In the early 1980s, Richard Prince embarked on a landmark series of photographs that called into question fundamental American values and conventional notions of the role of the artist. Captivated by the torrent of surreal advertising images with which he came into contact on a daily basis as a function of his job working at Time magazine, Prince had determined a new mode of expression that all but effaced his artistic involvement. By surreptitiously re-photographing carefully cropped sections of the ads that appealed to a seductive, illusory and distinctly American fiction, Prince isolated the all but invisible psychological undercurrents of coercion at play and amplified the impact to disquieting effect. His work from this period embodies the sometimes sardonic eye of the Pictures Generation, made up of fellow iconoclasts, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, among others. These young artists favored photography, performance and video over painting—or what was referred to in the criticism of the time as “new media”—casting a cold, trenchant gaze towards consumer culture. Prince’s early photographs constitute a seminal moment in postmodernism and are justly considered masterworks of the Pictures Generation.
The nine images that constitute the artist’s Fashion series, 1982-1984, all feature the very closely cropped heads of women, their vision variously obscured by outlandish accessories, flowing locks of hair or thick shadows. The intertwining motif of veiling the models’ eyes, or at least blocking the viewer’s access to them, creates a mysterious synergy amongst the images. These aesthetic barriers unbalance the relationship between subject and audience, calling into question the implications of the act of looking, or perhaps even the viewer’s blindness to the inherent trickery of capitalist persuasion. The Fashion pictures also share a kind of overcast violet hue as a result of the artist’s process of alternating between re-photographing black and white images with color film and vice versa. As the artist explains, “These images were before Photoshop. Before digital. Before computers. But they had that ‘impossible’ look. Purple Haze. They were in and out of focus at the same time” (R. Prince quoted in “In the Picture: Jeff Rian in conversation with Richard Prince,” R. Brooks, J. Rian and L. Sante, Richard Prince, London, 2003, p. 14). Such disorienting effects further exaggerate the alien quality of Prince’s images, despite their origins in the familiar realm of popular advertisement.
Published in a 1979 issue of Flash Art, the artist, writer and educator Thomas Lawson proposed a manifesto of sorts: “It is possible to make art with a psychological content not depending on narcissistic exhibitionism. It is possible to make art about personality while remaining indifferent to self-expression. It is possible to make art addressing itself to affect and sentiment without losing a sense of irony and detachment” (T. Lawson, “The Uses of Representation,” Flash Art, Milan, March-April 1979, n.p.). These qualities are clearly at play in the Fashion images and find their antecedent in the Pop Art movement of the past decade. However, where Warhol and Lichtenstein heightened the extravagance and drama of their source imagery—by virtue, to some degree, of the romanticism associated with the medium of painting—the luxurious aura of Prince’s Fashion series is imbued with a subtly poisonous glow. The present lots are striking examples from the original suite of photographs printed between 1982 and 1984. Forcibly removed from the public domain, these displaced fragments have been transformed into singular art objects by Prince’s ingenious sleight of hand.