Richard Prince Untitled (Cowboy), 1982.
Controversial and voyeuristic, Richard Prince's Untitled (Cowboy), from the artist's seminal series, addresses issues of authenticity, identity and authorship while also challenging the relationship between the consumer and popular culture. From our London Evening Sale, Untitled (Cowboy) is a cinematic spectacle and fortifes the cowboy motif as one of the most enduring images in Prince's career.
The instantly recognizable cultural icon of the Stetson adorned cowboy presented in this seminal 1992 work by Richard Prince transports the viewer to the sprawling plains of the American West. Emanating warmth and familiarity, the surface of the cropped advert depicts the cowboy, the pioneering spirit at the center of Prince's most celebrated series of works.
Richard Prince Untitled (Cowboy), 1989. Chromogenic print, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © Richard Prince. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Art Resource/Scala, Florence
In 1954, following Life magazine's 1949 feature ‘Texas Cowboy’, advertising agent Leo Burnett launched his 'Marlboro Man' campaign; the cowboy became the figurehead for Marlboro's cigarette commercials and generated the visual material from which Prince would create his controversial cowboy series. Working in the tear sheets department at Time magazine in the 1970s, at the end of each day, having clipped all articles, Prince was left with nothing but adverts. The ubiquitous nature of these fawless images against the backdrop of race riots, assassinations and the Vietnam War fascinated and repulsed the artist. Through the zoomed viewfinder of his 35 mm camera, Prince became the director of the image by re-photographing, cropping and re-contextualizing advertisements to expose their artifice. Re-focusing his preoccupation with consumer-driven adverts for watches, pens, bags and clothes, the artist began photographing Marlboro's cowboy adverts in the 1980s.
I started taking pictures of the cowboys. You don't see them out in public anymore — you can't ride down a highway and see them on a billboard. But at 'Time Life', I was working with seven or eight magazines, and Marlboro had ads in almost all of them. Every week, I'd see one and be like, 'Oh, that’s mine. Thank you.' It’s sort of like beachcombing.
LIFE Magazine, 22 August 1949 with cowboy C. H. Long © Photo: Leonard McCombe, Image: Life Magazine/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty Images
Placing the figure of the cowboy at its very center, the composition of Untitled (Cowboy) brings us closer to the man behind the campaign and removes the previously commercial focus of the imagery. The glow emanating from the heart of the work seduces the onlooker, invoking the familiarity of the cowboy and American folklore. Presented in a solitary setting at the focal point of the work, Prince highlights the paradoxical nature of the material; the rural icon embodies solitude and self-reliance, totally at odds with the cities' urban corporate culture. Concerned with the signifcance of originality, here the distinction between subjective desires and objective documentation has been eroded, creating a relic of society's yearning. Prince appropriates the seductive power of the slick imagery that Marlboro had been forced to abandon and undermines the false naturalness and hyperreal scenes of 'social science fiction'.