This morning I spoke to Amy Cappellazzo, co-head of the postwar and contemporary
art department at Christie’s, to ask her about Richard
Prince’s Nurse paintings. How come one sold in London in October for $2.1
million, and then one sold in New York in November for $6.1 million, and then
a third sold in New York a couple of days later for $4.3 million?
Turns out, that’s an easy question: it’s all to do with the size of the paintings.
The Nurse paintings come in four sizes, and the $6.1 million painting was the
largest – 90 inches tall. That’s huge. The $4.3 million painting
was smaller, and the $2.1 million painting was smaller still – although
still pretty sizeable, at 47" tall.
But while the narrow question is easily answered, the bigger question remains
– how come Prince, who made his name and reputation with rephotographed
conceptual pieces, is now getting the highest prices of his career for old-fashioned
painting, valued on its intrinsic aesthetic merit?
Prince "has great painterly abilities," said Cappellazzo, saying
that "the nurse paintings were him showing off his abilities". Besides,
she said, they’re "incredibly iconic: everybody looks at them and loves
I’m half convinced: I do see that Prince is a very good painter, but then again
there’s no shortage of very good painters in this world. What makes Prince important,
art-historically speaking, is his early conceptual work, not his later outsized
paintings. And it’s only because of that early work that he can now command
these multi-million-dollar prices.
But maybe that doesn’t matter. Famous Artist + Iconic Painting = High Prices,
even if the artist isn’t famous for being a painter. Indeed, look at Jeff Koons’s
paintings: they too go for millions of dollars, despite the fact that Koons
has never even pretended to be able to paint.