Painted in 1989, Two Leopard Jokes belongs to the celebrated series of monochromatic joke paintings that Richard Prince created between 1987 and 1989. With its deadpan sensibility and matter-of-fact presentation, the painting embodies the wry sophistication and sardonic wit that underlies the entire series. Rendered in crisp blue lettering upon a sumptuous green background, the painting acts as an irreverent homage to the pristine rigor of Minimalism and the luxuriously stained canvases of the Color-Field painters, all the while maintaining a bizarre sense of humor. In Two Leopard Jokes, Prince presents the joke twice, altering the format of each phrase just slightly, making the painting a particularly rare example in the series. Its effect is similar to hearing a joke repeated—the second time is never as funny as the first. This particular joke originally appeared in a cartoon by Gary Larson, and must have fascinated Prince. It features in another painting of the same year, titled The Leopard Joke, which is currently a promised gift to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
In 1984, Richard Prince began a rather experimental series of hand-drawn cartoons that he copied from magazines like The New Yorker and Playboy. Never originally intended for resale, these drawings were the complete antithesis of the bombastic, highly expressionistic paintings that dominated the New York art scene at the time. Whereas Prince’s previous work had reproduced photographs from magazine ads, these small joke drawings also re-contextualized “low” culture in a “high” art context. In a telling interview from 1989, the artist explained: “Beginning the jokes was like starting over. I didn’t know what I was doing. At the time artists were casting sculptures in bronze, making huge paintings, talking about prices and clothes and cars and spending vast amounts of money. So I wrote jokes on little pieces of paper and sold them for $10 each. I had a hard time selling them. One dealer bought two and asked for a 10% discount. So I decided that every six months I’d double the price. All this was possible because no one was looking at my work. That’s a fairly good position sometimes. You can get away with a lot of things” (R. Prince, quoted in S. Morgan, “Tell Me Everything: Richard Prince Interviewed by Stuart Morgan,” Artscribe International, No. 73, January-February 1989, p. 48).
Toward the end of the decade, Prince made a radical transition that fundamentally altered the course of his work. He eliminated the cartoon itself and only included its text. Furthermore, he used a rather holy material—acrylic paint on canvas—for the execution of this rebellious act. He selected a series of one-liners that were culled from the pages of magazines and books, in a time-consuming process that consisted of literally hundreds of jokes. He condensed and re-formatted the text of each joke, exaggerating its size and condensing its message to arrive at a quick and easily-read punch line. In Two Leopard Jokes, Prince makes subtle adjustments in copying from the caption of the original joke, eliminating a few words to speed up the viewer’s “take.” The result is rendered in the stylistically neutral Helvetica font that Prince silkscreened in blue lettering upon a green background. Its effect was unlike anything being shown at the time. When the paintings were exhibited at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in the late 1980’s, Prince recalled the viewers’ reaction as “complete disbelief” (R. Prince, quoted in S. Morgan, op. cit., p. 48).
In Two Leopard Jokes, Prince makes a few subtle changes in his second re-telling of the joke, which serves to illuminate some of the fundamental issues behind the series. For instance, Prince alters the indentation of the text by spacing it out into four lines, rather than three, and removes the capital letters from the phrase “Two lions sitting around after supper.” There is a marked difference in the reader’s experience of the second telling of the joke than in the first. Primarily, the first time one reads the joke, there is inevitably a little mental chuckle; but the second reading is no longer quite as humorous since the element of surprise has been removed. It is tempting to apply this logic to art-viewing itself, which may have affected Prince at the time it was created. Indeed, there is often a certain malaise that develops when a style has been repeated so often it fails to convey any message at all.
Despite the corny humor of its punchline, Two Leopard Jokes displays an elegance and sophistication that arrests the viewer by nature of its beautiful, sumptuous materials and the sparsity of its imagery. The effect of encountering the crispy-delineated Helvetica script as it is placed against a cool, green background seduces the viewer by nature of its precision. Even though Prince eliminates imagery and brushstroke, he still manages to imbue the painting with timeless elegance and beauty.
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 tried to disrupt. The curator 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 Monochrome 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” (N. Spector, quoted in N. Spector, Richard Prince: Spiritual America, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2007, p. 39).