“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.’” – Richard Prince
Bathed in a sumptuous warm orange glow, Richard Prince’s Neighbor’s Wife is an exceptional example from the artist’s seminal Joke series. The painting embodies the wry sophistication and sardonic wit that underlies one of the artist’s most celebrated series. Rendered in verdant green Helvetica font upon a brilliantly bold orange background, the joke is presented on canvas in the same manner as it would be presented by a comic on stage. Ever the straight-man, the painting retains its cool, even clinical repose throughout this delivery. The artist’s choice to use a ubiquitous font on an otherwise monochromatic canvas is a sly poke at the bombastic Neo-Expressionist painting in vogue at the time, as well as an homage to the pristine rigor of Minimalism, the luxuriously stained canvases of the Color-Field painters, and the text-based quips of Conceptual artists like Lawrence Weiner.
Prince’s Joke series continues the artist’s investigation of how ideas and images circulate in the world. In the mid-1970s, Prince arose as a key member of a group of artists who became known as the Pictures Generation which included such luminaries as Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, and Jack Goldstein. Following the Pop artists of the 1960s, who appropriated images from commercial products and advertisements, the artists of the Pictures Generation understood that mass media imagery is imbedded with ideological narratives that perpetuate social structures. Where Cindy Sherman re-performed image-based mediums of film, photography and advertising to show how sex, gender and sexuality are constructed, Prince re-photographed these mediums, upping the ante on this conversation by linking class, American consumerism and masculine desire to our understanding of identity. His fascination with cowboys, bikers, cars, the iconic Marlboro Man referred to archetypes of the American dream.
The brilliant monochrome Jokes cycle emerged from Prince’s long-term exploration of the theme of humor. In 1985, Prince began to scribble classic one-liners in pen or ink on pieces of unadorned paper, which he would sell to dealers for $10 a pop–one particularly thrifty dealer even requested a 10% discount for two. Funny, facetious, and conceptual, these written jokes emerged in stark contrast to the dominant painting and sculpture of the time; they were more Warholian in their ethos. Around the same time Prince also appropriated existing cartoons, often dealing with themes of sexual infidelity, which he went on to enlarge and silkscreen onto canvas. The artist played with meaning through the deliberate confusion of these cartoons’ discursive systems: he overlapped multiple cartoons or switched out cartoon punch lines with borscht-belt humor to a disjunctive and opaquely autobiographical effect.
Like his photographs of magazine advertisements, the Joke paintings also re-contextualized “low” culture in a “high” art context. In 1987, Prince eliminated the cartoon itself and only included its text, using the revered materials of acrylic paint on canvas to execute this rebellious act. While formally worlds away, the Prince’s Joke paintings are conceptually linked to his early work in photography. Nancy Spector, curator of Prince’s 2007 retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim explains, “When Prince hijacks photographs and off-color jokes from their circulation in mass culture and re-presents them as his own, he injects his copies [in the artist’s words] ‘with the element of imagination and thus destablize[s]’ our sense of reality. He takes what we already know–commercial advertising, snapshots of girlfriends, one-liners, celebrity head-shots, pulp-fiction covers–and gives it back relatively unaltered, but forever changed” (N. Spector, “Nowhere Man,” Richard Prince, exh. cat., Guggenheim, New York, 2007, p. 23). She continues, “By separating a cartoon from its caption and adding a non sequitur of a joke, Prince creates strange, hybrid emblems that offer mutable narratives. What emerges from these disjunctions of image and text is a transgressive perversity, an uninhibited play of meaning in which attraction, deceit, failure, sex and death intermingle to produce work that is at once erotic, humorous, and macabre. Through his deliberate confusion of discursive systems, Prince brings to the surface the hostility, fear and shame fueling much American humor” (Ibid., p. 37). Silk-screening the jokes onto a flat, monochromatic canvas, the artist removed his hand from the making of the image, a conceptual strategy that adds to the detached coolness of the painting. As Prince jokingly remarked, “the Joke paintings are abstract. Especially in Europe if you can’t speak English” (R. Prince quoted by A. Fearnley, Richard Prince: Canaries in the Coal Mine, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, Oslo, 2006, p. 124).
In Neighbor’s Wife, Prince flips the traditional notion of the philandering husband when the joke’s punch line reveals that it is the complaining wife who has been presumably gallivanting about town while her husband sits at home. Despite the tongue-in-cheek humor of its punchline, the painting displays an elegance and sophistication that arrests the viewer by nature of its beautiful, sumptuous materials and the purity of its imagery. Though the joke paintings initially thumbed their nose at the established artistic milieu at the time, they have by now become firmly ensconced in the very canon they sought to disrupt. Nancy Spector recently described this phenomenon: “With his Monochrome Jokes Prince achieved the anti-masterpiece–an art object that refuses to behave in a museum or market context that privileges the notion of greatness. … Prince’s Jokes represent a skillfully calculated inversion of art’s essential value system. … The irony, of course, is that Prince’s anti-masterpieces have all sold, and, in recent years, sold well. What originated as a protest against the vanities of the 1980s art market in the form of a ‘joke’ on collectors, curators, and critics who were busy jumping on the Neo-Expressionist bandwagon, has now entered the art-historical canon” (Ibid., p. 39).