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The Way She Looks in the Morning

The Way She Looks in the Morning
signed and dated 'R Prince 1988' (on the overlap)
acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas mounted on panel
86 ¼ x 47 1⁄8 in. (218.6 x 119.5 cm.)
Executed in 1988.
Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York
Private collection
Anon. sale; Phillips de Pury & Company, New York, 14 May 2004, lot 158
Perry Rubenstein Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
B. M. Bürgi, B. Ruf and G. van Tuyl, Richard Prince: Paintings, Ostfildern, 2002, p. 7 (illustrated).
New York, Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Dialogue: Baldessari, Prince, Ruscha, Wool, September-October 2005.
New York, Nahmad Contemporary, Richard Prince: Monochromatic Jokes, October 2013-January 2014.
Greenwich, The Brant Foundation, Deliverance, 2014, n.p. (illustrated).

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Kathryn Widing
Kathryn Widing Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

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. Richard Prince (R. Prince, quoted in J. Rian, Richard Prince, London, 2003, p. 20)

The monumental canvas The Way She Looks in the Morning is a prime example of Richard Prince’s characteristic incisiveness and humor. Standing over seven feet tall, much of the present work is a consumed by monochromatic color field, upon which the artist inscribes a diminutive joke. Possibly taking inspiration from the advertising billboards that litter the urban landscape, unlike the towering signs for gas stations, injury lawyers, or plastic surgeons, here the artist purposefully reduces the text, making the act of reading it a deliberate one. In this particular instance, the joke reads “The way she looks in the morning! She ran after the garbage man and said, “Am I too late for the garbage?” He said, “No, jump in.”

Prince has created several different iterations of this joke, as he does in much of his practice, but the present work is its most engrossing iteration. Here he chooses a mustard color that interplays directly with the blue-green text, thus heightening the impact of the joke. The text takes on a life of its own, like the deadpan one-liners of the ‘Borscht Belt’ comedians that so inspired him. Yet what Prince does that makes his text-based conceptualism so unique is his manipulation of narrative, as opposed to the exclusive use of disembodied words and phrases. The Way She Looks in the Morning works because there is a setup and a punchline, and the painting comes to mimic a film’s screenplay, or a comedy set in its linearity. Prince references special effects in his quote above. His rendering of a sexist joke not as the star of the show, but rather as a complement to a gorgeous field of color, is a radical act of editing and transformation.

We can trace the originator, or one of the originators, of this particular joke. It is attributed to the British-American, Jewish comedian Henry Youngman, who was often called the “King of the One-Liners”—a moniker that could certainly apply to Prince. Reminiscent of Prince’s use of silkscreen in The Way She Looks in the Morning, Youngman worked in a print shop in his youth and created “comedy cards” with short jokes on them, which were eventually discovered by comedy legend Milton Berle. Youngman wrote “The Way She Looks in the Morning” and other jokes about his own wife, who was a good sport about it all. Despite his cool exterior, Prince likely also knows that comedy comes as much from love as it does from ridicule.
First shown in a group show at Perry Rubenstein Gallery, New York entitled Dialogue: Baldessari, Prince, Ruscha, Wool (2005), The Way She Looks in the Morning is central to a lineage of postwar conceptual art. A comparison between Prince and his friend and predecessor Ed Ruscha reveals a shared love of puns and a drive to deconstruct masculine language. Ruscha says, “I see him as a potent voice out there, a voice all by itself…I view him as an observer and an archivist” (E. Ruscha, quoted in Louisiana Channel, “’He is like a scavenger for all of us.’—5 Artists on Richard Prince,” January 2023).
Prince writes of Ruscha’s wordplay, “I think sometimes that’s how great art works. It becomes part of your life, and you forget that someone made it up” (R. Prince, “Radio On,” Bird Talk, 2011). Nowhere is this clearer than in The Way She Looks in the Morning, which plays on the double authorship of the painting—Prince and the person or people who made up the joke. He readily acknowledges his status as an appropriator, which obscures him as much as the authors from which he cribs: “None of [the jokes] are mine. I get them from magazines, books, the internet. Sometimes from the inside of a bank. You know they're just like blueprints that float around the sky and show up on a cloud. Sometimes I buy them from other criminals. People tell them to me. Ministers. Rabbis. Priests. Once I one in the washing machine spinning around getting clean” (R. Prince, “Like A Beautiful Scar On Your Head,” Bird Talk, 2002).

The famed philosopher Simon Critchley specifically cites The Way She Looks in the Morning and argues, “The gags stolen by Prince in his work, lifted from the pages of The New Yorker or wherever – these immensely comforting, complacent, reactionary gags – are repeated and in that repetition their whole effect is transformed, dismantled, and decomposed…Prince’s jokes or meta-jokes do not starve their audience. On the contrary, through their relentless, repetitive character, they make any easy laughter stick in our throats” (S. Critchley, “Repetition, repetition, repetition Richard Prince and the three r’s,” in P. Gherovici and M. Steinkoler, eds., Lacan, Psychoanalysis, and Comedy, New York, 2016, p. 239, 242). The present work certainly connects to its audience in multiple ways. The edgy joke provokes and conjures a different era, while the field of color immerses and intrigues. The Way She Looks in the Morning is exemplary of Prince’s ability to seduce, possibly even enrage. He remains earnestly committed to painting, even if the medium is the butt of the joke.

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