Richard Prince  

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Richard Prince, (born 1949 ) is an American painter and photographer. His works have often been the subject of debates within the art world. Trained as a figure painter, Prince began creating collages containing photographs in 1975. His image, Untitled (Cowboy), a rephotograph constructed from cigarette advertisements, was the first ‘photograph’ to raise more than $1 million at auction when it was sold at Christie's New York in 2005, despite violating numerous copyright laws.

Starting in 1977, Prince created controversy by re-photographing four photographs which previously appeared in the New York Times. Within the art world, this became part of a major discussion concerning authorship and authenticity of photographic images, as well as photographic copyright issues. This continued into 1983, when his work Spiritual America featured Garry Gross's photo of Brooke Shields at the age of 10, standing in a bathtub, as an allusion to precocious sexuality and to the Alfred Stieglitz photograph by the same name. The display of this image led to lawsuits by Shields' mother and the original photographer, and led to further discussion within the art community, concerning the role of voyeurism within photography. His Jokes series (beginning 1986) concerns the sexual fantasies and sexual frustrations of middle-class America, using stand-up comedy and burlesque humour.

After living in New York City for 25 years, Prince moved to upstate New York. His minimuseum, Second House, was owned by the Guggenheim Museum, but was hit by lightning and burned down after being up for only six years from 2001 to 2007.


Early life

Richard Prince was born on August 6, 1949 in the American occupied Panama Canal Zone. The occupation of his parents is unknown. During an interview in 2000 with Julie L. Belcove, he responded to the question of why his parents were in the Zone, by saying “they worked for the government.” When asked further if his father was involved in the military, Prince responded, “No, he just worked for the government.” He combined this response with a mischievous smile so as to allude to the possibility of a CIA background. Prince later lived in the New England city of Braintree, Massachusetts a suburb of Boston.

He was first interested in art created by the American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. “I was very attracted to the idea of someone who was by themselves, fairly antisocial, kind of a loner, someone who was noncollaborative” (Richard Prince, June 1, 2000, Fairchild Publications). Prince was growing up during the height of Pollock’s career, thus making his work very accessible. The 1956 publication of Time Magazine’s article that dubbed Pollock “Jack the Dripper” made the thought of pursuing art as career all the more possible. After finishing high school in 1967, Prince set off for Europe at age 18. He traveled the continent via train, making a point to track down the museums that housed famous artworks he had seen in textbooks.

He returned home and attended Nasson College in Maine. He describes his school as being one without grades or real structure. From Maine he was drawn to New York City. Prince has said that the attraction for NYC was instigated by the famous photograph of Franz Kline gazing out the window of his 14th Street studio. Prince described the picture as displaying “a man content to be alone, pursuing the outside world from the sanctum of his studio” (Nancy Spector, Richard Prince). We see here the significant influence Pollock’s idea of being comfortable with solitude had on Prince. It pushed him to look for a new kind of life in NYC.

Prince arrived in the city in 1977 and began to slowly immerse himself into the downtown art scene. He had entered the big city in a time of an “anything goes” attitude. From the East Village to the Lower Eastside to SoHo, emerging artists, writers, musicians, and dancers found refuge in a Club scene infused environment that promoted the growth of collaboration, in the ways of artistic demonstration as well as creativity. Prince found himself in a city that had been dominated by the works of the Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rauschenberg and the other greats of the 60’s, but also a city that was open to the orchestration of the new. He struggled in his early days in the city and one could observe that he has struggled for the majority of his career, until recently.

Prince’s first solo exhibition took place at the Ellen Sagrow Ltd. in late March 1976. This was the debut of his “rephotography” that were so much more than copies of other peoples work, but rather an insight in the “photographic unconscious”.

Prince left the city eventually, possibly to pursue his quest for an artistic life of more solitude in Upstate New York. His retreat to Rensselaerville, NY has found a new peace for Prince, where he lives with his wife, Noel, 11-year-old daughter, Ella, and his 17 year old stepson, Graham. It is from his Upstate compound located at the end of a dirt road, down some way from a Love of Jesus Family Center, that he produces the majority of his work.

