art had celebrated advertising imagery, Punk culture subverted it. Everything was up for grabs, and with piracy and stealing very much in the air, artists set about appropriating existing images in order to challenge the romantic idea of originality. It became known as appropriation art, and the poster boy for the movement was Richard Prince.
Prince attended Nasson College in Maine before moving to New York in the early 1970s, where he worked for the cuttings service of Time Life publications. There, he had access to thousands of cut-up magazines in which only the advertisements remained intact. He began to rephotograph these pictures and compose his own artworks from the well-known imagery, updating Pop Art’s ironical celebration of consumerism and its icons.
The first rephotograph of this kind was Untitled (Couple) (1977), which depicted an elegant man and woman possibly dressed in the fashions of the 1960s. With their shiny faces and dated clothes, they appeared uncanny, almost ghost-like. This approach put Prince in the vanguard of what has come to be known as ‘The Pictures Generation’ — 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.
Prince went on to appropriate and re-present images from advertising that captured the American cultural zeitgeist: the Marlboro Cowboy, Cadillacs, soft porn, motorcycle gangs. In the mid-1980s he began redrawing jokes from The New Yorker. Like the advertising images, the jokes reflected cultural tastes, prejudices and social concerns.
In recent years, Prince has created art in a variety of mediums including film, installation, painting and architecture. In 2007, he collaborated with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, taking inspiration from his series of ‘Nurse Paintings’.
He remains no stranger to controversy: in 2014, he 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’. In an act of reclamation, the model Emily Ratajkowski sold an NFT photograph of herself standing in front of Prince’s appropriated work of her Instagram post. Buying Myself Back: A Model for Redistribution realised $175,000 at Christie’s in 2021.