Emerging amongst the appropriation artists of the 1980s, Richard Prince stood out for the distinctive coolness of his work. While many of the re-photographers of his generation were inspired by postmodern theories on authenticity and originality, Prince’s work simultaneously reflected a decidedly American cultural influence through his fascination with cowboys, bikers, cars, and lowbrow American humor. After his iconic series of cowboy photographs in the early 1980s, in which Prince explored his signature conceptual strategy of appropriating imagery from advertising whilst referring to archetypes of the American dream, he became intrigued by the incorporation of jokes into his works. Like the found sources that he used for his photographs, the artist appropriated the jokes from cartoon-strips, which he initially turned into hand-drawn copies on paper. Prince explained, “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.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Richard Prince: Spiritual America, 2007, p. 37)
Following these initial hand-written jokes and subsequent works in which the cartoon images were silkscreened onto canvas, Prince soon embarked on a more radical approach in which all illustrations were entirely abolished. Daring anyone to take a one-liner for a serious work of art, Prince had started to assemble his jokes in a catalogue in 1985, which ultimately led to his iconic paintings, of which the present work is one of the earliest examples. If the artist’s decision to start painting was not radical enough after his earlier photographic work, Prince’s painted jokes – detached, witty, and matter-of-fact – were also the complete antithesis of the neo-expressionist painting that dominated the art world in the 1980s. Instead of the expressive, gestural application of paint that was so fashionable, Richard Prince silkscreened his jokes onto a flat, monochrome canvas. Similar to his re-photography of existing images, this approach removed the artist’s hand from the work. Despite this conceptual strategy, Prince nonetheless considered these works first and foremost as paintings. As he jokingly remarked, “the ‘Joke’ paintings are abstract. Especially in Europe, if you can’t speak English.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., Oslo, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Richard Prince: Canaries in the Coal Mine, 2006, p. 124)
"What a Kid I Was" (3 Times) confronts the viewer with a strangely puzzling juxtaposition of a minimalist canvas and painted words. Although this can be read as a reference to postmodern linguistic theory, the work also points to two quintessentially American features: hard-edge abstraction and popular humor. Cleverly subverting the clean and serious language of abstract painting, the jokes' amalgamation of low and high culture characterizes Prince’s most iconic work. Wittingly parodying gags from the popular vernacular, the artist has found a way of incorporating a difficult subject matter – humor – into a deeply serious and resolutely intellectual artistic practice.
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