In the fall of 2007, Prince was honored with a retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, a show that encompassed every facet of his career, displaying it in chorological order, along the upward spiraling walls. This show has continued onto the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and will eventually come to its end in the summer of 2008 at the London Serpentine Gallery. Maria Morris Hamburg, the curator of photography at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art has said, “He is absolutely essential to what’s going on today, he figured out before anyone else—and in a very precocious manner—how thoroughly pervasive the media is. It’s not just an aspect of our lives, but the dominant aspect of our lives.”

Prince has built up one of the greatest private collection of Beat books and papers in existence. Prince has several copies of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, including one inscribed to Kerouac’s mother, one famously read on The Steve Allen Show, the original proof copy of the book and an original galley, as well as the copy owned by Neal Cassady — aka Dean Moriarty, which has Cassady’s signature and marginal notes within.


Over the last 59 years, Richard Prince’s career has played out much like how he once described his work methodology. In a 2005 New York Magazine interview he said, “It’s about knocking about in the studio and bumping into things.” Prince has been about experimenting and working with the results. He has said that a governing factor of his work is the spontaneity of it. At the end of the day, what he is creating is just paint on canvas. If his work stood next to a de Kooning or a Picasso, there would be no difference in the medium. It is the subject that is radical.


Richard Prince is an appropriation artist - one who pulls from the works of others and the world he lives in to create his own work. Appropriation art became popular in the late 70’s and it has been said Prince was the father of it. Other appropriation artists such as Sherry Levine, Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman and Mike Bidlo all came into prominence around the same time as Prince, but Prince has accredited himself to be the first. He has even said that Levine called him early in his career to ask permission to play with his newly developing technique.

During this early period, he spent his days working in New York for the Times Magazine’s tear sheets department. At the end of each work day, he would be left with nothing but the torn out advertising images from the eight or so magazines owned by Time-Life. It was almost destiny that the images that he looked through day after day and was exposed to would become his subjects. Prince was engaged with the media and corporate America’s advertising to such an extent, that he was infected with a heightened sense of the their role and presence in everyday life.

Prince had very little experience with photography, but he has said in interviews that all he needed was a subject, the medium would follow- whether it be paint and brush or camera and film. He compared his new method of searching out interesting advertisements with “beachcombing.” His first series during this time focused on models, living room furniture, watches, pens, and jewelry. All the luxurious and material things that appear daily in our media drenched society.

He began to shuffle through the highs and lows of the media infused pop culture and brought both moods to the surface. Pop culture became the focus of his work, deconstructing the media and all its false illusions. He wanted to present what the magazines provided him with as naturally as possible. By zooming in on particular aspects of the ads, he was able to distort them to such an extent that the female wearing the oversized, fashionable hat, now appeared to the “in” and stylish world as though she was an alien. Prince removed the subjects of his photographs from the context of the advertisements they came from, displacing them and presenting them naked and relocated.

In these early photographs, he was highlighting the fictive side of the media, the falsities that lay at its foundation. He was unveiling, exposing the truth of American life. He was showing the distance that lies between the fictional characters created by the media, which are often displayed as a representation of a brand, and that of real life.

This is most seen in his series known as the Cowboys, produced from 1980 to 1992. Prince’s most famous group of “rephotographs,” as his style became known, were taken from Marlboro Cigarette advertisements, images of the Marlboro Man, the ideal figurine of masculinity, the real American man. The Marlboro Man was the iconic equivalent of a present day company like Ralph Lauren who uses the polo pony image to identify and associate with their brand. “Every week. I’d see one and be like, Oh that’s mine, Thank you” (Richard Prince, May 2, 2005 New York Magazine”).


