The cowboy is one of the most enduring modern mythic figures, invoking ideas of the life outdoors, of hard work and a hard life, of pioneering, of understanding nature, of oneness with the land, of fighting a noble fight, of creating so much of the United States. The notion of the Plains cattle herder intermingles, through the jumbled perspective of John Wayne, Sergio Leone, Roy Rogers and Rawhide, with the gunfighter. The hardships of the good, the bad and the ugly combine to create a mythical landscape, still infinitely evocative to this day. And so the cowboy was the perfect subject for the arch-appropriator of images, Richard Prince, as shown in Untitled (Cowboy Saddling Horse), executed in 1980-83.
This is not an ordinary cowboy. This is a Marlboro cowboy from the flurry of ads from one of the most successful campaigns in the world. Despite being removed from international circulation for many years, images of the Marlboro cowboy are still evocative, and instantly recognizable, as in Untitled (Cowboy Saddling Horse). 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, has once again attained 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 perhaps a still from a movie. 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 and the exploitation of demographics and markets -- and the world of the Alamo, Remington's paintings and Eastwood's movies, leaving both image and viewer in highly ambiguous states.
All this creates a tension between the romantic image of one 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 terms of advertising at the 20th Century's end and agriculture at its beginning, the cowboy stalks a domain that has 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, incorporating his own obsolescence, 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's role as artist and appropriator is itself reflected in the figure of the cowboy, the renegade. In Untitled (Cowboy Saddling Horse), and indeed in all the works that Prince created that relied on the reuse of someone else's image, he was deliberately trespassing, straying with only the faintest claim to legality into the territories of the cigarette giants and the ad companies. He was not borrowing their images, but was effectively stealing them and putting them to his own use. In this sense, the self-reliant cowboy who features 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; turning, in short, from regulator to bandido.