‘The pictures I went after... were too good to be true. They were about wishful thinking, public pictures that happen to appear in the advertising sections of mass market magazines, pictures not associated with an author it was their look I was interested in. I wanted to re-present the closest thing to the real thing’ (R. Prince, quoted in ‘Spiritual America: No Holds Barred’, Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 85).
Set on a large-scale, Richard Prince’s Untitled (Four Women with Hats), 1980, depicts glamorous yet anonymous women from the world of media and advertising. Gleaned from the pages of popular magazines, the women appear uncannily familiar, although their identities remain out of our grasp. Selecting images of women in striking profile, Prince intensifies a sense of repetition by arranging the composition into grids, or ‘gangs’ as he called them, thereby heightening our awareness of social tropes at play in our wider everyday existence. Having carefully selected his images based on the recurring nature of the pose, lighting or product featured therein, Prince would then in a Duchampian twist, re-photograph his subject, making it his own. Recontextualizing ready-made source images, Prince elevates the imagery into the realm of high art. Prince’s appropriation strategy reflects the artist’s interest in focusing the viewer’s gaze on the images contained within ubiquitous, everyday advertisements. A key exponent in the ‘Pictures’ generation of the 1980s which including Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine, Prince was among the first artist’s to use photography to examine modes of representation.
While Prince’s art had involved photographic imagery culled from advertising and popular culture since the 1970s, the iconoclastic gesture captured in Untitled (Four Women with Hats) and in other works from this period, was not only a decisive breakthrough in the artist’s own practice, but it also ushered in an entirely new, critical approach to art making – one that questioned notions of originality and the privileged status of the unique aesthetic object. ‘A constant in Prince’s early experiments in rephotography is showing others the quality of the images he finds so tantalizing. Prince chooses to represent these images because he himself is seduced by them’ (R. Brooks, ‘A Prince of Light or Darkness?’, Richard Prince, London and New York, 2003, p. 28). Indeed the fragmented narrative and coolness with which he engages with his subject captured so early on in the present work would go on to inform the trajectory of his future practice.
Informed by his day-job in the tear-sheet department of Time-Life publications, Prince had learnt that the isolation of mass-culture imagery offered an opportunity to examine various codes of representation and visual clichés. For this work, Prince focused on gathering a series of pictures that feature a seemingly arbitrary observation, but through his intervention, reveals a form of highly orchestrated fiction. While the re-photographed image remains true to its source, it is in Prince’s removal of any identifying text and cropping that the artist transforms the images into their new context to reveal the mechanisms of seduction and desire that play upon us daily.
In Untitled (Four Women with Hats) Prince’s strategy illuminates the tactics employed by advertising companies in the 1980s. In translating the commercial images to a new context, he fundamentally questions the veneer of ‘normalcy’ presented to the public by the originals. As Hal Foster has so eloquently explained, Prince wants to ‘catch seduction in the act, to savour his own fascination with such images even as they manipulate him via insinuated desire’ (H. Foster, ‘The Expressive Fallacy (1983)’, quoted in L. Philips (ed.), Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 31).