Richard Prince - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 15, 2021 | Phillips

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  • 'Artists were casting sculptures in bronze, making huge paintings, talking about prices and clothes and cars and spending vast amounts of money. So I wrote jokes on little pieces of paper and sold them for $10 each.' 
    —Richard Prince

    Executed in 2007, My Life as a Weapon is a vibrant example of New York-based Richard Prince’s iconic Joke Paintings series, employing deadpan humour and bold text to expose certain, perhaps unspoken dimensions of contemporary American culture. Starting his career as a member of the Pictures Generation alongside the likes of Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine, Prince captured distinctively post-modern ideas around art-making and the image, notably with his early experimentation with the technique of ‘re-photography’ where he photographed existing magazine adverts and presented them as his own. Like advertising images, jokes reflect the tastes, desires and anxieties of the moment, communicating their message directly while being particularly open to subversion, appropriation and exchange. Covering photography, painting, collage, sculpture and installation, Prince’s work engages thoughtfully and comprehensively with ideas around originality and appropriation, inverting ideas related to the aura and originality of fine art to scrutinise certain aspects of contemporary culture more closely.


    Genesis of a Joke:


    Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam!, 1963, Tate Collection, London Photo: Tate © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2021

    Moving against the contemporaneous trend for expressive, large-scale, gestural painting, Prince began copying cartoons from the New Yorker in the mid-1980s. Struck by their wit, economy, and ability to reflect the core values and everyday life of American citizens, Prince quickly abandoned the illustrative element, focusing on the more abstract textual element of the joke itself. Combining text, image, and the products of so-called low-culture found in jokes and magazines in this way, Prince aligns himself to some degree with certain elements of Pop Art, especially Roy Lichtenstein’s appropriation and approximation of comic culture. Art critic Jerry Saltz made this connection explicit in relation to Prince’s recent and controversial series of Instagram Paintings, where the artist appropriated the Instagram images of strangers without consent, suggesting ‘the blurry pixels relate to the Ben-Day dots of printing and offset technologies of yore’.i

    Starting with handwritten jokes, Prince began to introduce bold text and colour, eventually incorporating images as is the case in the visually riotous My Life as a Weapon. Although at first glance the repeating patterns of blues, pinks, and yellows organised into a tightly gridded format appear to be entirely abstract, upon closer inspection the more controversial pornographic source material comes into focus. Featuring a favourite motif of the artist – the masked nurse – the collage is primarily composed of closely cropped and overpainted soft-porn photographs of fragmented faces, buttocks and breasts.


    Detail of the present work

    Fittingly, the present work was included in the 2011 Thomas Amman exhibition Verboten. Exhibited alongside controversial works by leading contemporary artists including Damien Hirst and Tom Friedman, the provocative nature of this joke painting, and its place in contemporary debates surrounding questions of taste and propriety is especially elevated. The shock of the explicit images and their hyper-sexualised content juxtaposed against the deadpan humour of the joke running across the collage in bold, outlined text creates its own, comedic effect. Hinging on the word play of homophones ‘nun’ and ‘none’ and playing on the cultural specificity of the nun’s overdetermination as a symbol of frigid celibacy, the stuttering repetition of the joke and its postmodern dissection of language and meaning highlights the mechanics of humour – of how a joke functions in a formulaic and reproducible manner. As art historian and curator Victor Pécoil has noted ‘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 times a malfunction seems to occur, like a broken record, and the same joke is repeated twice on the same painting.’ii


    Richard Prince, Man Crazy Nurse #3, 2003, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
    Richard Prince, Another Girl, 2008, The Broad Collection, Los Angeles © 2021. Digital image Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala © Richard Prince

    In this manner, My Life as a Weapon draws out key themes and preoccupations of the artist, foregrounding questions of repetition, exchange, and appropriation which have become increasingly relevant in our own digital age, where issues of privacy, and ownership are moving increasingly to the foreground. Often criticised for his ambiguous treatment of controversial materials, Prince appears less interested in formulating a critique than in ‘deconstructing the myths of American consumer culture’.iii Bringing the extreme oppositions of porn star and nun into such close proximity, Prince perhaps inadvertently highlights the reductive two-dimensionality of gender stereotyping and the commodification of the individual in contemporary American culture.


    ‘Continuation Painting with Richard Prince’, Vice


    Collector’s Digest


    •    For more than three decades Richard Prince has pursued the subversive strategy of appropriating the material of our visual culture including advertising images, and the front covers of pulp fiction in order to deconstruct ideas around authorship, authenticity, and identity.


    •    In recent years, Prince has been the subject of major solo exhibitions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California. He also presented a group of Joke Paintings at Nahmad Contemporary, New York earlier this year.


    •    Prince’s works are collected in some of the most important public collections of contemporary art including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas 

    i Jerry Saltz, ‘Richard Prince’s Instagram Paintings Are Genius Trolling’, Vulture, 23 September 2014, online 
    ii Vincent Pécoil, Richard Prince: Canaries in the Coal Mine, exh. cat., Oslo, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 128
    iii Felix Petty, ‘Defending Richard Prince Against Accusations of Misogyny’, i-D, 3 June 2015, online 

    • Provenance

      Gladstone Gallery, New York
      Private Collection, Connecticut
      Phillips de Pury & Company, London, 12 October 2011, lot 16
      Private Collection (acquired at the above sale)
      Phillips, London, 2 July 2014, lot 8
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Verboten, 9 June - 30 September 2011, no. 6, n.p. (illustrated)

    • 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


My Life as a Weapon

signed and dated 'R Prince 2007' on the reverse
collage and acrylic on canvas
203.2 x 303.5 cm (80 x 119 1/2 in.)
Executed in 2007.

Full Cataloguing

£450,000 - 650,000 

Sold for £453,600

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+44 7391 402741


Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2021