Aloha Nurse is Prince’s appropriation and reimagination of the cover art for a novel by the same name, written by Ethel Hamill and originally published by Signet Books in 1961. In the primary source image for the present work, the ‘Aloha Nurse’ stares outward, a soft smile on her face, her eyes unfixed and seemingly lost in thought. A scintillating tagline, inscribed above the bold-faced title, serves both as narrative preview and insight into the Nurse’s enigmatic expression: ‘The lovely blonde nurse is torn between her career at a modern hospital in Hawaii and her assignment to a handsome and talented young doctor dedicated to the pursuit of money.’ The uncredited cover artist subtly transformed the personal and professional conflict at the heart of Ethel Hamill’s narrative into a nuanced portrayal of a singular figure. Set against an abstracted background of deep purple, the suggestion of a hazy tropical sun behind her and a graphic rendering of typically Hawaiian Koa plants to her left and right, the Nurse looms large in the frame, her pensive gaze capturing our full attention. When Prince selected Aloha Nurse as the inspiration for the present work, this scene was first scanned and then enlarged and transferred onto the surface of the canvas using an inkjet print, a vestige of the anonymous facture that was the hallmark of the artist’s earlier oeuvre. By way of veils of garish magenta acrylic that he lavished atop this inkjet ground, the artist erased nearly all pictorial content aside from the form 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 and, in the case of the title and the Nurse’s uniform, took special interest in highlighting. The descriptive text, the sun, and the Koa plants have disappeared entirely beneath the churning swarm of Prince’s brushstroke. Furthermore, the Nurse’s expression, conveyed so precisely through the nuanced interpretation of her eyes and mouth in the painting’s source, has been deliberately obscured to the point of undecipherability through the almost violent application of thick passages of shining white paint that form an impenetrable mask over the figure’s face. Prince only allows us the slightest glimpse of his Nurse’s eyes, which have been spared from the cumulative layers of silencing white. The scene of profound inner conflict that adorns the cover of the eponymous pulp novel thus transforms under Prince’s hand to an image even more provocative than the original; this ‘Aloha Nurse,’ as with the Cowboys and Fashion Photographs that preceded her, has been wrested from the annals of pop culture history and fully subsumed within Prince's iconic pantheon of unconventional heroes and heroines.
Prince’s Nurse paintings are considered 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 humor. 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 the pulp novel was at the height of its popularity. Aloha 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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