Untitled (cowboy), 1999
Known for his appropriations of popular culture, Prince created works in series: the Nurse paintings, the Marlboro Man and the Biker Chicks rephotographs, the Muscle Car sculptures, the Joke paintings, the "gang" rephotographs. In a series, one can investigate or interrogate the subject, the treatment, the format and the medium, bringing to light unexpected parallels, contrasts and shadings. And once that investigation is over, one moves on to the next, often startlingly different in subject, treatment, format or medium. What holds the different series together is the artist's sensibility. In the case of Prince, it is his simultaneous fascination with and critique of American pop culture.
It is also his nervous attention to gender roles and stereotypes, for his subjects are not as random as they seem at first. The Marlboro Man and the Muscle Car are the masculine stereotypes of a certain class. Prince approaches them skeptically, but that skepticism is shot through with desire, even nostalgia. "American Prayer," a 1969 Charger chassis stripped, and mounted on and merged with a block, aims for transcendence.
(Picture from The New York Times)
The Nurses, taken from the covers of pulp fiction, are an idealized, even fetishized, image of femininity. But it was the artist's hand that painted out their context (other human figures and a romantic or titillating setting), thus presenting the Nurses for the viewer's examination.
One running joke, in the abstract Jokes paintings, is about a cuckold finding out his cuckoldry. Another joke, repeated in a much later collage series, is about prostitution, how brothels run the best business since they sell and yet keep their goods.
No mention of this gender anxiety in the exhibition notes. The show casts Prince as a humanistic postmodernist, whose radical questioning of authenticity, originality and commercialism serves a progressive agenda. After seeing the show, my feel is that Prince is a much more complex, and thus a much more interesting, artist, than that.