Little so evokes the United States of America as the cowboy. These epic figures conjure so many values central to the myth of America: they represent hard work and a pioneering spirit, agility, martial prowess, an understanding of nature; hands on, no holds barred, shoot from the hip and ride into the sunset. The image of the Plains cattle herder intermingles, jumbled by John Wayne, Sergio Leone, Roy Rogers and Rawhide, with that of the gunfighter. The hardships of the good, the bad and the ugly combine to create a mythical landscape that remains infinitely evocative. And so the cowboy was the perfect subject for the arch-appropriator of images, Richard Prince, as shown in Untitled (Cowboy).
This is not just any cowboy, though. This is a Marlboro cowboy from one of the most successful advertising campaigns in the world. Despite being out of circulation in most of the world for many years, the images of the Marlboro cowboy are still infinitely evocative, and instantly recognisable, as in Untitled (Cowboy). Here, Prince cropped the original image, removing any caption, and rephotographed it, creating his own work. In this deceptively simple act of appropriation, Prince waves a strange semantic wand over the picture. The cowboy of the ads, who was intended only to invoke the world of rugged individualism and manliness that would hopefully encourage people to buy Marlboro cigarettes, once again plays a role in an implied Western narrative. Without the labels and logos, this image appears to be a brief insight into a larger, overarching tale, or a movie still. The cowboy has become a character again, not just a visual means to peddle a product. The picture straddles the world of advertising -- of ruthless consumerism exploiting demographics and markets -- and the world of the Alamo, Remington's paintings and Eastwood's movies, leaving both image and viewer in states of high ambiguity.
Prince makes this ambiguity even more explicit by heavily diverging content and context. The implied health of the rugged High Plains drifter shown in Untitled (Cowboy) starkly contrasts with the carcinogenic reality of the product he is being used to sell. This factor created controversiy when two men who posed as Marlboro cowboys, Wayne MacLaren and David McLean, died of lung cancer. In a strange twist to the cowboy image's legacy, this man's man once again became associated with death. Marlboro cigarettes were even nick-named "cowboy killers." The Marlboro Cowboy became an outlaw again, a price put on his head by the Surgeon General. This whiff of death around the cowboy has another layer of meaning, since real-life cowboys suffer from lung disease due to dust inhalation, an occupational hazard that they could avoid by wearing masks, which the men all too often refuse to don because that would disrupt the image they themselves wish to inhabit. In short, they fatally fall victim to their own hype.
A tension exists between the romantic image of a man and his horse and the sad reality of law suits, scientific research and controversy. And yet, in a world in which cigarette advertising has been increasingly controlled and even banned, Prince wryly exploits that sense of the cowboy as a romantic knows-no-bounds figure striving to exist in a world that increasingly does not need him. In advertising at the 20th Century's end and in agriculture at its beginning, the cowboy stalks a domain with a limited lease on life. He is an inherently tragic, romantic symbol of old ways and old worlds, of the creep of technology. He is a victim of change, obsolete both in advertising and in the increasingly tamed Wild West. Society has moved on, depriving the cowboy -- and the Marlboro Man -- of his territory.
Prince salvages the cowboy from the gimmicky world of advertising, allowing our equestrian hero only the most Pyrrhic victory. This character has regained a story, but that story tells of necessary doom, of death and disuse. Prince tells this tale through a simple appropriation. The ads' endemic nature and that of cowboy imagery mean the viewer brings much information and context to the picture, which archaeologically examines the gradual drift of meanings and associations that the cowboy, as signifier, character and hero, has occupied throughout history.
This analysis, and the fact that the cowboy in this picture has a place in any story at all, allows Prince to take to pieces the entire notion of how a picture works. He has deconstructed not only the cowboy, but also pictures as a way to convey information. He has undermined the authority upon which pictures function. He has taken an image of an image, but has cherry-picked the information that his new image conveys. By showing an isolated instant in the rancher's life, Prince implies stories that are just not there. He implies meanings and contexts that do not really exist. A brilliant manipulator, he sucks the viewer in, exploiting the human reflex to read into a picture; however, our awareness ensures that we become conscious of the strange mechanics at work in the picture. Prince not only analyses the function of images in the context of the art world and of the wider-reaching, more endemic world of advertising, but also makes the viewer party to this analysis, letting us in on the joke, allowing us to glimpse the strange sleight of hand upon which so much pictorial information relies.
Prince, who sometimes worked as a picture researcher in the 1970s, is particularly attuned to this process. His role as artist and appropriator is itself reflected in the figure of the cowboy, the renegade. In Untitled (Cowboy), and indeed in all the works Prince created that reused someone else's image, he deliberately trespassed, straying with only the faintest claim to legality into the territories of cigarette giants and ad companies. He did not borrow their images, but effectively stole them and put them to his own use. The self-reliant cowboy in these pictures comes to represent Prince himself, waging his own unconventional, one man campaign, breaking down the boundaries of the world of images and ownership, railing against the limitations of copyright. In short, he himself crossed some of the boundaries implied in Untitled (Cowboy) by becoming an outlaw of the art world.