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But Seriously Folks, Stop Me if You've Seen This One Before . . .

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Like many famous artists, Prince made his crucial contribution almost at the start of his career. Unlike many of his peers, he didn't settle for an endless repetition of that earlier work.

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He has also taken documentary-style photographs around his home in down-at-heels Upstate New York. Surprisingly, the best of those come closest to the power of his first appropriated ads. One image, of snaking tire tracks left by a joy rider on a cracking rural road, seems to reveal as clear a trace of iconic American culture as any Marlboro cowboy.

On a similar tack, Prince has made sculptures out of the hoods of muscle cars. Some of them are, appropriately, set into the tops of bulky plinths that evoke ancient sarcophagi. Almost all of them take the pink and gray of sanded Bondo and make it look like the distressed surface of handmade expressive art.

Prince has also painted, producing canvases re-presenting jokes from stand-up comedy, and others doing the same with New Yorker and Playboy cartoons.

Often Prince mashes up those gags with some cliches of Western art. He letters one series of jokes onto backgrounds of painted color that derive from 1960s abstract art. In one of these, he takes a minimal khaki background and then lays on top, in tidy dark-pink lettering, the words "I went to see a psychiatrist. He said, 'Tell me everything.' I did, and now he's doing my act." It's impossible not to read those two lines of joke -- or to give them more than the seconds that reading them takes. It's equally impossible for anyone with an art-world background not to get drawn to the picture's minimal color and form, and just as unlikely anyone would stay to ponder longer. The idea seems to be that derivative, tasteful abstraction and Borscht Belt humor float through our culture in similar ways -- as unavoidable, instantly digestible units of culture, high and low, that depend on a quick read.

Prince also lays his jokes down on top of more complex, intriguing surfaces that recall classic pictures by Claude Monet, Mark Rothko or Cy Twombly. But he gets little of the leverage of his earliest advertising works. Where, in the earlier work, there was a striking distance between ad and art, the later pieces try to make high-end paintings that both speak about, and keep their distance from, earlier high-end paintings. It's a much harder business to pull off. That is, it's harder for artwork to talk about how artworks function when it's busy functioning that way itself.

-- Blake Gopnik


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