Prince’s Cowboys displayed men who were accompanied by 10-gallon hats, boots, horses, lassoes, spurs and all the fixings that make up the stereotypical image of a cowboy. They were set in the Western U.S., in drastically arid landscapes with stone outcrops flanked by cacti and tumbleweeds and they had backdrops of desert sunsets. The advertisements were staged with the utmost attention to detail so as to make the revival of a “dead” generation of people as successful as possible.

The greatest irony lies within these photographs, for Prince is showing just how false the media is in the depiction of “fake” cowboys. He is playing with the reality that these images are of people imitating the real. His works raise the question of what is real, what is a real cowboy, and what makes it so? Prince’s photographs of these advertisements help us to decide for ourselves just how real the media images are. He also lets us question the authenticity of life in general. While these works guide us though a search for the meaning of “real”, they also push us to question the boundaries of ownership.

The subjects of Prince’s rephotographs are the photos of others. He is merely photographing the works of other photographers, who in the case of the cowboys, had been hired by Marlboro Cigarettes to create images depicting cowboys. Prince describes his process in a 2003 interview with Artforum International Magazine’s Steve Lafreiniere as, “I had limited technical skills regarding the camera. Actually I had no skills. I played the camera. I used a cheap commercial lab to blow up the pictures. I made editions of two. I never went into a darkroom.”

Prince was a spectator to the imagery of others and decided to approach it in a new manner, interpret it in his own way, while challenging the socially accepted. Prince’s naivety to photography can potentially be accredited with the success of his earth shaking work. Just where do you draw the line as to what is a reflection of inspirational works and what is just down right thievery? But through his thievery he is creating something new, something Richard Prince. At the end of the day he is still dismantling the original, whether it is greatly noticeable or not.


Prince’s rephotographs led to his series known as the Gangs. The Gangs followed the same technique of appropriating images from magazines much as the Cowboys did, but now the subjects turned away from advertisements and mass media and looked towards the niches within American society.

Prince used this series to pay homage to the “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” nestled throughout American life, hidden within small subcultures. He is shining a light on the bizarre types of people found in different subculture prescribed by magazines. Looking through the publications, he became exposed to little known groups of people; from the motorcycle obsessed, to hot rod enthusiasts, to surfers, to lovers of heavy metal music.

These Gangs are most recognized in his series Girlfriends that featured Biker Girls. One edition of a motorcycle magazine that he used, featured photographs of motorcycle fans girlfriends. They were sprawled out straddling their men’s bikes. Rather than criticize, Prince is almost celebrating these people.

By photographing images that have already been photographed, that already in exist, Prince brings them closer to real life. He is infusing them with more reality than they ever had. He is making them his own and stating their distance from reality boldly. The Gangs evolved into later clusters of images.

These new artworks consisted of a single sheet of white paper covered with a grouping or “ganging” of 9x12, 35 mm photographs. Prince did not wish for there to be any distinct relationship between all of the “ganged” photographs. He felt it was not necessary, although sometimes there was a relationship. An example can be seen in such works as his 1984 Velvet Beach that featured 12 ektacolor photographs of waves, massive waves, clearly from some sort of surf periodical. Also his 1986 Live Free or Die, which was created by gathering 9 images of loosely dressed women, sexually posing upon motorcycles.

A gang is made up of individuals, with a common interest or affiliation, whether it be obvious or not and it is in these clusters of images that he is immersing this idea into his work. Again Prince provides us, with these gangs, a look into the world of monster truck fans, the porn addicted, and transvestite punk rockers, highlighting all of the stereotypes that surround each. He is bringing to light the rebellious side of American culture, those who oppose conversion to the social norm. He is using the subject of his work to protest against mass media’s influence on daily life by showing off those who refuse to accept it, very much like Prince himself.

Prince has clearly said numerous times that he would like to be a biker chick, thus helping us to see the parallel between Prince and the subject of his rephotographs. These photographs have unsettled the art world, not only because of the method in which they are created, but also because of the way in which the money side of the art world has responded to them. Richard Prince has on two occasions set and broken the highest amount received at auction for a photograph.


