signed and dated 1987 on the overlap; signed and dated 1987 on the stretcher
"Matter of fact, tactless and funny, these handwritten gags were the antithesis of the pseudo-expressionistic painting and sculpture being produced at the time" (Nancy Spector, 'Nowhere Man' in Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Richard Prince, 2007-08, p. 37).
Painted in 1987, Drink Canada Dry is a seminally early work from one of Richard Prince's most esteemed bodies of work: the monochrome joke paintings. At once iconic and iconoclastic, this series shocked the art world by posing an outright challenge to received ideas about authorship and originality in art. Moving easily from his early photographic work to painting, the joke paintings encapsulated the same concerns with the audaciously appropriated image, the seductiveness of mass culture and the death of the author, but in an entirely new and sophisticated medium.
Prince began the series on an extended visit to Los Angeles in 1987, by selecting jokes and silk-screening them onto uninflected planes of colour. Like his early pirated photographs, the jokes were culled from the popular press, revealing Prince's avid fascination for the low-brow and the kitsch. The corny gags are a natural continuation of Prince's interest in generic advertisements and biker girlfriends, only here his pictorial strategy is reversed. While in his photographs of Cowboys the sense of the image is radically altered by removing the branding and text, here, by contrast, the image is pared down completely to leave text only. Despite their ostensible simplicity, the comic one-liners in fact belie a sophisticated and well-considered gag, submitted for publication by an anonymous writer and selected from the thousands by the editorial committee of a newspaper or trashy magazine. Like advertising, these jokes that enter the public sphere reflect a certain collusion of public taste, desires and prejudices. Just as the New York Times aligns its cartoons with the tenor of the time, these deceptively simple jokes speak volumes about the cultural epoch of which they are borne. Often vaudeville, rapid-fire humour, the banality of Prince's jokes, emancipated from their signifying context, reveals the essence of the American psyche. At the same time, these unattributed and unascribed quips, quoted without license and represented in a matter-of-fact manner, make a damning indictment of the notions of authorship and originality that the art world holds sacrosanct. In an extension of the Duchampian readymade, Prince's blatant piracy revolutionises entrenched ideals of intellectual property.
At that time in America, the decade defined by Ronald Reagan and his economic policies that favoured the wealthy, society encountered a mass commodification of culture. In particular, the art market expanded exponentially with SoHo galleries promoting a revival of pseudo-expressionistic painting after years of minimalism and reductive art. The hype surrounding a return to painting was epitomised by the tremendous prices paid for paintings by Sandro Chia, David Salle and Julian Schnabel. Prince, in contrast to this group of expressionistic painters, came of age as an artist in East Village New York in the late 1970s and was part of a close-knit group including Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine who helped bring about postmodernism by breaking with modernism and its attendant values of medium specificity, originality and the uniqueness of the art object. His 1987 series of monochrome jokes, with its formulaic design, banal subject and deliberately manufactured appearance, was a deliberate renunciation of the bombastic scale and heroic ambition of much of the new painting. As Nancy Spector observes, "With the monochrome jokes, Prince achieved the antimasterpiece – an art object that refuses to behave in a museum or market context that privileges the notion of greatness" (Nancy Spector, 'Nowhere Man' in Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Richard Prince, 2007-08, p. 39).
Ironically, of course, this gesture of protest has come to be regarded today as a masterstroke of genius by the very same critics and collectors that Prince's dead-pan paintings sought to defy. Above all, Prince's art is one of cultural quotation. Like a modern day flaneur, he identifies the most revealing aspects of our modern, consumer-driven psyche and exposes them to our scrutiny. With the monochrome jokes, he pointed satire at the vanities of the 1980s art world while finding an iconic art form that sat comfortably within the tenor of his overall practice.
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