Richard Prince’s Jokes series remains among his most iconic. On the eve of a 2013 retrospective at New York’s Nahmad Contemporary Gallery, writer and kindred spirit Bill Powers riffed on the essence of these works for the show’s catalog. The piece is excerpted below.
He wasn’t a funny guy.
He wasn’t the life of the party.
But most comedy isn’t about entertaining as it is about survival.
And he wanted to live.
He didn’t make art looking for love.
Who could love four men looking in the same direction?
It was so ugly he wouldn’t hang it in his own house.
He wouldn’t hang it in your house.
He lived with his girlfriend.
Her apartment was at 303 Park Avenue South.
In the back he set up a little studio.
This was after his post studio period.
Post, post studio.
The year was 1986.
He started writing out stolen jokes.
Maybe not stolen, but almost authorless.
Borscht Belt stuff.
A step above knock knocks.
Old jokes for young people.
Ten dollars a joke.
Which quickly became twenty dollars a joke.
They weren’t his lines, but they were written in his hand.
And they counted for something.
He wrote out a few jokes on the liners of cassette tapes.
He thought of them almost as mix tapes.
Almost as set lists.
But if you bothered listening to one there was nothing recorded on it.
Only white noise to greet you.
He thought he might give the cassettes out at galleries like demo tapes.
Like musicians did at record labels to get signed.
Within a year he began silk-screening jokes on canvas.
He made them with black text on a white background, but then decided that wasn’t quite right.
He painted over them.
There’s an installation shot in Spiritual America before he destroyed the paintings.
The answer he arrived at finally was to paint the jokes using strange colors.
The colors would be a stand-in for the missing image.
Or rather lack of image.
It’s not for nothing that his friend Christopher Wool was making text pieces at the time.
Except Wool was a deconstructionist, exploding syllables and reshuffling etymology.
Richard Prince was vacillating between ideas about painting and illustration.
Studying cartoon captions one comes across in
A struggle he would explore later in white paintings.
For now, he was deep in his monochromatic joke phase.
The year was 1987.
The month was March.
Art in America puts Prince on the cover.
It turns out to be a real game changer.
Print periodicals still meant something then.
Maybe he wouldn’t have to take the assistant teaching gig in Maine that he’d been offered.
Maybe there’d be pennies to his name.