“New Figures” by Richard Prince Disturb the Norm

Emily Nathan
Nov 26, 2014 10:25PM

Richard Prince has alternately been described as a pervert and a genius, a travesty and a paragon, a contemporary artist gone terribly off track—and the future of contemporary art. A master of appropriation, he makes work in photography and painting that consistently treads a tenuous line between brave and offensive. In September, he set the blogosphere abuzz when he installed 37 inkjet prints of photos from other people’s Instagram feeds—mostly selfies of young girls in variously suggestive positions, at the gynecologist or using the bathroom—in Gagosian’s Madison Avenue bookstore. 

No matter what he produces, Prince manages to capture the attention of fans and critics alike, “breaking the internet,” as they say, with his provocations. His newest portfolio of images with Two Palms in New York, “New Figures,”is no exception. This series of mixed-media collages on paper borrows from mass media—in this case portraits of naked women from 1950s pulp magazines. Nudies are part of a long trajectory of images explicitly oriented toward and constructed to appeal to the male gaze, transforming women’s bodies into objects of masculine desire. But Prince has further complicated the already loaded motif by literally cutting away the models’ most sexual elements—breasts, thighs—in order to reveal his own hand-scrawled versions of those bits.

By replacing the pulpy photographs’ most lurid parts, he draws our attention to the fact that we looked there first: his assault is therefore twofold, engaging issues of authorship and ownership. First, he takes creative license with an image produced by another photographer with a fixed set of intentions, primarily the titillation of male viewers, and then he disturbs that target viewer’s anticipated experience, forcing an uncomfortable awareness of his implication in the act of objectification. While paying formal homage to both Picasso and de Kooning, Prince ultimately enacts a modern-day Manet: he brings us Olympiaall over again.

Emily Nathan