Ten-year-old brooke Shields had a provocative beauty that launched a thousand controversies. Those notorious nude bathtub photos certainly helped Shields get her career-making child-prostitute role in Pretty Baby, but they also led to a lawsuit: In 1981, Brooke and her mother began a three-year court battle trying to wrest control of the pictures from advertising photographer Garry Gross. Though he won the case, Gross was blackballed by his industry, and for years, no one would touch the photos. Now, however, one of them hangs in the Whitney Museum’s centennial show and has just been sold by Christie’s for $151,000, a record for the artist.
But there’s a twist. The artist is not Garry Gross, who took the picture, but Richard Prince, who took a picture of the picture. Prince is a well-known “appropriation” artist who, back in 1983, photographed the Gross photo and gave it the title Spiritual America. He then displayed it, anonymously and all alone, in a Lower East Side storefront rented solely for the occasion. “He enshrined the work,” says his dealer, Barbara Gladstone. “There’s something about isolating something and showing it in a different way which changes it totally.” Creating meaning by changing the context is the raison d’être of appropriation art, but sometimes it can be awfully hard to see that added value – as in the case of Prince’s picture, which is an exact photo of the original. “There’s no difference,” says Prince, “except that I took it. But I recognized that it had a life that none of Gross’s other photographs did. It’s almost like a picture out of Dante’s Inferno.” (Is this why Spiritual America sold for a small fortune? It’s worth noting that other Prince photographs sold at auction this year have gone, on average, for only about $14,000.)
Meanwhile, Gross was recently kicked off eBay for auctioning posters of the original photos for $75 to $200 apiece. “They were deemed potentially pornographic,” he sighs, adding that his intentions for the Shields photos were always artistic. Originally, he had hoped to include them in a photographic book about the continuum between girls and women. But the Shields lawsuit devastated his career. And when Prince’s lawyer called him up in 1992, almost a decade after the appropriation, to say that Prince planned to hang his photo in a Whitney Museum retrospective, Gross was too broke for another lawsuit. This was lucky for Prince, because “the courts would not have viewed such an exact copy favorably,” says art lawyer John Koegel. Instead, they settled for $2,000, and Prince agreed to include Gross’s name on the label whenever Spiritual America was displayed at the Whitney. To date, Prince has failed to comply. The museum, caught apparently unawares, scrambled to change the label last month when Gross called to complain. As payback, Gross went to the Whitney two weeks ago and took a photo of Prince’s photo (click here to view), bringing the appropriation full circle.
Although Spiritual America hung in both the Whitney and moma this fall, Gross has found it difficult to get a gallery show. “About 30 galleries turned me down last year,” he says. “Many said the pictures were still too controversial.” Last fall, the American Fine Arts Gallery in SoHo finally gave him a show that did “respectably,” according to the gallery, with most of the prints priced at $2,500. Now, Gross says, he’s taking matters into his own hands: This week, he is launching a Website called thewomaninthechild.com, devoted exclusively to selling his Shields photographs. At $300 each, they’re a steal.