acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas
Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York
Private Collection, New York
Per Skarstedt Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above
One of eight existing Richard Prince joke paintings this size, all in major collections, White Woman, painted in 1990 and expansive at roughly 8 x 6 feet, epitomizes Prince's wry brand of appropriation. With his typically anonymous style – reliant on cropping and re-contextualizing – Prince is capable of distilling America's essence perhaps better than any other artist working today.
The first Joke piece can be dated to 1985, when Prince was living in the back room of 303 Gallery, then located on Park Avenue South. These early jokes – handwritten on 11 x 14-inch sheets of paper – would soon grow larger and more substantial. Often the punchlines would bear no relationship with the images they accompanied, and ultimately, the images would disappear altogether, leaving only words suspended on a flat color field, as in the present work. In "People Keep Asking," the introduction to the exhibition catalogue that accompanied his retrospective at the Whitney in 1992, Lisa Phillips wrote that "as his interest in making paintings grew, and when eventually he did exhibit paintings, they were large, monochromatic canvases, with single jokes silkscreened in different colors in the center – as minimal, mechanical, and blunt as the early rephotography had been. They seemed to be a joke on painting and a joke on the idea that art is something labored over. Prince was beginning to test what his relationship with painting could be." (Exh. Cat., New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Richard Prince, 1992, p. 45).
The influence of Prince's Joke paintings, the latest iterations in particular, on the work of Neo-Pop artist, Christopher Wool, is intriguing: Fuckem If They Can't Take a Joke makes literal the more oblique aspects of Prince's work. Wool's "big, signlike word pictures... [deliver] gnomic, vaguely alarming messages" (Ken Johnson, "Art in Review: Christopher Wool" , The New York Times, May 18, 2001). When parsed, it becomes immediately obvious that Wool's text is underwritten with taboo and violence; words such as "riot," "amok," "terrorist," and "helter skelter" fill his paintings. Prince too deals in the oft-ignored sinister aspects of American culture, but he embeds his critiques more deeply, masking them in more elaborate grammatical constructions. Stylistically, both Prince and Wool, like Warhol before them, use silkscreen and stencil to engage in a sort of cyborg practice, marring the distinction between hand and machine.
In a secular country only a few hundred years old, our national DNA is encoded not in churches or in ancient ritual, but rather in the images we disseminate and the icons we make ourselves. The cowboys of Prince's Marlboro Man series, for instance, are fiction, characters from an imagined and glorified past. The sinister politics of these brawny figureheads are conveniently forgotten; they are lauded as heroes of a mythical west who claimed uncharted territories, rather than the usurpers of ancient societies soon displaced and decimated. Prince deals in simulacra – representations of representations, imitations of things that don't exist. Like the work of Warhol, Prince compels his viewers to consider the mechanics behind an increasingly image-dominated culture: our relationship to specific typologies, stereotypes, idealized notions of the everyday and our relationship to pictures themselves. Prince tests our definitions of art, commerce, and culture.
Here, with a Duchampian impulse towards relocating the familiar, Prince de-contextualizes the joke – dated in its casual colonialism – and blows it up to a scale that makes the words all but illegible. There is a tension here between reading and seeing; it's almost impossible to decipher the joke itself; the text instead becomes a sort of glyph, something strange and pictorial. Like Jeff Koons, who suspended everyday items – basketballs, Hoover vacuums – in glass cases and tanks of water, Prince creates new environments for text, unexpected two-dimensional habitats in which words are translated into images. "The joke paintings," Prince explained "are abstract. Especially in Europe, if you can't speak English" (Steve Lafreniere, "Richard Prince talks to Steve Lafreniere – '80 Then – Interview", Art Forum, March 2003).
The taped-off lettering, in a sans serif font, is painted in a gradation of colors, with a base of yellow, and a top layer of orange. The strata of paint – almost, but not quite neon – creates an uncanny effect. The palette here reiterates the joke itself. A flat, drab background of khaki grounds the neon letters, evocative of the bright colors of the caps hunters wear to protect themselves from each other. The canvas becomes a sort of Magic Eye – an abstract optical illusion: pulsing, burning nonsense into the viewer's retina. There's a visual spirituality activated here; in the same way that Rothko's paintings seem to quiver and hover, so too does White Woman.
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