"Humor is a serious business, and at its best it captures the pathos of everyday life and makes it palatable, even if just for a moment." (N. Spector, Richard Prince: Spiritual America, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2007, p. 35)
Executed in 2008, Up/High holds its importance in Richard Prince’s mature artistic career when he became more involved with the medium of paint. From a distance, the gestural and colorful brushstrokes make the present work almost abstract, echoing the painterly expanse of paintings by Jackson Pollock and the Action Painters; yet upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the entire background consists of pornographic covers torn from adult magazines. Superimposed over these images, stenciled letters stammer across the canvas, creating a tension between the typeface’s serious appearance and the text’s humorous content. The side margins have also been intentionally eliminated by Prince to create the effect of run-on sentences, hovering on the verge of illegibility. Standing in front of the painting, the viewer is invited to fill in the gaps mentally, visualize the scenario and complete the punch line.
Richard Prince’s joke series first made its debut in the mid-1980s, when he forayed into comedy by sketching cartoons from publications like The New Yorker and Playboy. Soon he realized the visual and conceptual power of these incongruous punchlines over the magazine pictures and started to recycle a number of well-worn jokes of the Rodney Dangerfield and Henny Youngman variety into his iconoclastic paintings. Although different in mediums, the Jokes still encapsulate Prince’s artistic interest in the audacious appropriation also present in his earlier “re-photographed” advertising images, and continue to center on the seductiveness of mass culture. Humor sits in the center of Prince’s oeuvre as an artist. As he himself has explained: “the subject comes first. Then the medium I guess… Like the jokes, they needed a traditional medium. Stretchers, canvas, paint. The most traditional. Nothing fancy or clever or loud. The subject was already that. So the medium had to cut into the craziness. Make it more normal. Normalize the subject. Normality as the next special effect” (R. Prince quoted in R. Brooks, J. Rian & L. Sante, eds., Richard Prince, London, 2003, p. 20). With cultural connotations embedded within them, the jokes function as both image and text simultaneously, blurring the boundaries between so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.
The juxtaposition between the background and the joke appears to be Prince’s deliberate choice. In other works from the series, he has used fashion portraits of Kate Moss. In 2007, the year before Up/High was executed, Prince created his now well-collected de Kooning series as well, in which he integrated pornographic magazine images of male bodies with painterly passages derived from de Kooning’s women paintings. This collision of content reveals Prince’s self-awareness as an artist and his critical view of the gender polarities in the canon of art history. In Up/High (2008), the overall effect renders the venerated icons of American Post-War art such as Kline, Pollock and de Kooning, and the machismo often associated with their action-based painting. At the same time, the explicit showing of pornographic female bodies in the present work casts a saturated sarcasm on these much-celebrated masters. Upon closer observation, the viewer is prompted to contemplate Prince’s artistic intention behind the painting—what is the joke here?
In the scope of the concept, Prince’s use of text in his art also inherits the art-historical lineage of John Baldessari and Joseph Kosuth. The stenciled letters and the mosaic-like accumulation of printed images are turned into an antithesis of the Abstract Expressionist’s credo—‘I am Nature.’ In this case, curator Nancy Spector writes, “With his joke series Prince achieved the anti-masterpiece—an art object that refuses to behave in a museum or market context that privileges the notion of greatness. How, for instance, does one distinguish between the paintings? By color (background vary from ocher to purple)? Or by joke—do you prefer the one about the rabbi, the farmer, the businessman, the drowned husband, or the two-pants suit?” (N. Spector, p. 39). What emerges from these disjunctions is a planned mutation attributed to both his own hand and an appropriation of printed media.