Richard Prince is a deeply confusing artist upon first observance. He would seem to have no specific style, or at least not a consistent one. Chameleon-like, he jumps from one style to another, but these various series are not actually completed one after another, but may start and stop at different times through his career.
Prince first came to prominence within the art world of the 1980s with a series of appropriated photographs. Taken from mass market advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes, these images were created by simply cropping and rephotographing scenes of the Marlboro Man. Text for the ads was omitted and what was left was the lone cowboy amidst a vast and wild nature.
Prince then moved to another series of images appropriated from advertising imagery. These tended to be triptychs of three similar images from various ads or images. These include three adult female heads turning and looking in the same direction. Similar images were sets of three high-end products like diamond rings all placed in similar surroundings.
Similar in materials was a series of biker chics taken from images in the back sections of motorcycle magazines. These depict the women in provocative, if not compromising, posses on the backs of their boyfriends’ bikes.
These works were followed with major jumps in materials, and seemingly, in ideas. The joke paintings (see image) evolved over time. They often have the text of some, sexist, racist, or off-color in one way or another, joke as their main subject but sometimes it is clearer and more legible than at other times. Some are obviously nods to some of the earlier work of Jasper Johns. And then, of course, there are the fiberglass car hoods. Patterned after the hoods of various hot rods, and sometimes built up on resin covered plywood forms so that they look like monolithic minimalist sculptures, these seem the most odd in the whole body of Prince’s work. And this doesn’t even cover all the various styles and images.
Honestly, I never paid attention to much of the work except for the text pieces until the fall of 2007 when I attended the retrospective of Prince’s work—Spiritual America—at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC. Everything kind of gelled together at that point. As I walked past the dozens of joke paintings I would invariably find someone laughing at a crude joke. I would have thought that political correctness would have prevented much of that kind of snickering in public, but then realized that this is part of the whole Richard Prince project. Every work and series of work is a comment on American culture and each series relates to the others in this way.
At the heart of the "American Spirit" that Prince comments on is this belief in endless freedom in a wide open, expansive western frontier. There is always more to conquer and Americans are the ones who can do it. Well, not all Americans. There are the peripheral ones which we accept as part of the culture, but most of us know that we are actually better than them. We are above the lower class trailer trash who ride Harleys in sleazy leather getups. They tend to be the same ones who value their souped up cars above everything else in life, making idols of them. And of course, we are above making or laughing at these offensive jokes. It is this "better than thou" attitude which Prince has narrowed in on. He is acutely attuned to middle class and upper middle class attitudes and realizes that there is little difference among the so-called classes in America. We all succumb to the advertisement-driven capitalist and consumerist culture in which we live and we have essentially bought into the concepts that are sold to us through commercialism. So, the joke is actually on many of us. Superiority may be the greater sin than laughing at a crude joke.