Richard Prince - Biography and Legacy
American Painter, Photographer, and Sculptor
Panama Canal Zone
Biography of Richard Prince
Childhood and Education
Richard Prince was born in 1949 in the Panama Canal Zone, where his parents were stationed with the United States government. In an interview with the English author, J.G. Ballard, eighteen-year old Prince maintained that his parents worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a forerunner of the modern CIA; given Prince's love of hoaxes, however, and Ballard's later career as a renowned science fiction novelist, this claim is dubious at best. The family later relocated to Braintree, Massachusetts, outside of Boston. Growing up in the 1960s, he embraced the era's distinct counter-cultures, even attending Woodstock. Prince admits to exhibiting obsessive tendencies in his adolescence, such as rearranging his room multiple times and vacuuming his carpet into patterns.
After graduating high school in 1967, Prince made a short trip to Europe, returning to the United States to attend Nasson College, a private liberal arts college in Maine. In 1973 he fulfilled his dream of moving to New York City, where he juggled several odd jobs; most notable was his stint at Time Inc. where he worked in the tear sheet department. Responsible for distributing articles within the company, he would clip them from magazines, leaving behind images and advertisements. Through this process, he discovered his first source of inspiration: the repeated cliches and patterns of advertising. In a process that the artist compares to beachcombing, Prince dug through pages and pages of unwanted magazine ads and began to experiment with them.
Without any traditional artistic training, Prince's emergence into the art world was more notable for his exploration of contemporary art theory, than for his technical proficiency. He began by collaging and re-photographing images from marketing campaigns and mass media sources. These techniques of appropriation were part of a larger movement, often referred to as the Pictures Generation, of questioning authorship, originality, and tradition. He mined stereotypes of American culture and various subcultures, selecting their most recognizable attributes and isolating them from any supporting context. His Cowboy series, re-photographed images of the iconic Marlboro Man without any advertising text, was an early success. He used similar strategies of appropriation for his Girlfriends series, which used images of biker girls from motorcycle and car magazines, and his Nurse paintings, drawn from the covers of pulp fiction novels.
While Prince began as a photographer, he has explored different media, including painting, digital manipulation and even three-dimensional work. He uses readymade materials, such as his Hood sculptures, which are made from mail-ordered car hoods, painted to reflect the American fetishization of the car.
Prince's fame grew quickly: within 12 years of his first solo show in the city, Prince was given an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art and his work began breaking records at auction. Prints of his Cowboy (2000) and Spiritual America (1981) rank among the 10 most expensive photographs ever sold at auction.
In recent years, Prince's use of appropriation has been problematic, resulting in multiple lawsuits. Shortly after Prince joined the Gagosian galleries in 2008, his "Canal Zone" series sparked a costly lawsuit when the French photographer, Patrick Cariou, sued Prince for the unlawful use of his original photographs. A number of Prince's paintings in this series were based on photographs taken by Cariou. The case has remained influential, weighing artistic freedom and fair use guidelines against copyright protections. The rulings were mixed, initially supporting Cariou's claim and then supporting Prince upon appeal. The case was settled in 2014, allowing that 25 of 30 paintings from he "Canal Zone" series did not violate Cariou's copyright, with an out of court agreement compensating the artist for the additional five images. Prince's most recent series, New Portraits (2014), based on Instagram photos, has also resulted in legal action by the original photographers, a matter that remains unresolved at the time of this writing.
A bibliophile, Prince collects rare editions of books. He specializes in texts by the Beat Generation, a group of writers in the 1950s known for their antiestablishment stance and emphasis on spiritual, but not necessarily religious, themes. Prince owns a copy of On the Road inscribed to Jack Kerouac's mother as well as the copy formerly owned by Neal Cassady, Kerouac's close friend and inspiration for a central character. In 2011, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France held an exhibition, "Richard Prince: American Prayer," of Prince's books paired with his artwork. The artist also funded a library in his local town to house his collection.
The Legacy of Richard Prince
Continuing a practice that began in the era of Andy Warhol and Pop art, Prince's practice of blurring the boundaries between fine art and advertisement, along with his frequent and unapologetic use of appropriation has altered the ways in which artists understand their ownership of images. His use of visual cliches reinforced Cindy Sherman's exploration of visual stereotypes and his method of rephotographing influenced Sherrie Levine's reproductions of modernist art. His brazen and unapologetic manner was an important model for the Young British Artists (YBAs), especially the work of Damien Hirst. Nearly forty years after first stirring controversy, Prince continues to be one of the most provocative artists working today.