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Beginning with his introduction to the art world as part of the Pictures Generation in the 1970s, Richard Prince has built a career out of turning the conventions of art back on themselves to examine aspects of contemporary culture. Over the years, Prince has applied his characteristic iconoclasm to a variety of media, including photography, painting, drawings, sculpture and installations, destabilizing the accepted traditions of each so as to bring our received cultural assumptions and social understandings into relief. Prince continues this line of inquiry in The Wrong Joke, as he takes the traditions of painting and humor to task with canvas, stretcher and paint, and seems to ask, “Can a joke really be a painting? Can painting ever be a joke?”
The present work is one of Prince’s joke paintings, which rank among the contemporary era’s most iconic series by one of the most celebrated artists. Dryly presented with a deadpan sensibility, they consist of visual expressions of humor that are disarmingly immediate and resonant, yet abstract in their presentation. Describing his selections of form and content in his initial joke paintings, Prince later stated, “Within about six months I…started to do the jokes in ‘colors.’ I thought the color would be a substitution for an image. The background would be one color and the joke would be another. I picked jokes that were ‘meaningful’ to me. I don’t know how to explain that except that the jokes’ ‘content’ was something that I could identify with. These ‘jokes’ were later identified as the ‘monochromatic joke paintings.’ I fell into them. I was walking around in a dark room looking for the light switch. I was moving by wading more than swimming. I was mowing the lawn. No direction home. I was caught in a landslide. My headaches were gone. I started painting with my fly open. I stopped crying. I started to laugh. Rock bottom sometimes isn’t the bottom. Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still—look out” (R. Prince, interview with B. Appel, Rove Projects, accessed via http://www.rovetv.net/pr-interview.html, October 3, 2014).
As suggested by Prince’s references to Newman, de Kooning and Still, the legacy of Abstract Expressionism is one of the primary aesthetic influences skewered by the joke paintings. In The Wrong Joke, Prince has isolated the text of a banal traveling salesman gag on a monochromatic field, and rendered it in a standard typeface with a warm but restrained palette. With its arrangement of modest yet thoroughly considered elements, the painting has an imposing aura that arrests the viewer’s gaze, and the text is illuminated at the center of the painting like a devotional icon. Compositionally, the work mimics the abstract or Color Field painters of the 1950s and 1960s, as Prince gives The Wrong Joke the structured clarity of an Ellsworth Kelly, the three-tiered composition of a Mark Rothko and the fiery energizing “zip” of a Barnett Newman.
Originally sourced from a cartoon, The Wrong Joke presents the text of the joke alone, and without its pictorial counterpart. This particular joke’s precise origins are unknown, but it belongs to a category of off-color jokes both ubiquitous and old. Similar in tone and feel to Prince’s other joke paintings, it evokes mid-century Middle America, and the attendant social structure, beliefs, prejudices and interests of that time and place. The Wrong Joke evinces a time gone by, and outmoded methods of expression that, while known today, are no longer part of the main vocabulary of American culture. The viewer of the painting might laugh at first, but on second glance the neutrality becomes more difficult to decipher. Presented in the foreign context of the canvas, the words become alien, strange and unknowable; they are ciphers for a way of living that no longer exists. By endowing The Wrong Joke’s rather anonymous, dated quip with the aura of the modernist masters, Prince thus riffs on received notions of American popular culture, masculine identity and the myth of the artist.
The joke paintings originated as Prince’s hand-drawn copies of cartoons by Whitney Darrow, Jr., and are thus a variation of the artist’s signature technique of appropriating found imagery to create his artwork. The artist’s interest in re-presenting pre-existing images began with his employment in the early 1970s at Time-Life, where his job entailed cutting out magazine articles for staff writers. Each day, Prince’s desk would be littered with the advertisements that remained after he clipped out the copy, leaving his workstation awash in glamorous and stylized images of American consumer culture. Sifting through these mediated images of status, conspicuous wealth and underlying sexual tension, Prince was struck by the way commercial photography differed from art photography—that is, the way that images from advertising were always immediate, seductive and dazzling yet also fictional. Based on this experience, the artist began re-photographing images to rescue them from their status as non-objects, and to establish them as artworks in their own right. This creative impulse to recapture and recontextualize led Prince to make his most iconic works, including his Cowboys and Girlfriends series of photographs, as well as his Nurses and joke paintings.
Like his early works that he rephotographed, The Wrong Joke resolves pre-existing forms and sources in a new artwork that is as immediately appealing as the images it quotes. Uniting low-brow with high culture, outmoded with new production, and seductive imagery with awkward jokes, Prince’s technique resembles that of sampling, a widely appealing creative tool in the 1980s and 1990s. This formal strategy also enabled Prince to make his artwork using very few resources, as opposed to his contemporaries who were building monumental sculptures and selling neo-Expressionist paintings for staggering sums. Jokes are thus a continuation of Prince’s efforts to show the accepted elements of popular culture in a new light. While at first The Wrong Joke appears innocuous enough, Prince’s subversive aims soon rise to the surface.
A consummate and prolific collector himself—of art, books and popular ephemera—Prince’s work has continued to explore concepts of authorship and ownership in relation to the consumer materials of contemporary culture. It is arguably the joke paintings, however, that most perceptively convey the myriad of influences that construct American identity. As the American novelist Edmund White has succinctly phrased it: “The spiritual side of life, to be sure, is diminished by jokes...Humor is the enemy of lyric beauty and sadism (Jean Genet is never funny), but their friend—or at least their willing accomplice—is wan humor, weak jokes, old gags, tired one-liners. The wise-ass will never feel enough about anything to arrive at wisdom, but the failed comic, who bores others and embarrasses himself but can’t shut up, is both the Fool and Lear. Prince’s bad jokes are the truest expression we have of spiritual America” (E. White, “Bad Jokes,” pp. 74-79, Parkett, December 1992, p. 79).