Richard Prince was born in 1949 in the Panama Canal Zone – at the time a territory of the United States – and was brought up in Braintree, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. After applying to the San Francisco Art Institute without success, he moved to New York in 1973. There he worked at the Time-Life Building as a preparer of magazine clippings. In the early 1990s he achieved a BFA from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and then an MFA from Hunter College, New York. Today he is regarded as one of his generation’s most revered artists.
It was during Prince’s time working in Time magazine’s tear sheet department that he became aware of conceptual possibilities of images generated by the mass media. At the end of each day, he would be left with nothing but torn out advertising images from the eight or so titles owned by Time-Life: ‘oceans without surfers, cowboys without Marlboros.’ Prince re-photographed and juxtaposed these ‘found’ images, deliberately creating an artificial look to the borrowed elements and creating new works of art. Although trained formally as painter, Prince’s photographic collages were the first of his work to command the attention of the fine art world. Comparing this new method of searching out interesting advertisements and re-photographing them to ‘beachcombing’, he redefined the concept of authorship and ownership altogether.
Re-photography uses appropriation as its own focus: artists pull from the works of others and the worlds they depict to create their own work. This appropriative approach became very popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s amongst artists including Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger. ‘At first it was pretty reckless’ says Prince. ‘Plagiarizing someone else’s photograph, making a new picture effortlessly. Making the exposure, looking through the lens and clicking…(it) felt like unwelling a whole new history without the old one.’
Prince’s first series during this time focused on models, living room furniture, watches, pens, and jewellery, although popular culture later became the focus of his work. Applying his understanding of the complex transactions of representation to the making of art, he evolved a unique signature filled with echoes of other signatures. An avid collector and perceptive chronicler of American subcultures and vernaculars and the role they have played in the construction of American identity, he has probed the depths of racism, sexism, and psychosis in mainstream humour – the mythical status of cowboys, bikers, customized cars, and celebrities; and, most recently, the push-pull allure of pulp fiction and pornography – giving rise to his infamous series of Nurse Paintings.
Since his first solo exhibition at Artists Space in New York in 1980, Prince has shown at numerous museums including the ICA in London, Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles. In 2007 The Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, exhibited a critical overview of the artist’s work entitled, Richard Prince: Spiritual America. He currently lives and works in New York.