Executed in 2006, Untitled (with de Kooning) showcases Richard Prince’s celebrated engagement with the work of the Abstract Expressionist master Willem de Kooning. Having cultivated an idiom renowned for its appropriation of readymade printed images, the de Kooning series saw Prince apply this strategy to the art-historical canon for the first time. Following on the heels of his Nurse paintings, whose female protagonists were derived from the cover illustrations of pulp romance novels, Prince’s new series drew inspiration from de Kooning’s depictions of women in the early 1950s. “It was time to pay homage to an artist I really like,” Prince explained. “Some people worship at the altar—I believe in de Kooning” (R. Prince, quoted in S. Daly, “Richard Prince’s Outside Streak,” Vanity Fair, December 2007, issue 568, p. 337). Leafing through a catalogue of de Kooning’s Women series, Prince began to work over the printed reproductions, obfuscating and embellishing their forms with his own graphic flourishes and collage effects. From these initial drawings grew a series of large-scale multimedia works on paper populated by strange metamorphic beings: startling deformations of de Kooning’s original female figures. Within the triptych of images in the present work, we can identify the traces of specific works by de Kooning, including Woman (Blue Eyes) (1953) in the center and Woman (1953, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.) on the right. Adorning these subjects with exaggerated limbs and deliberately overworked surfaces, Prince transforms de Kooning’s modernist muses into striking postmodernist symbols: crude hybrid forms that are both art-historically familiar yet disarmingly alien.
Since the late 1970s, Prince has ruthlessly culled images from advertising, mass media and entertainment genres as part of his
inquiry into questions of representation and authorship. Whilst much of his work is rooted in contemporary vernaculars, including celebrity culture, pornography, comedy and fiction, the de Kooning works are distinguished by their engagement with the legacy of American fine art. Prince’s approach to de Kooning’s paintings—adding new contours and textures as well as hermaphroditic bodily features cut and pasted from catalogues and vintage magazines—illustrates his fascination with the blurred boundaries between high and low culture. Treading a thin line between homage and sacrilege, the de Kooning works have been seen to embody Prince’s vision of a “spiritual America”—a national self-awareness underpinned by a creative desire for destruction and reinvention. In this regard, the choice of de Kooning as his art-historical pin-up is appropriate, given the elder artist’s own explosive approach to image-making. Often working in a state of torment, de Kooning repeatedly erased and reworked his images with almost violent gesture, and his depictions of women have frequently been interpreted in terms of rupture and violation of form. Discussing Woman (Blue Eyes), Sidney Geist reported that “[de Kooning] has gone too far, but that is the only place to go” (S. Geist, “Work in Progress,” Art Digest, April 1, 1953, p. 15). In this respect, Prince’s appropriations may be said to tease out a visual monstrosity latent within the original images. As such, the series demonstrates Prince’s approach at its most incisive: it is only through his unique brand of visual hijacking that he is able to foreground the inherent nature of his subjects.