Nowhere do the conundrums of modern celebrity figure more vividly – or more poignantly – than in the child star. The actress and model Brooke Shields first appeared in Richard Prince’s oeuvre in his 1983 work Spiritual America. Assuming the role of mediator, rather than creator, Prince re-photographed an eerie image – taken in 1975 by commercial photographer Garry Gross – of the naked ten-year-old future starlet made up like a grown woman. The resulting picture was fitted with a faux-gilt frame and exhibited alone, in a disused storefront on New York’s then down-at-heel Lower East Side. Titled Spiritual America after a 1923 photograph by Alfred Stieglitz that depicts the back haunches of a gelded workhorse, Prince’s gesture has been variously interpreted as pointing to a shift in America’s preoccupations from labour to ‘look’, or an indictment of the exploitation of a child as the late twentieth century’s beast of burden. For the artist, who has eschewed the endorsement of a fixed critical posture, it is ‘an extremely complicated photo of a naked girl who looks like a boy made up to look like a woman’. By the early 1980s, Shields was a teen star, the wholesome face (and body) of Calvin Klein jeans. Prince’s decision to present the image as a work of art provoked a flurry of controversy when Shields’s mother and manager, who had facilitated Gross’s original shot, attempted to have the photograph withdrawn from circulation.
For Prince, Shields’s story has remained a suggestive symptom of our culture of publicity (not to mention an important landmark in his own artistic mythology), and in 2005 he reprised the installation at the same New York location, this time in co-operation with the adult actress. Produced in collaboration with the celebrity photographer Sante D’Orazio, Spiritual America IV invokes the seductive atmosphere and pose of the earlier image, but now Prince’s subject is discreetly clad in a bikini. Recreated here at the artist’s request to replace his original Spiritual America in this exhibition, Spiritual America IV marks a new chapter in the story of a work that continues to address our implicated relationship to the seductions and ruses of celebrity culture.