Some people worship at the alter – I believe in de Kooning.
Striking in chromatic intensity and provocative in compositional form, Untitled (de Kooning) ranks amongst the most exceptional works from Richard Prince’s celebrated corpus of paintings that engage with the canonical imagery of Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning. The idea for the series came to Prince when he was browsing a catalogue of de Kooning’s Women series, which featured grotesque distorted female figures violently entangled in swathes of abstraction. Inspired by the imagery, Prince began sketching and doodling over the paintings using graphite and oil crayons, adding outlines, textures and silhouettes. He also applied collage fragments cut and pasted from catalogues and vintage pornographic magazines, embellishing the figures with facial features, body parts and limbs, as well as male and female genitalia, building hybrid or hermaphroditic characters. These laboriously reworked images were then ripped out, montaged together, and scanned and blown up via ink-jet printer onto monumental canvases, creating further distance from the source material. Prince further paints over the canvases in oil and graphite in sweeping gestures reminiscent of de Kooning’s painterly technique. The resulting intricate surface and maimed imagery manifest simultaneously as an ode to the late Abstract Expressionist and a rigorous interrogation on the mythology of American pop cultural life, from its seedy sex-infused imagery to its idealistic veneers.
His oeuvre heavily associated with low-brow American culture, Prince’s interventions blur not only the distinction between de Kooning’s imagery and his own, but also the boundaries between high and low culture. In particular, Prince exposes the crass, sleazy and sexually charged undertones latent within American culture. Sex permeates Prince’s work: from his re-photographed image of pre-pubescent child-actor Brooke Shields in Spiritual America to his provocative Nurses inspired by pulp fiction, and from the hermaphroditic figures in the present series to his 2009 artist’s book Bettie Kline. In the latter, Prince juxtaposed paintings by Franz Kline with pin-up photos of Bettie Page, taken in the early 1950s by Irving Klaw, whose studio was located next to Kline’s. Their visual similarities led Prince to a quasi-serious narrative of the pin-up model as Kline’s artistic muse and the subsequent conclusion that “instead of inner turmoil and psychological angst, abstract expression was about sex” (the artist cited in his blog, Birdtalk, online). The artist’s interrogation of prescribed identities and stereotypes determined by social and cultural codes constitute at once a critique and celebration of the darker underbelly implicit within constructed canons and myths.
From the time that he first re-photographed Marlboro cigarette ads for his Cowboy series in 1983, Prince has expressed his artistic impulse through appropriation, through which he examines the visual and cultural iconography of American life. Along with his contemporaries from the Pictures Generation of the 1970s and 1980s, Prince rose to prominence at a time when his artistic predecessors had already stripped the art-making process from its representational, durational and even material constraints. In belonging to an image-saturated, highly commercialised culture, Prince directly took on the visual vernacular that characterized their generation. Faced with an abundance of pre-existing pictures, Prince “never thought of making anything new”; as he has stated, “I am very much against making anything new in a modernist approach” (the artist in conversation with Noemi Smolik in Carl Haenlein, Ed., Richard Prince, Photographs, 1977-1993, Hanover, 1994, p. 32). His manipulation of these found and readymade images vacillates between a Warholian fascination with pop-culture and criticism of the myths they propagate; in the profound inauthenticity of his re-worked images, Prince delivers a scrutiny of our culture’s increasing attraction to staged glossy spectacle over authentic lived experience, critiquing the excesses and opulence of an age devoted to crass materialism and illusion.
Commencing in 2007, Prince’s de Kooning series expands for the first time the artist’s vocabulary of appropriated material beyond commercial or popular imagery into the realm of fine art. At once an homage and desecration, Prince’s acts of defilement to de Kooning’s women continue the late Abstract Expressionist’s subversion of the art historical tradition of the alluring female nude. Rejoicing in the grotesque, de Kooning said: “Beauty becomes petulant to me. I like the grotesque. It’s more joyous” (Willem de Kooning cited in “Woman to Landscape”, in John Elderfield, de Kooning, a Retrospective, Exh. Cat. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 277). Further, the methodology of Prince’s disruptive interferences is reminiscent of de Kooning’s original practice, which involved collage-like treatments involving found photography, often torn from magazines, as well as a rigorous process of scraping and re-painting. Prince even mirrors de Kooning’s painterly practice, employing bold sweeping brushwork that speak to the late Abstract Expressionist’s acclaimed gestural modus operandi. By mirroring de Kooning in both philosophy and technique, Prince’s de Kooning paintings manifest as quotations that are appropriated multiple times over, manifesting as a prism refracting multiple binaries including creation and destruction, high and low art, puritanism and mass pop culture.