Richard Prince - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Thursday, June 24, 2021 | Phillips

  • "I’m not so funny. I like it when other people are funny. It’s hard being funny. Being funny is a way to survive."
    —Richard Prince

    This large-scale black-and-white painting Just Asking, 2003 is a mature example from Richard Prince’s widely acclaimed Joke series that uses dead-pan humor to reveal, critique, and reflect upon contemporary American culture. Characteristic of his artistic practice and the Pictures Generation more broadly, Just Asking deals with issues of authorship, authenticity, and identity by appropriating mass media.


    Origin of the Joke Paintings


    Prince first embarked on his Joke Paintings in 1986 while living in Los Angeles. Intrigued by the cartoons of Whitney Darrow featured in the New Yorker and their ability to reflect the everyday life of Americans, Prince began to copy the comics with a pen on paper. Soon after, Prince abandoned the illustrative element, and in a fashionable postmodern twist decided to center the Joke series around text alone. Evolving his one-liners from simple pieces of paper, which he sold for $10 a pop, to monumental monochromatic silk-screened canvases in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Prince’s Joke works have gone through a series of formal developments, as made apparent by the present work, which is more painterly and poetic than earlier versions.


    The jokes that Prince tells in this series reveal the pathologies and dark underbelly of American life while simultaneously making the misfortunes and mundanity of the everyday seem enjoyable, even if just for a moment. The tension between this dual function of the Jokes also points to their precarity. Highly specific to the cultural context out of which the jokes were born, these works have an exceptional ability to reflect that particular milieu, but, as Prince himself points out, taken out of context, the jokes “gradually become tragic in a quite unexpected way.”i This evolution is demonstrated by Prince’s reprisal of the same jokes: compared to an earlier work, Was That a Girl, 1989 in the Walker Art Center’s collection, which features a greater degree of visual and linguistic clarity, Just Asking employs stylistic smudging, fading, layering, and repetition of text, demonstrating how time and shifting cultural climates alters the interpretation of the joke.


    Richard Prince, Was That a Girl, 1989, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Image: T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2002 Artwork: ©Richard Prince
    Richard Prince, Was That a Girl, 1989, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Image: T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2002 Artwork: ©Richard Prince

    Reappropriating Appropriation


    Prince’s artistic practice is deeply rooted in questions of authenticity and authorship. Frequently appropriating imagery from the media and visual culture, works from the Joke series do not feature a single “original” joke. Prince even appropriates himself, as in Just Asking, by repeating the same one-liners from earlier works. Ironically, the first work from the Joke series features the phrase “’I went to see a psychiatrist.’ He said, ‘Tell me everything,’ I did, and now he’s doing my act.’” Like Roy Lichtenstein and other Pop artists inspired by consumer culture and mass media, Prince blends appropriation with wry humor, creating work that reflects his cultural milieu and his own unique style. However, unlike the Pop artists and in alignment with other members of the Pictures Generation, Prince’s adoption of elements from popular culture is deeply intertwined with a postmodern understanding of identity.

    "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 saw one in the washing machine spinning around getting clean."
    —Richard Prince

    By appropriating his one-liners from the world around him, Prince’s Jokes are an interrogation on American identity and humor’s role in constructing it. In stating, “The ‘joke’ paintings are abstract. Especially in Europe, if you can’t speak English,”ii Prince is not only bringing attention to the obvious linguistic issues at play, but also the cultural specificity needed to comprehend the joke. In its ability to unpack and address issues of authorship, identity, and appropriation in a resolutely postmodern fashion, the Joke series has an important place in Prince’s oeuvre and art at the turn of the century more broadly.


    i Prince, quoted in N. Spector, "Nowhere Man,", in N. Spector (ed.), Richard Prince,, Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, 2007, p. 37
    ii Richard Prince, quoted in Richard Prince: Canaries in the Coal Mine, exh. cat., Oslo, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, 2006, p. 124

    • Provenance

      Gladstone Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2005

    • Exhibited

      New York, Gladstone Gallery, Richard Prince, April 30–June 18, 2005

    • Artist Biography

      Richard Prince

      American • 1947

      For more than three decades, Prince's universally celebrated practice has pursued the subversive strategy of appropriating commonplace imagery and themes – such as photographs of quintessential Western cowboys and "biker chicks," the front covers of nurse romance novellas, and jokes and cartoons – to deconstruct singular notions of authorship, authenticity and identity.

      Starting his career as a member of the Pictures Generation in the 1970s alongside such contemporaries as Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo and Sherrie Levine, Prince is widely acknowledged as having expanded the accepted parameters of art-making with his so-called "re-photography" technique – a revolutionary appropriation strategy of photographing pre-existing images from magazine ads and presenting them as his own. Prince's practice of appropriating familiar subject matter exposes the inner mechanics of desire and power pervading the media and our cultural consciousness at large, particularly as they relate to identity and gender constructs.

      View More Works


Just Asking

signed, titled and dated "Richard Prince 2003 "JUST ASKING"" on the overlap
acrylic on canvas
78 x 62 in. (198.1 x 157.5 cm)
Executed in 2003.

Full Cataloguing

$400,000 - 600,000 

Contact Specialist

Rebekah Bowling
Head of Day Sale, Afternoon Session
New York

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 24 June 2021