“Your man hasn’t broken away from the past—and never will.” Nurse Gail Winters tried to forget her mother’s words. She and Dr. Craig Hadley were in love and that was all that mattered. But was it? Craig was divorced. He had nothing but hatred for his former celebrity wife, Vera Vaughn. But there was a matter of a million dollars involved and Vera was a very greedy woman. All Gail could offer Craig was her love. But was that enough when his ex-wife was offering him his child? It was a game with high stakes—and the winner would take all”—Text from Runaway Nurse by Florence Stuart, Macfadden/Bartell, New York, 1964.
Painted in 2006, Richard Prince’s Runaway Nurse is a steamy, lurid work, a flagrantly erotic example of the Nurse paintings that remain the iconic series in the artist’s oeuvre. Set ablaze in fiery crimson tones, the painting depicts a beautiful young nurse, whose bare shoulders and black lingerie make Runaway Nurse one of the most overtly sexual in the series. Prince lavishes attention on his heroine, from the highlights of her tender, glowing skin, to the delicate drape of her exposed blouse and the drips of aqueous black paint that seep from her lingerie. The painting’s title—“RUNAWAY NURSE”—appears above her, hovering in the air like a neon sign for some shady roadside bar. Suspenseful and seductive, the painting evokes the crime-laded intrigue of the original dime-store novel that inspired it—the 1948 Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by American writer Horace McCoy. Dramatically enlarged to heroic scale, the heroine in Runaway Nurse becomes life-sized, surrounded by the molten aura that Prince creates, accentuating the pent-up desire and salacious content of the original novel, to create an image that’s even more provocative than the character in the original book.
Runaway Nurse is a heady painting, its imagery overtly sexual and its palette set ablaze in roaring tones of fiery crimson. Prince’s scantily-clad nurse is lovingly detailed, from the delicate daubs of paint that describe the tender features of her face to the expertly-modeled drape of her opened blouse. The luminous quality of her skin gives off a radiant glow when set against the painting’s brushy background. Standing at the foot of a bass bed, she displays herself for the viewer, her blouse opened to reveal bare shoulders and black lingerie, yet she demurs by turning her head to the side and closing her eyes in silent dissent. A delicate wash of translucent white acrylic indicates the nurse’s mask that covers her nose and mouth, yet her parted red lips are still visible beneath. Since their inception in 2003, Prince’s Nurse paintings have long possessed a certain hushed eroticism, yet Runaway Nurse is one of the few examples to depict an overtly semi-nude figure. Along with the nurse’s hat that rests upon the back of her head, the mask is the only remaining vestige of her identity, as the viewer puzzles over the mystery that surrounds her dramatic circumstances.
A widely-known bibliophile whose collection contains more than 3,000 titles, Richard Prince is drawn to the trumped up melodrama of vintage dime-store novels, and regularly trawls his collection for inspiration. In Runaway Nurse, Prince conflates the imagery of not one, but two, separate book covers. The first is Runaway Nurse by the novelist Florence Stuart. Written in 1964, the book’s cover depicts a young nurse wearing her signature white uniform. Rendered in profile, she appears rather distraught, with downcast eyes and a subtle pout, as if caught in a moment of thoughtful turmoil. The précis of the original book, which sold for 40-cents when it was published in 1964, describes the hyperbolic drama of its contents: “Was young Nurse Winters enough of a woman to make the man she loved forget his past?” which is still discernible beneath a layer of brushy crimson above the painting’s title. On the original cover, the young Nurse Winters must vie for affection from her fiancé (a doctor) who is visible in the background along with his celebrity ex-wife, who in the novel conspires to win him back in hopes of securing a million-dollar inheritance.
The steamy imagery from a second novel, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, by the film noir novelist Horace McCoy, is the second book that Prince appropriates in Runaway Nurse. This book features an original illustration by the artist James Avati that depicts a scantily-clad seductress whose open blouse revealed a titillating amount of flesh considering the book’s original publication date of 1948. A work of quintessential film noir, its cover reads: “Love as hot as a blow torch...crime as vicious as the jungle.” And its cover illustration alludes to the hardboiled story of the novel’s principal characters, Ralph Cotter, a career criminal who’s recently escaped from prison and Margaret Dobson, a wealthy heiress who sets her sights on Cotter and becomes embroiled in a steamy affair.
