"I'm not so funny. I like it when other people are funny. It's hard bei ng funny. Being funny is a way to survive. It's like a joke, Jewish Man to his Friend: "If I live I'll see you Wednesday. If I don't I'll see you Thursday."-Richard Prince
Painted in 1990, If I Die is one of Richard Prince's celebrated series of monochromatic joke paintings; the deadpan, visual expressions of humor that have been the mainstay of the American artist's career. Picking out the two lines of the joke in a deep blue, anonymous sans serif font, and setting it within a vast field of flatly painted cardinal red, Prince has created a work that resounds on abstract, conceptual and prosaic levels. Formally, the work mimics that of the abstract or Color Field painters of the 1950s and 1960s, recalling the energizing presence of a 'zip' within Barnett Newman's paintings, the structured clarity of an Ellsworth Kelley, or the post-painterly minimalism of a Frank Stella. Yet by incorporating the culturally significant selection of text, Prince reveals himself to be the inheritor of the conceptual avant-garde. Following in the footsteps of Marcel Duchamp, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, Prince's use or appropriation of jokes present us with snippets of contemporary subcultures that hint at complex, specific social understandings. With characteristic iconoclasm, Prince has taken the esteemed legacy of some of the most serious schools of painting and subverted it, resulting in a picture that is disarmingly resonant despite the simplicity and understated elegance of its execution.
With its familiar scripted format and colloquial patter, If I Die tells a joke in perhaps its most traditional and recognizable guise, the one-liner: "Jewish man talking to his friend: If I live I'll see you Tuesday. If I don't I'll see you Wednesday." Just as we would view a painted representation of objects within the known world, such as a still life or a face, we anticipate its form, its feel and its purpose, and that has a strong influence how we look and what we see. When reading, hearing or looking at a joke there is the expectation of a certain rhythm of build up and release, when a wry truth is revealed. If those expectations are disappointed, if the punch-line is never delivered, say, or it fails to induce a laugh, it is frustrating, and both listener and teller risk feeling like an outsider. If it works, however, the joke can become a powerful act of collusion, a bonding experience that engulfs us with a warm sense that we are not alone: our pleasures and our fears are shared. As Prince once said in an Art in America interview in 1987, "It's almost as if in this culture information touches a chord in us the same way a hit song makes you impulsively keep a beat with everybody else--because you know you're not the only one who thinks the song is great," (R. Prince, quoted in J. Rian, "Social Science Fiction: An Interview with Richard Prince," Art in America, Vol. 75, No. 3, March 1987, p. 88).
The joke paintings began in the mid-1980s as hand-written pieces that the artist never originally intended for public display. Liking the way certain cartoons were drawn, he began to redraw them, picking out one-line gag cartoons from magazines such as the New Yorker: "I was living in Los Angeles. I drew a lot of Whitney Darrow cartoons. He was actually a friend of Jackson Pollock...I picked out about a dozen jokes...ones that were familiar, the ones that get retold, and wrote them out, by hand on small pieces of paper. Paper and pencil. Pencil on paper." However he quickly realized their potential, later remarking, "Sometimes when I walk into a gallery and I see someone's work, I think to myself, 'Gee, I wish I had done that.' When I have that reaction to something I make, then I think I should stay with it, and go with it. It's not like I have that reaction a lot. Very, very few times do I ever have that reaction. I remember thinking that if I had seen someone make the hand-written joke and call it their work, I would have said, "I wish I had done that," (R. Prince, quoted in "Band Paintings: Kim Gordon interviews Richard Prince," Interview Magazine, June 2012).
Dropping the pictorial element of the cartoons to focus on the punch line, the young Prince realized that to pair it with the traditional medium and discipline of painting transmuted these banal, slightly out-dated witticisms into a provocative subject matter. As he has later said, "The subject is radical-the idea of taking 'jokes' as a pictorial theme was really new, a virgin territory, untested waters. To draw them and then present them as your own art was to ask for a lot of understanding from the public. The materials used-canvas, stretcher, paint-were very traditional. That's the discipline," (Richard Prince, quoted in V. Duponchelle, "Richard Prince: To Collect Is to Compare," pp. 79-85, Richard Prince, exh. cat., Paris, 2008, p. 83).
