Painted in 1999, Man O Man sees Richard Prince transform the visual tone of his seminal Joke series from a detached cool to a Dangerfield-esque intensity. Bristling with a painterly intensity typically felt in the artist’s Nurse paintings, Man O Man recalls the Neo-Expressionism of the ‘80s, a moment Prince wryly subverted with the first Joke series. Indeed, Man O Man, with its hand-written, italicized joke and red, pink and maroon dominated composition betray the artist’s technical prowess which, until then, had taken somewhat of a backseat to his conceptual dexterity. Man O Man offers Prince an opportunity to broaden the range of his practice, ensnaring Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Expressionism and Pop Art in his web of carefully considered reference points, all at the service of a singular body of work that expands the notion of painting altogether.
Achieving early and lasting success in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as a member of the Pictures Generation, Prince’s career began with the re-photographing already extant images. In a now-iconic series, Prince grouped together advertising types–suave interiors, polished looking men and women, and, of course, cowboys, used to hawk aspirational products on an impressionable clientele. In so doing, Prince challenged modernism’s long-held and once-sacred promise of authenticity and uniqueness. Then, towards the middle and end of the ‘80s, the artist reached further into the American collective conscious, retrieving the sort of jokes everyone knows but no one can reliably place. Man O Man taps into some of postwar America’s greatest artistic vocabularies while retaining the vernacular, easy-going humor that marks some of his most compelling output.
In Man O Man, silkscreened images of schematic people and flowers, here in black and white, interlace a field of warm, brassy reds, oranges, yellows, lavender and white. Constructed in layers, the figures recede and draw nearer depending on their respective level of obscurity. Some announce themselves against a contrasting swell of color while others remain scantly visible, pushed into the visual margins. At once a Pop strategy and an effective painterly device, Prince repeats imagery throughout the picture. Prince adopts the moody, evocative brushwork of New York School painting, offering an intentionally boilerplate, somewhat saccharine interpretation of that style. The combination of the two styles is his approximation of the Neo-Expressionist house style of the ‘80s which he studiously avoided—a catch-all coalition of sincerity, artificiality, representation, abstraction, banality, and grandeur.
For Prince, this Neo-Expressionist mode, which, by 1999, was comfortably in his rear-view mirror, offers a valuable opportunity to once again prod the art world’s collective ribs. A style built on machismo and a resurgence of the idea of individual genius, ideas largely anathema to Prince’s work at the time, is here resuscitated and seasoned with a dose of skepticism. Still, though, Man O Man boasts an almost cloying sincerity as even his most detached efforts do. Its backwards earnestness reflects Prince’s commitment to his craft and to the principles upon which his work stands. The joke itself might even allude to this. Sending up the idea of masculinity and toughness with a quick, thoroughly Princian one-liner, the painting takes a sly jab at the bluster and aplomb of Neo-Expressionism, a movement with heroic aspirations.
Interestingly, Prince places the entire composition on a tilt, italicizing the joke at the bottom and setting the directional brushstrokes and orientations of the silkscreened figures at a slant. Unlike his earlier monochrome Joke paintings, which are utterly rectilinear and unflinchingly formulaic, Man O Man is slightly off-kilter, visually and thematically. A painting-as-non-sequitur, it challenges the deadpan straightness of his earlier jokes while still retaining its bite and a roundabout incisiveness. For Prince, whose own previous efforts are as viable and valuable a source for investigation as any other, Man O Man represents an opportunity to expand his own specific formal parameters while scrutinizing the broader narrative of post-war American painting. Further, the handwritten joke, as opposed to a silkscreened one, marks a return to Prince’s roots: the first Jokes were handwritten on napkins. “Sometimes when I walk into a gallery and I see someone’s work, I think to myself, “Gee, I wish I had done that.” … 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” (K. Gordon and R. Prince, "Band Paintings: Kim Gordon Interviews Richard Prince," Interview Magazine, June 22, 2012). Coinciding with the more hands-on approach to painting, Prince’s return to the hand-written joke seems a conscious effort to rethink the earliest Jokes and reintroduce, at least in spirit, their arresting informality.
For the painter, who has built a long and fruitful career by filtering prosaicness into the art historical canon with profundity and wit, Man O Man is a tremendously successful picture that is both retrospective and predictive. Harking back to his monochrome Jokes, it also looks ahead at the celebrated Nurse paintings, whose richly painted surfaces were viewed as a departure for the artist. Here, Prince begins tilling the soil from which those paintings would, just a few short years later, sprout. Unified in its multi-pronged critique of authorship and heroism in painting, the picture finds the artist’s critical eye as sharp and tuned as ever.