Joke Paintings

Prince has continued with his appropriation through his entire career. However, next rather than extract inspiration from the photography of others, he moved into the realm of text, with great attention given to jokes. In the mid-80’s, Prince began to search out comedic lines that had been used so often by different comedians and films that he considered them to be overplayed, overused. These jokes had been used by such an array of individuals, that their originators were no longer attached to them at all, nor were they recognizable as any one person’s joke. Prince again uses his joke works to explore the extent of ownership and its significance in life and more so in art. He is testing the limits of right to possession by helping these jokes to continue further on their journey, away from their authors. He is widening the gap between the creator and the user.

Prince’s first joke piece came about in 1985, in New York, when he was living in the back room of the 303 Gallery, located on Park Avenue South. His first “Joke” was about psychiatrists, a subject he later worked with often. Prince described the discovery of the idea for the Jokes beginning when he posted up a small 11 x 14 inch handwritten joke on paper. He realized that if he had walked into a gallery and had seen it hanging from the wall, he would have been envious. Prince’s Jokes come in several forms. His first Jokes were hand written, taken from joke books. His jokes grew into more substantial works as he began to incorporate them with images, often pairing jokes with images that had no relevance with one another, creating an obscure relationship. An example of one of these peculiar combinations can be seen in his 1991 Good Revolution, a piece that depicted black and white images of a male torso in boxing shorts set amongst doodles of a kitchen stove. These were set above the text “Do you know what it means to come home at night to a woman that will give you a little love, a little affection, a little tenderness? It means you’re in the wrong home, that’s what it means.” In the late 80’s/early 90’s Prince, like his contemporaries Lorna Simpson and Barbara Kruger, was one of the first to play with image and text, a style that was becoming increasingly popular. Prince would often put jokes amongst cartoons, often from the New Yorker, that’d he’d copy by hand. Prince described his early discovery of jokes and his sense of humor, as “I never really started telling, I started telling them over. Back in 1985, 
in Venice, California, I was drawing my favorite cartoons in pencil on paper. 
After this I dropped the illustration or image part of the cartoon and 
concentrated on the punch line” (Modern Painter’s Special American Issue, Autumn 2002”) Prince’s jokes were primarily “one-liners”. They were very satirical, poking fun at topics such as religion, the relationship between husband and wife, his relations with women, and so on. The jokes are all quite simple and straight to the point, often relying on a punch line; “I took my wife to a wife-swapping party, I had to throw in some cash” or “I never had a penny to my name, so I changed my names”. Prince commonly repeats his jokes over and over in one piece, immediately after the first finishes, the same one starts up again. This repetition works to fuel the continual break down of the joke’s originality and significance. He is aiding in the destruction of these, sometimes tasteless, textual parodies.

Prince has stated that he does not censor his choice of jokes. There are no limitations, although he has made it clear that the only boundary that he will never cross is “Why did the Nazi cross the road?” Jokes became the complete subject of his prints, set atop monochromatic backgrounds red, orange, blue, yellow, etc. These works range in size from 56 x 48 inches as seen in his 1994 Untitled, to 112 x 203.5 inches, as seen in his 2000 work Nuts. His early jokes were modestly sized, but as they caught on he began executing larger pieces. These Monochromatic Jokes question the importance of the unique, in high art. What is it that set these jokes apart from one another, the background color, the color of the text, the jokes themselves? If you look at any of the artists working around the same time period as Prince, even the other appropriation artists, we see a distinct quality between works and series. Works are distinguishable from one another or identifiable as a particular artist, but with Prince’s Monochromatic Jokes, we are presented with yellow text upon a blue background a seen in his 1989 Are You Kidding? If you were to look at the works of Jeff Koons, another appropriation artist, and what he was creating in the late 80’s in the same environment and time period as Prince, there’d be a striking difference. Not only between the technique and style, but also the significance given to making the artwork identifiable. An example of this can be seen if we look at what each artist created in the same year. For example, in 1988 Koons was working with porcelain sculptures like his Michael Jackson and Bubbles and Pink Panther. These are two works produced in this year that are both identifiable from one another. In the same year, 1988, we can look at Prince’s Fireman and the Drunk and his Untitled (Joke). What sets these two works apart? The subject of the jokes, the burnt orange background in the one and the lime green in the other?

