BEVERLY HILLS — Cashed checks are typically fodder for the paper shredder rather than a painter’s canvas, but Richard Prince has managed to make them into works of art.

Prince took his old personal checks, cashed and canceled, and posted them onto humongous, abstract canvases that are brushed crudely in chocolate- and mustard-colored paint. Dozens of saved checks, made out to luminaries such as Helmut Newton as well as more pedestrian types such as a local plumber and a house painter, have been clipped and painstakingly fitted within lines of text that spell out old jokes.

“Checks are very autobiographical,” explains Prince. “You can, like, read a whole year’s worth of checks and pretty much tell what someone’s been doing.” 

Prince is showcasing the paintings at the West Coast outpost of the Gagosian Gallery. The exhibit, which opens tonight, also includes a few pieces from his previously celebrated series on nurses and pulp fiction. His work is a subversive, jocular snapshot of American pop culture based on cowboys, muscle cars and cocktail napkin jokes. 

The sale last May at auction of one of Prince’s first joke paintings for more than $700,000 piqued the interest of contemporary art buyers. But after three decades of relative obscurity, Prince appears unaffected by his newfound success. He lives in a farmhouse in Rensselaerville, N.Y., with his wife and two children. The artist is also in the midst of trying to sell a prefab home, situated nearby, that he bought in 2001 and set up as an unconventional gallery-cum-art work.

As it always does with Prince, this latest series began with a collection. He started buying up canceled checks, written out by famous people, over the Internet and through celebrity auction houses. The pop-cultural reference of the autograph also appealed to him. “When you go into a memorabilia store, they always have a photograph of the star framed with the autograph.” Prince also “mimicked” that format with a group of checks from the likes of Leonard Nimoy and Pamela Anderson (who is expected tonight at host Larry Gagosian’s dinner for the artist at Mr. Chow) featured in a separate gallery room.

This story first appeared in the February 24, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Prince then decided to use his own checks and he marveled at finding an online source where he could customize them from a range of images. His choice? Sponge Bob Square Pants, surfing. Besides checks of the kooky character, Prince also painted Sponge Bob on the thigh leg of an original Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” album cover, complete with autographs from Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol, who designed the now-iconic art. 

The artist says these are the last of his paintings that will feature his financial records. He’s already moved on to incorporating checks into a signee’s portrait, having recently painted Stephanie Seymour’s and integrating her canceled checks. And he’s currently working on portraits of Elizabeth Peyton and Sonic Youth. “I work with other people’s checks now — I am definitely done with my own.”

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