Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1989
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; and Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Richard Prince: Spiritual America, September 2007 - January 2008
Richard Prince, quoted in: 'In the Picture: Jeff Rian in conversation with Richard Prince', in Rosetta Brooks, Jeffrey Rian and Luc Sante, Eds., Richard Prince, London 2003, p. 23.
Without doubt one of the USA's most iconic cultural symbols, the American muscle car has achieved a semi-mythological status not dissimilar to that of the cowboy. An integral part of the post-war American economy, both in terms of production and consumption, the automobile has gained enormous symbolic currency; its influence permeates everything from daily political discussions to the glamour of Hollywood. Brilliantly capturing this potent symbol of contemporary American culture, Richard Prince’s important series of Car Hoods – of which Point Courage is an outstanding early example that was included in the artist's important retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2008, Spiritual America – are archetypal works not just for Prince’s influential practice, but as documents of contemporary history.
Emerging in the rear-view mirror and subsequently chasing down a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T in Bullitt, Steve McQueen transformed the car into a symbol of power and strength by racing it across the silver screen. Not unlike the King of Cool, Prince has transformed symbols of vernacular culture into icons of contemporary America throughout his career – the Cowboys, Nurses, Bikers and their Girlfriends are core examples of this. Characterised by the distinctive coolness of his subjects, Prince’s work stands out from the appropriation artists amongst whom he emerged in New York during the 1970s and 1980s. Like many of the re-photographers of his generation, Prince was inspired by postmodern theories of authenticity and originality; however, his work has always been rooted in a decidedly American cultural influence through a fascination with lowbrow Pop culture.
Having explored the implications of re-photography during the late 1970s, two new bodies of work emerged a decade later when Prince continued his interest in the appropriation of popular sources: the monochromatic Jokes and the car hoods, both begun in 1987. Unlike his earlier photographic work, these series re-contextualised their quotidian sources within the history of abstract art – Minimalism in particular. Whilst the monochromatic Jokes formally reference minimalist painting of the 1960s, the car hoods invoke the shaped canvasses of Ellsworth Kelly and the phenomenological interest in painting-as-object that dominated artistic discussions at the time.
In Prince’s take on these art-historical traditions, the starting point was not a philosophical approach but the decidedly lowbrow cultural influences that also permeate his series of Cowboys, Bikers, Girlfriends and the related Upstate photographs. This juxtaposition of divergent histories of abstraction and vernacular culture is one of Prince’s key artistic strategies and forms the basis for many of the artist’s later series of paintings, including the famous Nurses. His clever juxtapositions not only question the dichotomy between low and high culture, but more importantly highlight the slippage between the reality of consumer objects and the idealised lifestyle they represent. The car hoods are excellent examples of this as they stand for ubiquity of personalised consumer choice and the glamorised lifestyle of movie stars in car chases – yet in reality these mail-order products end up in the cultural backwaters of the American economy.
This critical attitude, in which Prince highlights the dark-side of popular culture by appropriating and re-presenting its symbolism, is at the core of the artist’s practice. As with his photographic work, the paintings and sculptures are characterised by a striking economy of means – appropriating, or as the artist prefers to call it, stealing existing objects to hijack their cultural significance. The car hoods are particularly potent symbols. As Rosetta Brooks explains, they “are from ‘muscle’ cars, which, like the cowboy, have become an archetypal symbol of Americana. The aura of both romance and death clings to them as a result of their subliminal connections with speed, youth and glamour” (Rosetta Brooks, ‘A Prince of Light or Darkness?’, in: Rosetta Brooks, Jeffrey Rian and Luc Sante, Eds., Richard Prince, London 2003, p. 64).
Brilliantly highlighting the dual symbolism of this typically American object, Point Courage is an early example of the important series which captures the very essence of Prince’s influential practice and presents a critical reflection on contemporary culture that fuses histories of abstraction and cultural aspiration. As the artist himself explains, it is the realness of the car hoods – which can be acquired by mail-order off the back of magazines – that make them such powerful objects: "It was the perfect thing to paint. Great size. Great subtext. Great reality. Great thing that actually got painted out there, out there in real life. I mean I didn't have to make this shit up. It was there. Teenagers knew it. It got 'teen-aged;' Primed. Flaked. Stripped. Bondo-ed. Lacquered. Nine coats. Sprayed. Numbered. Advertised on. Raced. Fucking Steve McQueened" (Richard Prince cited in: 'In the Picture: Jeff Rian in conversation with Richard Prince', Ibid., p. 23).
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