Richard Prince takes on the jokes of Milton Berle

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Richard Prince takes on the jokes of Milton Berle
Richard Prince (American, b. 1949), untitled (Milton Berle) (detail), 2021. Inkjet on canvas, 118 3/4 × 55 1/4 inches. Courtesy Richard Prince.

ATHENS, GA.- Artist Richard Prince has appropriated works from all over American culture throughout his career. He may be best known for his “rephotographs” in which he photographed existing photographs, then enlarged them. Starting in the mid-1980s, he began making a series of works about jokes. He started with handwritten jokes on pieces of paper, then began silkscreening the text of jokes on painted canvas. Prince sees jokes as expressing the American subconscious and has said, “Being funny is a way to survive.”

In 2013, Prince bought the joke files of American comedian Milton Berle. These upright file cabinets contained thousands of jokes typewritten on 3-by-5-inch index cards, arranged by subject. He then started making art based on those files, photographing them and then printing the photos on canvas. You can see the results in the exhibition “Richard Prince: Tell Me Everything,” on view at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia February 10 through June 16, along with one of the joke paintings and Berle’s file cabinets.

Unlike the joke paintings, Prince’s images of the joke files do not show the actual jokes, just their subjects, arranged in categories like argument, rent, moving, maid, luggage and so on. Instead, these images serve as a testament to the enduring importance of jokes as conduits for ideas about everyday life, broader cultural norms and even taboo subjects. Prince pays homage to Berle’s comedic genius while infusing his contemporary perspective into the narrative. He makes the ephemeral aspect of the comedy archive visible and tangible. The title of the exhibition comes from the first joke Prince came across in a secondhand bookshop: “I went to see a psychiatrist. He said, ‘Tell me everything.’ I did, and now he's doing my act.”

Shawnya Harris, the museum’s deputy director of curatorial and academic affairs and Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art, worked with the artist’s studio to assemble this iteration of the exhibition from a series produced a few years earlier. She said, “I have always been curious about Prince’s practice as an artist, which has been both celebrated and critiqued. Our curatorial department took an interest in this material as many of us were familiar with Prince’s older joke paintings and his reputation for reappropriation. Although my specialization makes me an unlikely curator to host this exhibition, conceptually I found myself asking lots of questions about value, ownership, originality and how that could engage various audiences using comedy as the basis.”

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