One of the preeminent figures of early appropriation art and the postmodern investigation into mass media, Richard Prince has tackled myriad subjects as they relate to humor, celebrity, sexuality, and authorship. Alongside 1980s stalwarts like Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger, Prince made a name for himself through careful selection and enhancement of magazine images, texts, and other media in a manner that highlighted their commercial aspects and took them out of their everyday context. “Look at all the people today making things using sampled images, mashing up video clips and photographs in ways that feel incredibly common to us, no one does it like Richard. He changed art practice in the 20th century” (N. Spector, quoted in K. Crow, “Artist Richard Prince’s Secret Retreat,” WSJ Magazine, December 2014/January 2015). Nurse Barclay’s Dilemma is a sultry example of this singular talent and belongs to Prince’s much-lauded Nurse Paintings series which he introduced to the world in 2003. Rife with the seductive poses and postures that graced the dime store novel covers they borrow from, each work in the series combines stylized book illustration with Prince’s own nod to the moody colorfields of artists like Mark Rothko. Leaving only the female figure and the original text’s title in the midst of his dramatic composition, the artist creates a gauzy, steamy ode to both the low brow and highbrow artforms of the mid-20th century.
Presented on a grandiose scale, a woman in the guise of a nurse peers out from dripping, brushy washes of color. Mixing the original illustration from the front of a pulp fiction novel with a conscious nod to Abstract Expressionism, Prince deftly melds the appropriated imagery with his own painterly adjustments. The left side of the work is taken over by a half-length portrait of a woman in a white, short-sleeved uniform and the blue and white hat typical of nurse practitioners in the 1950s and 60s. Her right hand holds her face, winding painted fingernails into a short coiffure. There is a look of stress and anxiety in the woman’s eyes as they stare downward and refuse to meet the viewer’s gaze. This vexed posture is telling of the ‘dilemma’ the nurse faces, and the novel from which Prince lifts his imagery originally proclaimed, “She was about to give up nursing to marry a wealthy widower, when an attractive patient came under her care and into her heart.” (A. Humphries, Nurse Barclay’s Dilemma, Avalon Books: New York, 1954). Some of this subtitle is still visible through the hazy gray and white in the upper right corner above the red of the book’s title, “Nurse Barclay’s Dilemma”. The name of the author of this medical melodrama, Adelaide Humphries, however, has been completely obscured by drips and swathes of murky gray paint. Besides this expressionistic obfuscation, Prince has made one very noticeable addition to the appropriated image, one that each work in the series shares: a white mask. Intentionally made large and extending from the chin to the bottom of the nurse’s eyes, Prince’s mask serves to both further stylize the woman as a figure of nursing while also, as the artist puts it, “making it all the same and getting rid of the personality” (R. Prince, quoted in “Interview with G. O’Brien”, Interview Magazine, December/January 2008-9, p. 201). By covering the nose and mouth, the artist makes each figure into a symbol or icon that goes beyond one individual toward a larger idea.
Though it might be perceived as extraordinarily painterly at first glance, Barclay’s Dilemma touches on two driving forces within Prince’s varied oeuvre. As an ardent collector of books, the artist continuously adds to his stockpile of first editions and rare tomes while also fortifying his shelves with numerous pulp fiction paperbacks. Of particular interest are the titles from tawdry romance novels centered around nurses. Each work from his Nurse Paintings series is anchored to an actual book in Prince’s collection. The second catalyst is the artist’s mastery of appropriative techniques. Coming of age in the 1980s along with artists like Sherman and Sherrie Levine, Prince extracts imagery from a broader image culture and reworks it to serve his purposes. The Nurse Paintings are no different as he enlarges and positions the covers of each pulp novel before making an inkjet print and affixing it to the canvas.
Negating the original background used on the book jacket, the solitary woman emerges and is enlarged to heroic proportions. The idea for Barclay’s Dilemma and the rest of the series came to Prince in 2002 at the height of the global SARS hysteria. While reading the news, the artist had a sudden insight into his vast book collection and to a certain subgenre of which he had multiple volumes. “I’ve always been very lucky when it comes to making art and finding subject matter,” Prince noted, “And the subject matter does come first and how it’s presented comes second. …With the Nurse paintings, I believe I started out just reading the paper. It just occurred to me that everyone needed a nurse. [...] There’s a whole genre and I’d had them for years. I wanted to do something just white; […] But before I put them away, I made a mistake painting all this white— this is when I say I get lucky. After I had wiped off some of the painting, it looked like a mask on the nurse’s face and suddenly it was one of those moments. When I noticed that, I realized that was going to be the contribution to the image, to put a mask on these various nurse illustrations. It was a way of unifying and also talking about identity” (R. Prince, quoted in N. Shukur, “Richard Prince,” Russh, December 2014). By combining his bibliophilic tendencies with a need to edit and reform the archive, Prince expanded on his earlier techniques.
Prince has often employed the sexualized female figure in his work, and pieces like Barclay’s Dilemma are rather tame in comparison to previous offerings like his Girlfriends series in the early 1990s. However, it is worth noting that the artist never creates new images, but simply reframes and recontextualizes those that are already extant. “Mr. Prince mines the ways that society has portrayed women and how women have seemed to want to be portrayed,” reporter Randy Kennedy wrote in The New York Times. “His obsessions… toy... 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). By highlighting and adding a white mask to each nurse (which can be read in a similarly depersonalizing manner as the black censor bars used in more tawdry materials), Prince turns the nurse into a stylized type that stands in for a greater conversation. He noted in an interview with fellow provocateur Damien Hirst, saying, “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? [...] 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). Instead of becoming objects of desire, the nurses ask the viewer to examine themselves and their own ideas about sexuality in the context of mass media.