At the time If I Die was made, monumental sculpture and grand, large-scale expressionist painting dominated the art world. Jokes provided an antidote to this bravura, and, even in a post-modern, post-Duchampian age that is so accepting of art's multifarious and fluctuating identity, he still managed to present a strong challenge to the predominant art of the time and to the tastes of the art establishment. Illustrated by the tragic logic that lies behind the joke told in If I Die, Prince recognizes that humor is one of the most prosaic and commonly used ways of coping with our most profound anxieties. In his joke paintings, Prince bravely takes control of this disorientating power, and wields it on canvas, paint and stretcher to challenge his own medium and profession. "Can a joke really be a painting?" he seems to ask "Can painting ever be a joke?"
As with many of Prince's joke paintings, the dark comedy of If I Die, isolated and presented in such a disconcertingly sparse way, eludes to its altogether more unsettling historical origins. Like images used in the media, jokes are of their time, and depend on a specific context in which to be most effective, and can be seen as pertinent barometers of changing thoughts and habits. Presented in an alien context in such a dry way, the words of the joke take on a sinister meaning, hinting at an underlying discriminatory discourse that might have brought the defense mechanism of humor into play. As Nancy Spector, the curator of Richard Prince's major show Richard Prince: Spiritual America at the Guggenheim Museum in 2007 expressed it, the jokes, "gradually became tragic in a quite unexpected way" (N. Spector, in "Nowhere Man", in N. Spector (ed.), Richard Prince, exh.cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, 2007, p. 37).
Once asked whether he had always been funny, Prince responded with a version of the same joke we see in If I Die: "No, I'm not so funny. I like it when other people are funny. It's hard being funny. Being funny is a way to survive. It's like that joke, Jewish Man to his Friend: 'If I live I'll see you Wednesday. If I don't I'll see you Thursday.'"
In carefully selecting his jokes from various sources and disengaging them from their original setting, the monochromatic joke paintings continued in the same vein of appropriation that had underlain much of his earlier work. Inspired by a period working at the Time/Life publishing company where he bore witness to the powerful impact of mass media images in shaping consumer wishes, Prince had first gained recognition in the early 1970s as an artist for his alteration of advertisements from the media, representing them in new, slightly changed compositions. In a similar process, the joke paintings too find authorless statements, filtered down over generations and disseminated across the world, and take ownership of them, immortalizing them in the physical form of painting. Prince's first joke painting, made in 1986 but one that he has revisited time again, belies this preference for using found subject matter. "I went to see a psychiatrist. He said 'tell me everything,' I did, and now he's doing my act." On being asked whether the jokes he used were his own, he replied, with characteristically surreal humor: "None of them are mine. I get them from magazines, books, the internet. Sometimes from the inside of a bank. You know they're just like blueprints that float around the sky and show up on a cloud. Sometimes I buy them from other criminals. People tell them to me. Ministers. Rabbis. Priests. Once I saw one in the washing machine spinning around getting clean." (R. Prince, quoted in 'Like a Beautiful Scar On Your Head,' Modern Painter, Autumn 2002.)
A consummate and prolific collector himself--of art, books and popular ephemera--Prince's work has continued to explore concepts of authorship and ownership in relation to the consumer materials of contemporary culture. It is arguably the joke paintings, however, that most perceptively convey the myriad of influences that construct American identity. As the American novelist Edmund White has succinctly phrased it: "The spiritual side of life, to be sure, is diminished by jokes... Humor is the enemy of lyric beauty and sadism (Jean Genet is never funny), but their friend - or at least their willing accomplice--is wan humor, weak jokes, old gags, tired one-liners. The wise-ass will never feel enough about anything to arrive at wisdom, but the failed comic, who bores others and embarrasses himself but can't shut up, is both the Fool and Lear. Prince's bad jokes are the truest expression we have of spiritual America," (E. White, 'Bad Jokes,' pp. 74-79, Parkett, December 1992, p. 79).