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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection

Nurse Kathy

Nurse Kathy
signed, titled and dated 'Richard Prince 2004 NURSE KATHY' (on the overlap)
inkjet and acrylic on canvas
77 x 46 in. (195.6 x 116.8 cm.)
Executed in 2004.
Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York
Tim Nye, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
R. Prince, 136 Nurses, New York, 2017, n.p. (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Painted in 2004, Nurse Kathy is an early example of Richard Prince’s iconic paintings that appropriate the covers of popular romance novels. Where his Cowboys set a precedent for the artist’s use of cultural archetypes (in this case, cigarette advertisements) as they came to both assert and reflect on masculinity, this later series of Nurses were potent explorations into archetypal femininity. Approaching this subject with the distance of an outsider looking in, the figure of the nurse is both generalized and an intimate depiction. Nurse Kathy at once embodies a kind of neutrality as a popular culture derivative, while also reflecting personal desires, warring emotions, and an intoxicating sense of drama.

The titular nurse is halo-ed in red and dabs of yellow, which ripple into the muddled blue backdrop. Applied with an action-painting sensibility, this color pallet and its dark depth contrast with her starched white uniform. The matching surgical mask, which eclipses the lower half of her face, shrouds the central figure with a certain mystique. The mask, though not original to the source image, is consistent with the motif of the Nurse series. There is a dreamy glint behind her hooded, downturned eyes, and with the rest of her face concealed, they offer a subtle glimpse into her inner world. The frenetic energy of the brushstrokes that surround the nurse are equally juxtaposed with her soft features and the cinematic blur of her gaze. The sterile white of the hospital uniform, which expands across the center of the composition, is disrupted by thin, translucent drips of paint that cascade over her shoulder, down from her temple, and across her collar. Beginning their descent from the backdrop, the drips carry over some of those same colors along with variations derived from their mingling: a rustier red, an olive green, and an ochre brown.

A ghost of blue, illegible text surfaces from beneath the white passage of her torso. Her lower body is completely obscured by a passage of color that begins as a vibrant red at its upper edge and is then muddled down into that same blue of the backdrop into the lower edge of the composition. To the left of the canvas, the figure of the nurse is partially obstructed by a rectangular form containing the title script of ‘Nurse Kathy,’ with its yellow font taken directly from the cover of the source novel. Though the edges of this shape are primarily the same blue, yellow is applied over the lettering in a way that mimics the glow of a neon sign. The painterly texture and drips that surround the text echo the backdrop, creating a cohesive mood.

This texture is one of the main visual departures the Nurse series takes from its Cowboy counterpart, with the latter sticking to the glossy realism of their source images. This divergence in practice reflects the archetypal subject. With the early 2000’s Cowboys, the enhancement from source material to heroic scale was itself manipulation enough to convey the cultural matter of masculinity, as well as the romantic sentiment of the West. The ironies of taking something small and professing it enormity are evident, and the figure itself is ubiquitous in society’s mind. Alternately, Prince’s choice to further manipulate the Nurse images beyond their scale is in part to cull the figure’s vast symbolic possibility as the feminine caretaker. The use of texture and material emphasizes the emotional stakes of the Nurse, her position at the apex of life and death, and the inherent contradictions of the feminine ideal. That the choices of color pallet were deliberately made by the artist as opposed to part of the appropriated image, creates an illusion of individuality between the different figures of the series, even as they are stripped of that very thing.

Though the first of Prince’s Nurse paintings drew from more journalistic photographs of medical staff in coverage of the global SARS panic, they eventually segued into surveys of the artist’s personal pulp paperback collection. “With the Nurse paintings, I believe I started out just reading the paper. It just occurred to me that everyone needed a nurse,” Prince remarked, “I collect books—basically I’m a bibliophile—and I had collected these nurse books. 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 Magazine, 2014).

The mask is a factor which aids in the transformation of nurse into archetype, as it veils the individuality of the figure while alluding to her profession. It also unifies the nurses across the series, though they come from various source images and contexts. The object of her depersonalization also makes her seductive: at once both a symbol of woman-as-healer and a sexualized figure. The blending of source imagery throughout the series also adds a dimension of reality versus fantasy, and the ways in which society views women as simultaneously belonging to both categories. Nurse Kathy is derived from an illustration of a fabricated character, but one based in reality. Her downturned eyes are the main fixture in any semblance of individuality, though they convey an amorphous emotion which shifts from enthralling to sad, serene to contemplative, and which keeps the viewer entangled with their mystery. This too is a kind of seduction, as the viewer desires the femininity that she embodies they also are seeking to reveal her depth.

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