As a standard bearer of early appropriation art in the 1980s, Richard Prince’s storied career has evolved from subject to subject while exploring the imagery and ideas of popular culture in an often provocative fashion. Culling from sources as varied as Instagram, advertisements for cigarettes, and the covers of pulp fiction paperbacks, the artist continuously mines contemporary image culture for an insight into what makes it so attractive, sensuous, and addictive. “Look at all the people today making things using sampled images,” notes curator Nancy Spector, “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). The artist’s Nurse paintings premiered in 2003 at Gladstone Gallery in New York, and critic David Rimanelli wrote in Artforum that they were: “Bloody, drippy splatter sampling of AbEx gesturalism,” and that “these sumptuous canvases were a return to form-smart, cheap, expensive, snide.” (D. Rimanelli, “Best of 2003,” Artforum, December 2003). Navy Nurse (2004), painted the year after the series’ debut, is a particularly sultry example of Prince’s nuanced mash-up of expressive brushwork and appropriated imagery that hovers between colorfield painting and copyright infringement.
Rendered in smoldering strokes of maroon, orange, and yellow accompanied by ashen washes of black and gray, Prince transforms his source material from a pulpy cover photograph into a moody portrait of the titular nurse. Her skin over-painted in peach tones and her uniform in blinding white, the woman is pulled from her original context as a lovelorn girl aboard a Navy ship and singled out as a fiery noir protagonist. Building upon extant imagery, the artist embellishes and enhances some elements while completely obliterating others. A man in the background of the source image is completely concealed by paint while the nurse’s eyes pierce the viewer’s gaze. Prince’s signature addition of a white mask keeps her identity hidden and places a visual barrier between the subject and the audience.
Besides the outlined title and central figure, only a few other aspects of the original book cover peer out from the dripping, pooling paint that Prince has applied to this enlargement. Among them, the author’s name, Virginia McCall, fades into Prince’s inky strokes above the figure’s head, while a block of text fights for visibility through her bleached uniform. The latter, the evocative subtitle of the original source, is barely discernible here through Prince’s emphatic brushwork and reads: “Two months aboard a troop transport tests Tracy’s future as a Navy nurse—and as a woman. ‘A good career story.’ (School Library Journal)” (V. McCall, Navy Nurse, Paperback Library, New York: 1969). The artist leaves his subject purposefully ambiguous by extracting the character from the text and transforming Tracy into a stereotype shrouded in dark tones.
First realized in 2003, Prince’s Nurse paintings draw from images of medical providers the artist encountered in newspapers covering the global SARS panic. These journalistic photographs got him thinking about the role these front-line workers play, and then segued into an intense survey of his own collection of pulp paperbacks. “With the Nurse paintings, I believe I started out just reading the paper. It just occurred to me that everyone needed a nurse,” Prince noted, “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). By obscuring each woman’s face with an overly large cloth covering, the artist negates their individuality and transforms them into a hyper-stylized symbol of the profession and an illustration of the generalized and sexualized idea of nurses in popular culture. With works like Navy Nurse, the photographic source is flattened with paint to further obfuscate the individual and create a cartoonish caricature separated from the real world. Of course, the very novels Prince uses as his starting point already romanticize and pulpify the nursing profession beyond its actual bounds, so the artist’s interventions serve as poignant highlights that question the mythos of these characters and their representation within American pop culture.