Private Collection, United Kingdom
Gagosian Gallery, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Heartbreak Nurse is Prince’s appropriation and reimagination of the cover art for a novel by the same name, written by Jane Converse. The primary source image shows a distraught heroine, her body wrapped in the stark white of her uniform, her auburn hair pulled back under a nurse’s cap, being embraced from behind by a man we understand to be her love interest. Under the cover’s bold-typed title appears a scintillating tagline that previews the narrative: ‘A new tragedy drove him to an old love. Had Lillian lost him forever?’ This scene, one rife with angst and heartbreak, the young nurse tragically scorned, was first scanned then enlarged and transferred onto the surface of the present work using an inkjet printer, a vestige of the anonymous facture that was the hallmark of Prince’s earlier oeuvre. By way of veils of applied acrylic that he lavished atop this inkjet ground, the artist nearly erased all pictorial content aside from the body of the nurse, the pronounced titled, and a faint trace of the author’s name, features of the original composition that he consciously allowed to emerge from the depths of his churning surge of ominous hues. The figure of the doctor, once so prominent in the intertwined composition of the figures, now appears a shadowy spectre, his entire body apart from his left arm and the fingers of his right hand seeming to sink into the acrylic depths. His obsolescence dually signals the disappearance of the image’s initial narrative purpose, and ushers in a new role for the centrally focused nurse. Though here thrust to the fore, ostensibly unencumbered by her emotional burdens and free to become the sole focus of our undivided attention, the now golden blonde nurse is made even more helpless by Prince with the addition of a loosely delineated white mask-like patch of paint that fully obscures her mouth, rendering her speechless. The scene of conflict and heartache that adorns the cover of the eponymous pulp novel thus transforms under Prince’s hand into an image even more provocative than the original.
Prince’s Nurse paintings have come to be considered as some of the most distinctive and highly prized works created thus far in his career. While on the surface it is their sumptuous, fantastical, and seductive appearance that distinguishes them from the artist’s Joke paintings or Cowboy photographs, the three renowned series are in fact intimately connected through the equally firm roots they each take in the core ethos of Prince’s complex conceptual project. The Pop appropriation that constitutes the essence of the Cowboy corpus is critical to the conception and execution of the Nurses; with his Joke paintings, these works share a dependence on borrowed text and kitsch humour. What is added here, to brilliant effect and with true bravado, is Prince’s particular riposte to Abstract Expressionism. It seems far from coincidental, when considering the brash painterliness of his Nurse paintings, that the strokes, drips, and splatters that populate their lush surfaces pay specific homage to techniques pioneered by the legendary group of artists working to redefine the contemporary landscape in the exact same era that gave birth to the pulp novel. Heartbreak Nurse shows Prince at his best: one foot squarely in the realm of high art, while the other rests comfortably in the empire of the banal.
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