Richard Prince - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 13, 2014 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York
    Salon 94, New York

  • Catalogue Essay

    "I realized the cartoon drawings were not 'jokes.' They were cartoons. It occurred to me that if I was to call them 'jokes' then I would need to get rid of the illustration and concentrate on the punch line. So that’s what I did." Richard Prince, 2005

    Richard Prince has managed to make an equally large impact upon the world of art with every new series he undertakes. Yet the essence of Prince’s distinctive hand is in the filtering and appropriation of culture, specifically popular culture, as we see in his Cowboys, Nurse Paintings, and, of course, his Joke Paintings. In the latter, he engages a singular facet of American culture—that of the verbal quip, exposing it to an unfamiliar visual setting. The unrivalled simplicity and aesthetic excellence of his early Joke Paintings from the late 1980s through early 1990s, including the present lot, 1993’s Joke, allowed Prince to isolate the physicality of the language itself, giving what is normally an insignificant bit of cultural milieu the spotlight. In Joke, 1993, we witness the birth of Prince’s later forays into multi-chromatic and multimedia joke collages, here in its first and purest iteration.

    The marvelous variation among Prince’s joke paintings that we have witnessed in the past twenty-five years is like watching a flower blossoming in slow motion. Beginning with simple hand-written jokes on scraps of paper, Prince later employed both silk-screen techniques and simple fonts to achieve the isolation and glorification of his selected text. Vincent Pecoil describes the wide array of textual variation in Prince’s work:

    “Some jokes are hand-written, others are silk-screened; the letters follow each other on a straight line or on a wavy line, are centered or placed at the bottom of the image, like captions, repeated, superimposed…Sometimes, the jokes are looped, as though they were told one after the other, as in stand-up comedy, and linked to one another with a simple ‘one more’, ‘another one’ or ’okay’. At other times, a malfunction seems to occur, like a broken record, and the same joke is repeated twice on the same painting. In general, the same jokes are repeated from new series to the next on all possible supports.”(V. Pécoil, Richard Prince: Canaries in the Coal Mine, Oslo, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 128)

    In this regard, Prince has developed a particular fondness for specific jokes in his work, favoring not only those that have a particular resonance in American culture, but also those at which one might groan due to his overexposure to the punch line. It is in this way that Prince derives his signature cultural appropriation, preying upon the ability of the joke to be recognizable, and, hopefully, overly familiar to the viewer.

    Unlike some of the later Joke paintings, in this early example, Prince approaches the canvas not with caution, but with great vigor. While seemingly pristine from a distance, upon close inspection the surface bares the marks of his artistic process. Wisps and dashes of paint jazz across the canvas, marking the clean surface with intentional and vigorous imperfections. The dollops of paint are infused with the motions of Twombly scripture, as they move and dance across the picture.

    Upon even closer examination, beneath a veil of white wash lies a preliminary joke. Only the outline of black lettering is evident, the joke itself has vanished, leaving merely a silhouette of its once witty pun. The contrast of jet black text upon the white surface evokes the starkness of newsprint or typewritten notes from decades past. The crammed text also alludes to a cinematic scroll, reminiscent of Ruscha’s brilliant treatment and celebration of text, as seen in The End, 1991.

    Joke, 1993 possesses, as opposed to a great deal of visual art, the uncommon distinction of appearing to be simple black and rounded text upon a white wash background. This obsession with monochromatic canvases and with white wash in particular—a staple in Prince’s early Jokes—ties his work to a multitude of artists who worked in or are currently working in a similar luminous medium, among them Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, and, of course, his contemporary, Christopher Wool. Prince also shares the distinction with Wool, in the present lot, of using the English language as a visual motif. But while Wool’s often veers the way of the symbol, Prince’s is firmly entrenched within the realm of the semiotic: his language and phraseology are meant to be explored both in the context of the work and without:

    “‘The old man stood at the gates of the cemetery
    and wept. A passer-by stopped to comfort him.
    “Why are you crying?” the latter asked softly.
    “My daughter is laying in there,” explained the
    weeping one. “Sometimes I wish she were dead.””

    Prince’s silk-screening of each word, spotty in its jet-black paint yet complete in its textual message, plays on our expectations: is the old man crying for his lost daughter? No--rather her lost purity. Prince’s tiny text both ropes the viewer in to its intimate realm then delivers a classic punchline upon arrival. Pulled in to read such infinitesimal text, the observer feels as though this particular joke, despite its triteness, was manufactured especially for him to enjoy, its mischief surprisingly effective in such a subtle form.

    Prince’s text is remarkable for the same reason that his simple and beautiful white-wash is profound: both carry a sense of definitive purpose—the white wash to highlight the text, and the text to arouse familiarity in the viewer:

    “[Borscht belt jokes] are a signature staple… appearing on modernist monochromes, on fields of checks and as arbitrary punch lines for postwar New Yorker or Playboy cartoons. These examples of a better class of humor are variously whole, fragmented, steeped in white or piled into colorful, nearly abstract patterns yet still retain their familiarity. The same jokes occur in different works, alternately write big or little, sharp or fading, straight or rippled as if spoken by someone on a bender.”(R. Smith, “Pilfering from a Culture Out of Joint”, The New York Times, September 28, 2007)

    In this regard, Prince is always telling the same joke—that of a piece of our own culture of humor repurposed to fill out the boundaries of a canvas. This trick—Prince’s reappropriation of low art to high art, is a synecdoche of his overarching artistic project: the quest to elevate the invisible forces of culture that echo all around us. Joke, 1993, contains multitudes, as it is “a carefully constructed hybrid that is also some kind of joke, charged by conflicting notions of high, low and lower.”(Roberta Smith, New York Times, September 28, 2007)

  • 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.

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oil on silkscreen on canvas
56 x 48 in. (142.2 x 121.9 cm)

$1,500,000 - 2,500,000 

Sold for $1,565,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Stoffel
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+ 1 212 940 1261

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 13 November 2014 7pm