Drink Canada Dry is a wry embodiment of the provocative humor and bracing wit of Richard Prince’s best work. Painted in 1991, the painting demonstrates one of the most well-known phrases from the artist’s celebrated series of joke paintings rendered in silkscreen ink upon a vast, mulberry pink-hued canvas. In Drink Canada Dry, a businessman and his buxom secretary are caught in a taboo embrace. The immediacy of their hastily put-together moment is obvious from the notepad that still clings to the secretary’s hand and her boss’s tight grip around her waist. The joke’s caption, however, is completely unrelated to its illustration, describing instead a corny pun that recalls the one-line zingers of comedians like Milton Berle and Henny Youngman. The obvious nature of the joke’s pun elicits a knowing chuckle, its unpretentious humor harkening back to a simpler age. In the painting’s caption, the dim-witted protagonist is the butt of the joke, having misinterpreted an advertisement for the soft-drink “Canada Dry.” It reads: “My father was never home, he was always drinking booze. He saw a sign saying DRINK CANADA DRY. So he went up there.”
Drink Canada Dry has been featured in several exhibitions of the artist’s work, including his retrospective at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2007. It’s a brilliant example of the illustrated joke paintings that astonished the art world when they were first exhibited and marked the artist’s triumphant return to painting after devoting himself solely to magazine ads that he re-photographed in the 1980’s. In Drink Canada Dry, the artist relished the verbal wordplay of the painting’s jokey caption, since he repeated the joke in several other paintings of the era. Writing a review of the series in the New York Times in 2007, the critic Roberta Smith signaled this particular joke as an example of Prince’s use of humor.
From his earlier photographs of appropriated magazine ads to the later Girlfriends and Cowboys, Richard Prince has long traded in the established cultural stereotypes of postwar America. In Drink Canada Dry, the artist presents a cultural cliché—the lecherous boss and his dim-witted secretary—within a monumentally-scaled canvas. Big-breasted in a clingy dress and tall stiletto heels, the female character looks more like a cocktail waitress than a humble office worker. Her appearance is more in keeping with the male fantasy of a secretary/employer relationship than with reality. Lurking in the opened doorway stands a ghoulish figure in suit and tie, who looks on with relish at the scene he’s so recently disrupted. Could this be the secretary’s other paramour? Since the caption has long been omitted, the viewer is left to speculate on the scenario described, but because the figures depicted are such stereotypes, its interpretation is easy. The artist described: “Sometimes a familiar or particular image can produce a kind of resonance, like the image starts rolling over. ... All of a sudden you see what the picture imagines itself to be” (R. Prince, quoted in J. Rian, “An Interview with Richard Prince,” Art in America, March 1987, p. 90).
What began, in 1984, as simple hand-drawn cartoons that the artist copied from The New Yorker had by now blossomed into monumentally-scaled canvases of increasing complexity, richness and depth. Like Drink Canada Dry, these paintings reveal as much about their audience as they do about the artist who originally created them, or in this case, of the artist who re-created them. The curator Lisa Phillips writes: “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).
Indeed, the central image that Prince illustrates in Drink Canada Dry is highly sexual in nature, a closed-doors affair that society typically relegates to the bedroom. By engaging his secretary in a sexual act, Prince’s cartoon businessman is breaking not only one but two scandalous taboos. He’s not only sleeping with his secretary (a woman who’s not his wife), but he’s doing so right out in the open, in a public place. The cartoon’s humor, then, lies in their illicit affair having been exposed, by the lurking interloper who appears to have opened the door and spoiled the fun. Like this central image, the jokes that Prince appropriated during this era often described the secret taboos that were seldom discussed or acknowledged in postwar America. These off-color wisecracks contradicted the societal mores of such a tightly constricted society, given the way they addressed the traditionally off-limits topics of sexism, racism, homosexuality or violence. Much in the way that the illicit affair of the secretary and her boss is exposed in the painting’s cartoon, so too, did the jokes of this era expose the hidden secrets of their time. Indeed, even the painting’s caption references another societal taboo — alcoholism.
Drink Canada Dry broke yet another taboo at the time it was created, since it directly contrasted the hyperbolic, overly gestural paintings that dominated the New York art scene of the 1980s, especially the Neo-Expressionist paintings of Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente. Painted at the dawn of the 1990s, Drink Canada Dry was the postmodern beacon of a newer, more critical style that often illustrated, albeit obliquely, the illusory nature of the visual world. By illustrating cartoons that lacked an obvious source, Prince thumbed his nose at the art establishment much in the same way his jokes derided convention. In Drink Canada Dry, the anonymous quality of the caption’s script heightens the sort of detached, authorless quality of the joke itself. Prince used Helvetica throughout the series, a sort of easily-legible, uninflected typeface, rendered in silkscreen ink, which further distances the artist from the paintings he created. Taking a cue from Warhol and Lichtenstein, who also incorporated comics via silkscreen or stencil, Prince succeeds in bringing a “low” art form into a “high” art context. Unlike his Pop Art predecessors however, whose work still retains a kind of optimistic freshness of the postwar era in which they were created, Prince’s joke paintings display a sarcastic quality that is more suited to the postmodern world. They’re more in keeping with Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters’ brand of subversion and the radical dismantling of traditional art-making by the Dadaists than the superficial antics of Pop.
The curator Lisa Phillips has written: “What started out as simple transferals—handwritten jokes and redrawn cartoons with captions underneath in graphite and pencil—became increasingly complex. …Cartoons, photographs and jokes could be combined and recombined in endless and unexpected variations. Mixing different images with different punch lines created constant disjunctions between text and image, which produced confusion, mixed metaphors, complicated scenarios, Freudian slips” (L. Phillips, op. cit., p. 42). Indeed, throughout this particular series of illustrated joke paintings, the artist mixed and matched different captions and jokes with anonymous cartoons he culled from the pages of Playboy and The New Yorker, most of which depicted two lovers who are caught in the act of passion by a vindicated onlooker. Typical to the series, in Drink Canada Dry, the cartoon illustration in no way matches the accompanying caption that is silkscreened below the image. Instead, it reads like a tantalizing puzzle whose component parts don’t add up to a comprehensive whole. Prince keeps the viewer at arm’s length by removing the image from its source, and by doing so, he undermines the entire narrative function of painting, creating instead an utterly new work that’s all the more alluring because of its evasive presence.
Drink Canada Dry knowingly borrows from lowbrow cultural references in the form of jokey puns and zinging one-liners, while its imagery is pilfered from the pages of joke books and magazines. The artist engages in a complex visual legacy that stretches across multiple genres, as the painting references its own source material while at the same time paying homage to the comic-book appropriation of earlier artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. A longtime master of appropriation, Richard Prince remains one of the most controversial artists of his generation. His paintings are highly-coveted, his work is notoriously complex, yet the illustrated joke paintings embody some of the most radical experiments of contemporary art, all the while eliciting a wry smile.