Prince used his Jokes to disturb the balance that had governed the art world, as well as incorporate painting into his career. Jokes provided Prince with the means to demonstrate his talent with paint. This is seen in the increasingly diverse backgrounds of his jokes. In a 2000 interview with Julie L. Belcove, Prince called the joke paintings “what I wanted to become known for.” When asked of the artistic genre of his jokes Prince once responded “The Joke paintings are abstract. Especially in Europe, if you can’t speak English.” (Artforum International Magazine, March 1, 2003). Since Prince’s emergence as an appropriation artist, he has taken the technique into the realm of a multitude of mediums. We look at the recently discussed series as his most significant because they set the groundwork for a career of appropriation. Yet following the rephotopraphs, Gangs, and the Jokes, we see more. Prince continues to keep up his theme of the trialing of authorship and the questioning of reality and its presence in the materialist infused media culture. Other notable series have been his Celebrities, Car Hoods, Check Paintings, and Nurse Paintings.


Celebrities is a series that plays with the American obsession with movie stars. As seen in his earlier works, Prince continues his obsession with collecting in this late 90’s series. Prince would search out headshots of actors and actresses and then proceed to sign them to himself, using the featured actor’s signature. He is working with the American dream in these works, the possibility that anyone can find fame, as well as the idea that our culture is so obsessed with the famous, that they would desire an image of a celebrity signed to them. Again subtly altering the works of another and forever making them him own.

Car Hoods

Car Hoods are a series that works off of the early Gangs series. It featured images from car enthusiast magazines, as well as Prince’s own interest with automobiles. Prince ordered car hoods of all different models of classic vehicles sold by stores that advertised in the magazines he photographed. He would than take the hoods and cast molds, which he would then wash in different colors. He created something very Rothko-esc with these hoods. There is something about the simplicity of color that interacts separately, yet together with one another. It brings back a memento mori of the color field artist. The peculiar host of the paint, the mold of a car hood, rather than the traditional canvas, pushes the viewer to look beyond the actuality of the piece and see life within the paint, the “poetry behind the process”.

The Check Paintings

The Check Paintings series is like the Celebrities. It was made possible by Prince’s addiction with collecting. Prince began to seek out canceled checks from famous figures in history ranging from Jack Kerouac to Andy Warhol. He would put these checks onto paint-covered canvases and often paired them with images of the individual they once belonged to. It again plays with the idea of America’s interest in the famous and the fact that these “celebrities” are real people, no different from you or I. They aren’t untouchable or elites, they too get their checks cashed and cancelled.

The Nurse Paintings

The Nurse Paintings are Prince’s most recent series. These nurses are inspired by the covers and titles of inexpensive novels that were commonly sold at newspaper stands and delis (pulp romance novels). They were cheap and trashy entertainment, hence Prince’s attraction to their reflection of what the American people want. Prince scanned the covers of the nurse books with his computer and than using the modern invention of inkjet printing, transferred the images to canvas. He then personalized the pieces with acyclic paint, adding an air of mystique to them. They first debuted in 2003 at Barbara Gladstone Galleries, who along with Larry Gagosian, represents Prince. They received mixed responses at their premier, not even able to sell for the asking price of 50-60 thousand. Presently a work from the Nurse series, which he stopped at 42 nurses, sells for a minimum of 5-6 million. Each nurse is distinguished by a personalized name such as Surfer Nurse, Naughty Nurse, Millionaire Nurse, and Dude Ranch Nurse. These are all like the images appropriated from the books they were sourced from. At an auction in New York, two different Nurses went up for sale and surpassed their high estimates. It is like Prince said “The problem with art is, it’s not like the game of golf, where you put the ball in the hole or you don’t put the ball in the hole. There’s no umpire. There’s no judge. There are no rules. It’s one of the problems, but it’s also one of the great things about art: It becomes a question of what lasts.”


