In an ever-changing world, perhaps Tiffany & Co.’s most consistent relationship with the public over the last century is its daily advertisement on page A3 of The New York Times, which began running in 1896. What far fewer people have followed are the Tiffany Paintings by renowned artist Richard Prince, inspired by these very same ads, which were originally unveiled at Gagosian Gallery in 2010 and featured in an accompanying catalogue of the same name.
Prince, who began his career in the tearsheet department at Time, Inc., first gained notoriety in the 1980s for his now-iconic Cowboys (lassoed from Marlboro Man ads), The Nurse Paintings (ripped from romance novel covers) and his New Portraits series (featuring images from other people’s Instagram feeds). He is revered—and reviled—as a master of appropriation, a predilection on full display in the Tiffany Paintings.
So what, exactly, is a Tiffany Painting? They boast titles like “Stranded,” “The Gift,” “The Silver War” and “Heavy”—double entendres lifted directly from Tiffany & Co. ad copy. Seen at a distance, they look like colorful monochromes with a little square cutout in the upper right-hand corner. Upon closer inspection, the viewer realizes that these blank spots are actually Tiffany ads from The New York Times. For Richard Prince fans—accustomed to his strain of appropriation—the fact that he’s made no effort to disguise the provenance of his source material is a bold, even humorous, provocation. But how has Richard Prince transformed the original newspaper spread other than to blot out all the news that’s fit to print? Is he making some commentary on the state of contemporary journalism? Perhaps with his Tiffany Paintings, Prince is suggesting that we only read The New York Times anymore for the advertising.
Top, right: The Legend, 2010, acrylic and inkjet on canvas, 46 x 57 3/8 inches. Above: Untitled (Tiffany), 2005, acrylic and collage on foam core, 28 x 30 1/2 inches. Left: The Moon, 2007, acrylic and inkjet on canvas, 81 x 100 inches.
As social media continues to lap its traditional counterparts, must we wonder if these paintings, or even newspapers themselves, will be looked back on as time capsules of the pre-digital age, stone tablets from the 21st century?
Serialization presents its own challenges. Apart from using different abstract color fields, the Tiffany Paintings may appear, at times, statically uniform. The viewer is left questioning whether it’s the ads that serve as a control group or the format itself. However, the conditions by which something is made can be a form of subtext. The fact that Richard Prince was living in a remote upstate New York town while making his Tiffany Paintings could, too, qualify as an interesting contradiction. Was he longing for the action and glamour of city living or simply content to recall it at a safe distance?
Though I described the Tiffany Paintings earlier as colorful monochromes, that was somewhat disingenuous. While it’s a matter of fact that the surfaces are dominated by washes of deep purple and baby blue, if examined carefully, remnants of newspaper stories are clearly legible beneath the paint. To imagine that this newsprint has been unaltered would be a mistake; there’s nothing arbitrary about what Prince allows us access to. Squint a little and you see obituaries for artist Tom Wesselmann and photographer Bob Richardson.
In some instances, you find redacted party pictures of various celebrities and notables. Consider these two reference points—obits and society pics—as marks on a spectrum and it’s as though Prince is leveling the playing field between the living and the dead. The artist himself says of the series, “Under all that paint in the Tiffany Paintings is everything in the world.”
Dropping breadcrumbs is one of Richard Prince’s favorite hobbies. It’s easy to see how his Good Paintings, a series where Prince leaves one word of positivity (“happy” or “beautiful”) in a sea of white, was foreshadowed in his 2009 Tiffany Painting called “The Finish.” Or even how the aforementioned party pictures might have been hints of his Instagram portraits to come.
Prince began his art career cribbing notes from print media and then watched as that same media went digital. It can be dangerous to make art about the era you live in. The danger is that in 20 or 30 years it will look cripplingly dated. But there is also the potential for triumph. Robert Rauschenberg once said, “I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world.” He was speaking of his assemblages with found objects; but the underlying principle can be applied to Prince’s work again and again, whether it’s Nurse Paintings taken from pulp paperbacks or the evocative Tiffany Paintings created from black-and-white jewelry ads in our paper of record.