The book’s graphic violence and vividly sexual scenes are surprising for the era in which they were written, and Avati’s illustration conveys a key scene in the book, in which Margaret and Ralph are caught in flagrante delicto. In the illustration, Margaret’s posture is emblematic of her role as a stereotypical femme fatale—she reveals her semi-nude body to the viewer yet her back is turned to Cotter and her eyes remain closed. Seen in this light, she seems to offer something that is off-limits to her male paramour, or at least available, but for a price. Seated upon the bed, Cotter grabs the railing and looks on with skepticism, a sneer slightly visible upon his cigarette-smoking mouth, the bars of the brass bed further separating him from Margaret, reminding him of his time spent behind bars. In 1950, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was made into a film of the same name starring James Cagney, and was banned in Ohio for its salacious imagery.
It is telling that Prince would conflate two vintage novels in Runaway Nurse—one of them a lost classic of film noir and another quite its opposite, the sub-genre of “nurse romance”—since the stereotypical construction of gender and its corresponding sexual politics have long influenced his work. Coming of age in the 1980s alongside artists like Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine, who became known as the Pictures Generation, Prince explored sexual identity through the construction of gender in magazine ads and photographs. His early photographs of fashion models were appropriated from the ads he culled through while working for Time/Life, and by isolating the image out of context, Prince was able to call attention to their construction of the feminine ideal as an inherent falsehood. In the series that followed, from Cowboys to Girlfriends, Prince continued to interrogate the way in which gender and sexuality is framed by the media. He continues to do so in Runaway Nurse, conflating the loose-talking, amoral femme fatale of McCoy’s crime novel with the hapless, love-struck nurse in Florence Stuart’s Runaway Nurse. The character he portrays is caught at a crossroads between two extremes: the virgin or the whore. Her choice isn’t readily apparent, allowing the painting to delve into the controversial nature of female sexuality, as implied in its hidden source material.
Further source imagery for Runaway Nurse might find precedent in the infamous painting by John Singer Sargent Portrait of Madame X, which caused scandal and outrage when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884. The flagrantly bare décolletage, cinched waist and pale skin of Sargent’s model created outcry when the painting was exhibited, and revealed the identity of Madame X as an American expatriate named Virginie Gautreau. Gautreau had a notorious reputation for infidelity that was rumored through the elite Parisian circles that would have viewed the 1884 Salon. In Runaway Nurse, Prince seems to mimic the creamy skin of Madame X’s bare shoulders and the aloof posture of her stance, especially the way she both presents herself toward the viewer yet looks away, her face rendered in profile. In Runaway Nurse, the female figure displays herself in front of a brass bed, her delicate hands and wrists coming to rest upon its cold, metal frame. This, in combination with the painting’s lurid red background and the torn-open appearance of her blouse, appear to present the figure in sadomasochistic terms; one can imagine her wrists tied to the bed frame, her clothing torn open by a lover’s strong hands. The brass bed might also remind the viewer of the inherent parameters of the painting’s frame and the visual barrier that exists between the canvas and the viewer’s gaze.
Throughout his work, Richard Prince delves into the forgotten and outmoded narratives that have framed the way we perceive ourselves, from pulp fiction to fashion magazines, to explore and provoke the stereotypes that pervade concepts of sexuality, desire and control. His obsession with subculture reveals a truer understanding of ourselves, though not obvious or flattering at times. He has said, “I’ve never wanted to be transgressive or to make an image that was unacceptable or that I would have to censor,” he said. “But that being said, I think a lot of the imagery I do create is sexual, and I hope it does turn people on” (R. Prince, quoted in R. Kennedy, “Two Artists United By Devotion to Women,” New York Times, 23 December 2008, sec. C, p. 1). In spite of the predictability of the heroines Prince depicts, they are quite complex figures that both exaggerate and undermine the stereotypes they imply, making them closer to real-life women than the one-sided caricatures they seem.