Richard Prince has made a name for himself through a finely crafted practice of appropriation and biting critical commentary. When I was 15 (1989) is an especially striking example of his much-lauded Joke paintings, and helped to establish the artist as a major name in the postmodern confluence of Pop and conceptual art. When he first began working on the series in the 1980s, the use of humor in such an analytical manner was nearly unheard of. About this shift the artist noted, “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…” (R. Prince, quoted in V. Duponchelle, “Richard Prince: To Collect Is to Compare,” Richard Prince, exh. cat., Paris, 2008, p. 83). Taking each one-liner and punchline from already extant bits and cartoons, Prince found a way to separate the comedic aspects that were originally intended and instead force a deeper introspection on the context of humor and its place in contemporary society.
Existing as two lines of forest green text offset by the work’s pink ground, When I was 15 is a bold example of Prince’s Monochromatic Jokes series from the late 1980s and early 1990s. The droll phrase reads, “My parents kept me in a closet for years. Until I was fifteen I thought I was a suit.” One can imagine a stand-up comedian delivering such a line followed by a drum roll, a cackle of laughter, or a good-natured groan. However, reading the words on a flat canvas has a strange effect on the content and serves to divorce the joke from its intended effect. Presented simply and without adornment, the words exist as an appropriated punchline foisted upon a gallery wall. Glenn O’Brien noted: “Like a joke, art is something you get or don’t get. Art and jokes instigate the recognition of a shared point of view, an acknowledgement of a punch line” (G. O’Brien, “The Joke of the New”, in Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 114). The viewer is meant to recognize that the words Prince uses are not his own and that they come from a more generalized source. They are the linguistic version of a borrowed image that is ubiquitous in popular culture.
Known for his masterful use of appropriation in art, Prince has employed everything from photographs to jokes to Instagram accounts. Beginning in the 1980s, while employed at the Time-Life Building, Prince started re-photographing and piecing together extant imagery he found in advertisements. His much-lauded Cowboys series (1980-1984) presented clips of the Marlboro Man divested of their branding text. This reframing of images (and subsequently text with the Joke paintings) helps to contextualize the content in light of consumer society. Along with Sherrie Levine, Prince is one of the foremost members of the so-called “Pictures Generation” that mainly used appropriative techniques in their practice. Looking back to artists like Elaine Sturtevant and Richard Pettibone (both of whom were more interested in appropriating artistic styles and subjects), Prince pulled from popular culture to construct a commentary on the everyday. Curator Lisa Phillips writes: “Like the photographs, the jokes were now his, part of his repertoire or ‘act.’ Like the advertising images, they represent a kind of low cultural expression whose authors are largely anonymous; yet they have a distinctive if unrecognized form and style. …the character of the jokes was significant—fifties-style, middle America, blue collar, Borscht Belt humor that confronted issues of sexual identity, class and race… By isolating them he exposed their hidden malevolence, perversity and anger” (L. Phillips, “People Keep Asking: An Introduction,” Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 42). Separated from their original format and singled out on the canvas, the jokes invite a deeper inspection rather than a short chuckle.
At its core, works like When I was 15 tackle issues of originality and authorship that are central to Prince’s oeuvre. Along with his peers like Levine, Cindy Sherman, and Louise Lawler, the artist began to question the proliferation of media that ran amok in the 1980s. Conceptual artists in the 1960s and 70s had honed the artwork down to pure idea, and Pop Art broke new ground by using everyday imagery as subjects. In the next decade, a new generation of artists built upon those pivotal frameworks to inquire upon the nature of art in a time when it seemed inextricably linked to advertisements, film, and consumer culture. The literary theorist Roland Barthes, in his seminal work The Death of the Author, set forth a challenge to the traditionally-held roles of authors and artists with an assertion that each text (or image) was a merging of everything that had come before. Applied to visual art, this was taken as a challenge to the idea of a singular voice (so important to previous artistic movements like Abstract Expressionism), and insinuated that each work was merely a bundle of references to past and concurrent works. The artists in “The Pictures Generation” rallied around Barthes’ pronouncement that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author,” and set about finessing what originality and authorship really meant in a new era of artistic thought when an informed and active audience became more important (R. Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 1967). Prince’s commitment to a continuous investigation into these ideas reached a high point with works like When I was 15, and continues to inspire countless generations of artists coping with the ever-growing convergence of art and consumer society.