America Is Hard to See

Solo en Inglès

This audio guide highlights selected works by artists in America Is Hard to See. Curators, scholars, and artists provide additional commentary.

520Richard Prince, Spiritual America, 1983


Richard Prince (1949-), Spiritual America, 1983. Chromogenic print, sheet: 23 15/16 × 19 15/16 in. (60.8 × 50.6 cm) Image: 23 7/16 × 15 13/16 in. (59.5 × 40.2 cm) Frame: 30 7/8 × 78 3/8 in. (78.4 × 199.1 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of an anonymous donor 91.86.2

NARRATOR: Richard Prince’s Spiritual America is a work of appropriation art. It is a photograph of a photograph. Art historian Johanna Burton.

JOHANNA BURTON: It's a picture of a young girl who is immediately recognizable as Brooke Shields, I think for most people in America. But something is strange with the image in the sense that her face looks like the Brooke Shields that we know, but the body is that of a ten-year-old prepubescent girl and it's strangely androgynous. 

So the photograph was originally taken in 1976 by Gary Gross who was a commercial photographer. And he took it for a 1976 book that was published actually by Playboy Press. 

NARRATOR: The book was called Sugar and Spice: Surprising and Sensuous Images of Women. Shields was becoming a star, and her mother wanted to get her as much publicity as possible. She signed a release granting Gross unlimited rights to publish the picture in his book in return for a fee of $450. When the teenage Shields became famous a few years later, she and her mother wanted the image out of circulation. They sued Gross and won, but then lost upon appeal. 

JOHANNA BURTON: What was interesting was that this was the controversy that made Prince interested in the image. He was drawn to the strange sexuality of the image and the ambiguity, but more than that I think he was drawn to the way in which ownership of images and especially overdetermined sexual images seemed to be reaching a new high. He stole the image in 1983, or appropriated it, merely re-framing it in a gold frame and hanging it by itself in a temporary makeshift gallery that he opened, actually called also Spiritual America, on the Lower East Side on Rivington Street. 

NARRATOR: Arguably, Prince is having it both ways here. He brings this kind of commodified sexual image into question. At the same time, he profits from the titillation or shock prompted by this particular image. Not surprisingly, Spiritual America has been one of Prince’s more controversial works.  



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