Executed in 1989, Untitled is a classic example of Richard Prince’s Joke Paintings. It illustrates a beguiling blend of imagery in the form of typewritten words and hand-written notes that the artist has silkscreened onto a nearly six-foot tall canvas. “I met my first girl, her name was Sally. Was that a girl, was that a girl. That’s what people kept asking,” the painting's caption reads. Snippets of hand-written jokes linger nearby, placed alongside cartoon illustrations from vintage magazines that bear no relationship to the punchlines the artist features. This amalgamation of disjointed imagery is a hallmark of the White Paintings, which are a particular subset of the Joke Paintings, as they consist of varying shades of white upon which the ghosted remains of many layers of silkscreened jokes, notes and cartoons linger in tantalizing array. As a life-long appropriator of books and magazines, Prince mines his vast archive of pop culture media in order to highlight cultural stereotypes lurking within plain sight. The jokes remain among his most well-known work.
In Untitled, the artist repeats a joke that he has illustrated in at least two other paintings, one of which features in Was That a Girl of 1989, a monochromatic joke painting that belongs to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Repetition is a key theme in the artist’s oeuvre, as he often works in series that he revisits at a later point in his career. In Untitled, the joke contains a repeated phrase as well: “Was that a girl, was that a girl,” and this repetition produces the belly laugh of its punchline: “That’s what people kept asking.”
The artist has sourced cartoon illustrations from vintage magazines like the New Yorker and silk-screened them onto the canvas. The silk-screening process emphasizes anonymity by removing the artist’s hand from the work, and brushstrokes are almost entirely absent. Photocopies of hand-written notes jotted down by the artist are highlighted, while faint under layers of silk-screened text are barely visible beneath a scrim of white paint. Cartoon illustrations are also featured. Two twin beds are represented by a small fragment along the left edge, and this image is repeated along the right edge as well, although ghosted and therefore barely discernible. Another cartoon depicts an opened window of a night-time scene. All in all, these images bear no relationship to the joke itself, making for a jumbled array of half-legible imagery. The viewer attempts to unravel its meaning despite the hazy fog of information that remains. In this way, the painting symbolizes the way in which the jokes linger in the realm of our collective unconsciousness. Having been written in the 1950s and ‘60s, these jokes are passed down, told and re-told countless times over since their original inception.
What began, in 1985, as simple hand-drawn cartoons that the artist copied from magazines had by 1989 blossomed into monumentally-scaled canvases of increasing complexity, richness and depth. As in Untitled, these paintings reveal as much about their audience as they do about the artist in his re-telling. Curator Lisa Phillips has described this phenomenon: “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. The underlying sexuality of Prince’s work became blatant in the jokes and cartoons” (L. Phillips, “People Keep Asking: An Introduction,” Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 42).
As a longtime master of appropriation, Richard Prince remains one of the most controversial artists of his generation, whose work is notoriously subversive, divisive and complex. And yet, the joke paintings remain among the most radical experiments of Contemporary art, even eliciting a few laughs along the way. "No, I'm not so funny,” the artist has said. “I like it when other people are funny. It's hard being funny. Being funny is a way to survive” (R. Prince quoted in "Like a Beautiful Scar on Your Head," Modern Painters, Autumn 2002).