As part of the Richard Prince: Spiritual America exhibition at the Walker, Education is sponsoring a series of three tours relatedto broader themes in the show.
This Thursday, Paula Rabinowitzwill lead the second in our series American Mythologies: The Art of Richard Prince Part 2 Fetish. She’s the chair of the English Department at the University of Minnesota, professor of cultural studies, feminist theory, and visual culture. She’s written several books including They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary, and Black and White and Noir: Americas Pulp Modernism. She’ll explain to us why anyone would read a book like Student Nurse in the first place and how the act of collecting is itself a fetishistic practice.
She’s in the midst of reading prose and meeting with students as finals approach, but I did get her to answer some of my questions in anticipation of this Thursday’s tour.
What is the history of pulp fiction novels and the artists who painted the covers?
The history of their production and reception is very complex–dating from the 19th century in France and US where books were not really bound but covered in paper, then the emergence of paperbacks as we know them through Penguin in Britain, and finally with the emigration of some Penguin publishers to the US just before WWII, here. Pocketbooks was the first US paperback publisher–followed by many others–including Signet, started by someone originally associated with Penguin.Copyright precluded any use of the “bird” insignia so the title of the publisher is a joke as it uses a medallion–a signet–but the name is a homonym for cygnet–a baby swan–deep insider literary joke. Paperbacks were distributed through magazine and candy sales methods rather than through usual booksellers distribution processes; they were sold at candy stores, train and bus stations and so forth across the country–even in places without bookstores. The range of materials published is vast–from trashy nurse novels to Freud or Faulkner (both of whom would have trashy covers) to appeal to a broad reading public.The cover artists–for instance Robert Jonas and James Avati (known as the Rembrandt of paperback)–were influential designers and superb draftsmen (almost all men–though the back covers of Dell books often had maps drawn by Ruth Belew), who incorporated modernist and realist influences. Again they too appealed to wide audiences–books were published in runs of close to half a million minimum.
Can you make a comparison to the artists who painted the pulp fiction covers and Richard Prince’s art in terms of high art/low art?
Cover artists were concerned with bringing attention to the product being sold–their works were meant to be eye-catching, to be lurid and informative (sort of) yet they were meant to be reassuring, in that the images, colors, format were regularized and familiar–they were parts of a series. People knew what to expect. I think Prince is tapping into this idea of replication and familiarity–witness recent Christie’s advertisement in the New York Times that one of his nurse’s is being auctioned and expected to bring in six to eight million dollars.
What was behind the stereotype of the femme fatale/caregiver image that is portrayed in the nurse paintings?
Sex and Death–night work (like a prostitute) but within an institution (like a prison guard)–care and trauma. Birth and death–uniforms (especially in 1930s-1950s iconography) that cross health (doctor’s whites) and religion (nuns’ habits ) I could go on and on–and will on Thursday.
Collecting is an essential part of Richard Prince’s artistic practice, and you’ve said there is a fetishistic aspect to that. Why?
Same but different–countable, uncontrollable–secret and widely available (at least for those of us without money who cannot collect art)–obsessive.