Actual covers of books were scanned to create the foundation for the paintings — the titles and the images of the nurses. They are ink jet print on canvas with acrylic overlay and are fairly large in scale.

Richard Prince used the technique of modern rephotography and this series is notable for the technique of layering digital and analogue media: the application of an analogue medium (acrylic) to a digitalized print (ink jet) of a digitalized image (scan) of an analogue print (book cover) of an analogue artwork (original art portrayed on the book cover).


In the series of paintings, the nurses all wear caps and their mouths are covered by surgical masks, although in some of the paintings the red lips bleed through the masks. The final presentations preserve the title and nurse image from each of the book covers, though all else is obscured.


(all works 2002 - 2003)

  • A Nurse Involved, 72 x 45 inches
  • Aloha Nurse, 58 x 36 inches
  • BachelorNurse 40 x 28 inches
  • Country Nurse 80 x 52 inches
  • Danger Nurse at Work, 93 x 56 inches
  • Debutant Nurse, 100 x 58 inches
  • Doctor's Nurse, 58 x 36 inches
  • Dr. Barry's Nurse 78 x 58
  • Dude Ranch Nurse, 78 x 58 inches
  • Dude Ranch Nurse, 80 x 52 inches
  • Graduate Nurse, 89 x 52 inches
  • Heartbreak Nurse, 54 x 64 inches
  • Lake Resort Nurse
  • New England Nurse
  • Nurse Barclay's Dilemma, 70 x 48 inches
  • Piney Woods Nurse
  • Surfing Nurse #2, 78 1/4 x 91 inches
  • Surgical Nurse, 58 x 36 inches

Current Works

Prince's most recent series of paintings appear at first glance to be a throwback to more traditional genres of figurative art, and a departure from the pulpy and kitchy content of the Nurse and Jokes series respectively. In these newest works, all from the beginning of 2007, Prince utilizes semi-pornographic collaged inkjet prints overlayed with acrylic paint in the style of DeKooning. Notably, it is the faces and extremities- hands and feet- which get the most direct treatment from the artist, bulging and distorting with an elegantly contained expressive energy. These works lack the obvious linguistic recontextualizing of the Jokes series, opting instead for a purely visual idiom. This overlaying of paint onto photo would seem to suggest the implicit failure of either medium to truly represent the subject, instead referencing the act of the artist as curator of discreet visual inputs. In this sense then, Prince holds fast to the methodology of appropriation, whilst simultaneously opening up the visual surface for more directly expressive treatments, thereby enriching the meaning of both.

In 2007, Prince collaborated with the fashion designer Marc Jacobs on his Spring 2008 collection for the prestigious French label Louis Vuitton. The collection itself was inspired, in part, by Prince's Nurse Paintings. In an interview for Jacobs stated that after he asked Prince to collaborate with him for Louis Vuitton, Prince started to look to paperbacks that were set in iconic cities 'after dark'. Eventually, this inspired the collection, and as Marc Jacobs puts it, "(Prince) asked me, what about Louis Vuitton after dark?".

His untitled work involving the body of a 1970 Dodge Challenger and high-tech parts such as a 660 hp Hemi engine, custom interior, black wheel wells, 14-inch tires in the front and 16 inch in the back, a pale orange paint job with a flat black T/A hood, as well as various decals and emblems is being created for Frieze. He also has another car sculpture in the Guggenhiem called American Prayer. It is a 1968 Dodge Charger that has been completely emptied of any engine parts and interiors and is stripped of any paint and then powder coated. In place of the engine block there’s a cement block.

See also

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