- Richard Prince
- Millionaire Nurse
- signed, titled and dated 2002 on the overlap
- inkjet print and acrylic on canvas
- 147.3 by 91.4cm.
- 58 by 36in.
Private Collection, New York
Private Collection, U.S.A.
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Contemporary Art Evening Auction, 14 May 2008, Lot 7
Acquired directly from the above by the previous owner
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With its garish, drippy palette and sexy, seductive protagonist, Millionaire Nurse is the consummate painting from Richard Prince's series of Nurse Paintings. Set against a deliciously brushy colour field that radiates fuchsia light like a tropical sunset, the sultry yet vixen nurse personifies the enigma of the entire series. Dating from 2002, Millionaire Nurse comes from the original group which Prince unveiled at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York in 2003. Departing tangentially from the photographs that rocketed Prince to notoriety in the 1980s, in which he shamelessly pilfered the annals of consumer culture by directly lifting found images and reproducing them in a fine art context, this groundbreaking series witnessed the artist grappling more directly with issues specific to painting. Following his enormously successful retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2007, this series has come to embody his iconoclastic post-modern brilliance.
Millionaire Nurse revisits with discernible maturity many of the themes that were present at the outset of Prince's career – the manipulation of appropriated images, the seductiveness of mass culture and the death of the author – in an entirely new, painterly syntax. For the nurses, Prince's source material is culled from the artist's extensive collection of 1960s racy paperback nurse fantasies, a sub-genre of pulp fiction. An obsessive bibliophile, Prince is renowned for his collection of first edition books which betray an avid fascination with the low-brow, the popular and the kitsch. For Prince, these trashy titles exerted the same seductive power and potent allure as the highly polished images found in the daily onslaught of the media and advertising. The books' covers, designed to titillate and entice, to reveal only enough to grab the viewer's attention and arouse curiosity, provided Prince with a rich seam of cultural material to mine.
Taking as his protagonist the stereotype of the eroticised, uniformed nurse, the female counterpart to the macho cowboys of his earlier series, what attracted Prince to these masterpieces of commercial illustration is their standardised, schematised figures and unsubtle, crass titles that vocalise the formulaic narratives of the fiction. Predominantly written by women (or men under a pseudonym) for women, the vernacular 1950s and 1960s nurse fictions, with their improbable plots, mysterious encounters and taboo romances, offered easily digestible, 45-cents-escapism for a generation of women for whom Women's Lib was still a notional phenomenon. Even in the 1950s, nursing was one of the few professions deemed appropriate for a respectable woman and these novels projected the evolving desires of an entire generation.
In Millionaire Nurse, Prince takes as his source the eponymous 1965 novel by Katherine Foreman. First he scanned, enlarged and transferred the book cover onto canvas using an ink jet print, which left an anonymous facture that was the hallmark of his earlier oeuvre. Unlike the early photographs, however, Prince adulterates the impersonal printed finish with his individual painterly brushstroke, ratcheting up the kitsch by smearing deep layers of garish, drippy, acrylic paint in a winking allusion to Mark Rothko and lyrical abstraction. Meanwhile, the paint-splattered uniform of the seductive female nurse mimics the gestural fury of Willem de Kooning's women, a subject which has found a reprisal in Prince's more recent paintings. At once homage and parody, the result is a candy-store delight.
As the present work shows, Prince radically alters the narrative of the book's cover illustration. He keeps the neon pick colour and vintage font of the alluring title, exaggerating its garishness by emblazoning the text in vivid, neon yellow. Title aside, in Millionaire Nurse all extraneous content is pushed back behind built-up layers of floating blocks of vivid colour. From below these swathes and seams of pigment – at times transluscent and pearlescent – tell-tale signs of the book's cover can be deciphered: a barely legible trace of the author's name and most enigmatically a hint of the strap-line "Would her riches destroy her? – An exciting romance of medicine and high society". While revealing Prince's profound interest in the beauty of word as image, as already evinced in the monochrome joke paintings, here text is subordinate to the extraordinarily chromatic palette and gestural brushwork. Most strikingly, the long-lashed platinum blonde nurse of the book is replaced by the altogether more sexualised vamp of the painting. Slim, nubile and ravishing, she embodies all the trumped-up tropes of clichéd sexuality. Coy and demure, everything about her from her glossy 1950s hairstyle and thick eyelashes is designed to exude sex appeal. Yet the transparent gauze that partially covers her mouth is more suggestive of a femme-fatale. With the mouth obscured, the precise emotion of the original image is obfuscated. The male character of the book cover, the handsome doctor of her daydream who wraps his arms around her, is obliterated without trace in Prince's version. It is the viewer, in his place, who is forced by Prince to adopt the role of the male-gendered participant in this frankly sexual exchange.
Crucially, in Millionaire Nurse, the name of the author is deliberately concealed behind self-consciously painterly swathes of layer upon layer of brilliantly electric hues. A complex game of authorship is at play here: these trite, banal novels, although each penned by individual authors, are borne of a collective consciousness, a matrix of generic, commonplace desires and fantasies projected and reflected by consumer culture, which the author merely vocalises. Like the figures that populate advertising hoardings, the protagonists of this literary form are socio-sexual constructions that merely reflect the collective consumer conscience, our impulses and desires; like the earliest myths, they are the product not of an individual author but of a culture. In other words, in the Nurse Paintings, Prince displaces the author in a bid to tap into a form of shared, authorless, modern myth. In doing so, he exposes the void that lies in the spiritual heartland of American consumer society. Like a latter day flaneur, Prince identifies the most revealing aspects and impulses of our modern, consumer-driven psyche. Be they cowboys or nurses, they are the stereotypes that become cultural archetypes, reproduced by Prince in all their seductive splendour. In Millionaire Nurse, the themes that permeate his earlier work reach fruition in an overtly painterly work that is all about the pursuit of pleasure: pleasure at moving paint around, pleasure at looking at luscious, sexually invested images and surfaces. In short: the pleasure of the consumer.