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Richard Prince (b. 1949)
Richard Prince (b. 1949)
Richard Prince (b. 1949)
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Richard Prince (b. 1949)

Nurse for Mercy’s Mission

Details
Richard Prince (b. 1949)
Nurse for Mercy’s Mission
signed 'Richard Prince' (on the overlap)
inkjet and acrylic on canvas
52 x 30 in. (132.1 x 76.2 cm.)
Executed in 2009.
Provenance
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2010
Literature
R. Prince, 130 Nurses, New York, 2017, n.p. (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

“…there was a difference between devotion as a nurse and love as a woman…how could she make that choice?” (A. McElfresh, Nurse for Mercy’s Mission: A Candlelight Romance, Dell Publishing, 1969)

Richard Prince’s sultry and sexy Nurse for Mercy Mission is one of the artist’s astute riffs on the nature of pop culture. Dominated by the larger-than-life image of our heroine, Prince appropriates the melodrama of vintage dime-store novels to produce a canvas that is both celebratory and enquiring. By giving us nothing more than the exaggerated image of the nurse, along with the title of the book, Prince teases  us with the need to know more, leaving us to fill in the gaps in the well-known genre. Girl loves boy, girl leaves boy, and girl becomes torn between her old boy and a new one—dramatic tension lies at the very heart of Nurse for Mercy’s Mission.

This tension is—in part—manifested in the painterly nature of Prince’s distillation of the book’s cover. He chooses to place his nurse, isolated, against a scorching yellow ground. But this is not an anonymous yellow background (as used in Roy Lichenstein’s Nurse, 1964, for example); instead, it manifests itself as part of the drama. The high-keyed hues are evocative of hot summer nights, of sunsets and romance, and yet by using thinned pigment we can see there is a darker, more ominous, layer underneath. What exactly lies beneath this layer is difficult to discern (we can just about make out the name of the series— "A Candlelight Romance" — along the upper edge), but we are left in no doubt of its mysterious, ominous presence. The nurse herself is almost subsumed by this suggestive miasma. Wearing a dark, heavy coat, glimpses of her profession can be seen in her starched white tunic and her familiar nurse's bonnet. Her face, covered — in now all too familiar fashion—masks her features, her beauty only indicated by her coiffed hair. By methodically painting over the details of the book’s cover, and veiling her features behind a mask, the artist creates a mysterious figure whose identity and purpose remain unknown. In this respect, Nurse for Mercy’s Mission transcends its original literary source to become an anonymous cypher, upon which the viewer’s own desires and fantasies are projected.

Prince is a highly-regarded bibliophile whose own collection of books runs to more than 3,000 titles. He is drawn to the trumped-up melodrama of these books, and regularly trawls his collection for inspiration. In Nurse for Mercy’s Mission, written by Adeline McElfresh, our heroine is Kay Lanyan, a “pretty young nurse” who is visiting her uncle and aunt in the isolated lumber town of Mercy’s Mission. Initially her visit was intended to be a brief vacation, as she would soon return to her “brilliant, charming” trainee doctor boyfriend in the city. However, fate had other ideas as she is soon attracted to the idealism and dedication of a new young doctor serving the poor and needy of the area. She has never felt happier, until her boyfriend from the city turns up and throws her emotions into turmoil. As the summary on the book’s back cover reads “…there was a difference between devotion as a nurse and love as a woman…how could she make that choice?” (A. McElfresh, Nurse for Mercy’s Mission: A Candlelight Romance, Dell Publishing, 1969).

Much of Prince’s work is concerned with the investigation of forgotten and outmoded narratives that have framed the way we perceive ourselves and others, from pulp fiction, depictions of movie starlets and fashion magazines, to explore and provoke the stereotypes that pervade concepts of sexuality, desire and control. His obsession with subculture reveals a truer understanding of ourselves, though not obvious or flattering at times. 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, “Two Artists United By Devotion to Women,” New York Times, 23 December 2008, sec. C, p. 1). In spite of the seemingly one-dimensionality of the artist’s protagonists, they are in fact often complex, multidimensional figures who both exaggerate and undermine the stereotypes they imply, making them closer to real-life women than the one-sided caricatures they seem. 

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