Although widely associated with the Pictures Generation of the 1980s, Prince has always remained an outlier amongst his contemporaries, standing out for the distinctive coolness of his work. Whilst many of the appropriators of his generation were inspired by postmodern theories on authenticity and originality, Prince’s work continuously re-conceptualizes found imagery, focusing specifically on the underpinnings of the American identity: fashion, women, sex, cars, gangs, motorbikes and lowbrow American humor, to uniquely characterize his conceptual practice. Following his canonic series of Cowboy photographs from the early 1980s, an iconic selection of re-appropriated images from the Marlboro Men cigarette campaign, Prince pivoted, finding a new subject matter, the jokes. As Prince describes, “I found the subject matter, which was the jokes. Before that, I wanted to paint but I didn’t know what to paint. The subject comes first, the medium second” (the artist in an interview with Karen Rosenberg, New York Magazine, 2 May 2005).
Keeping in line with the found imagery that he used for his photographs, the jokes were extracted from the popular press, revealing Prince's avid fascination for the low-brow and the kitsch in a novel way. He explained, “Beginning the jokes was like starting all over. I didn’t know what I was doing. At the time 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 in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Richard Prince: Spiritual America, 2007, p. 37). The corny gags were a natural continuation of Prince's interest in generic advertisements, only, now, his strategy and process was reversed. While in his photographs of Cowboys the sentiment of the image was radically altered by removing the branding and text, here, by contrast, the image gave way, elevating the text as the focus. What remained were a series of condensed, resized and repurposed one-liners, blazingly illuminated against their individual chromatic backgrounds.
Despite their surface-level ostensible simplicity, the choice of these comic one-liners as a new body of work in fact showcased a sophisticated and intellectual summation of the American psyche, all while maintaining Prince’s core practice of appropriation. Submitted for publication by an anonymous writer and selected from the thousands by the editorial committee of a publication, these jokes that entered the public sphere reflected 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 shed light on the cultural epoch of which they are borne. Often mischievous, rapid-fire humor, the banality of Prince's jokes, emancipated from their signifying context, reveal the essence of the American subconscious. At the same time, these unattributed and unascribed puns, 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 further revolutionizes entrenched ideals of intellectual property. As such, Prince carves out a unique place for himself within the history of art by capturing a cultural sentiment while destabilizing the assumed cultural notions of authorship and ownership.
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