Richard Prince’s famous 1980s photographic series of cowboy images forms part of a deep investigation into American identity and culture that branched out to other sub-groups and media over the years. In the 1990s, Prince returned to the theme of the cowboy and appropriation via re-photograph to create a technically advanced body of work with different contextual meaning. Untitled (Cowboy) belongs to this group of works. In it Prince touches upon one of the earliest foundations of the cowboy myth: that of the cowboy as part of the noble frontiersmen in the Wild West. His work exposes how that tradition was distorted through its use in advertising.
The image in Untitled (Cowboy) is a digital manipulation of a magazine advertisement that was part of a campaign called “Marlboro Country” that began in 1963. The symbol of hyper-masculinity, the Marlboro Man was so well established by this time that the Leo Burnett ad agency launched the secondary campaign focusing on the fictitious landscape of a cigarette smoker’s paradise. The shots used were of carefully composed scenery where the figures depicted were actual cowboys doing their work, heightening the sense of drama. In creating the work, Prince was able to re-photograph the entire original imagery without cropping around the text of the ad, as he had to do in his 1980s photographs, due to the advance of digital technology (R. Brooks, Richard Prince, London, 2003, p. 24). Thus, in Untitled (Cowboy), Prince effectively celebrates the sense of awe generated by the majestic vista of mountains.
Untitled (Cowboy) shows how the ads tapped into the deep-rooted visual imagery of the American dream of the West, something that has held sway in the popular imagination for even longer than the mythical cowboy. The scene shows a stunningly beautiful landscape with luscious blues and greens. The velvety green mountain tops on the right harbor a cluster of cowboys on horseback dwarfed by the terrain. In the distant horizon, the cerulean outline of a mountain range intersects with the exquisite arch of a delicate rainbow. The striking scenery evokes the nineteenth-century American paintings of spectacular, mountainous terrain in the West, which were produced by artists such as Albert Bierstadt who traveled with federal land surveyors. These exaltations of native wilderness were imbued with a sense of divine blessing, of it being America’s “Manifest Destiny” to exploit the seemingly virginal territory. In such images as were produced by the Hudson River School of painters, it was typical to introduce small figures in the foreground to emphasize the grand scale of the panoramic view as well as to encourage the viewers to imagine themselves in it. People would be grouped together in a manner redolent of Biblical scenes of Moses leading the Jews to the Promised Land. This framing device and its religious overtones are not only replicated in the shot by the placement of the group of cowboys but also accentuated by its use of the symbol of the divine covenant, the rainbow.
Prince’s reclamation of the scene through the creation of a photographic print aligns with his belief that a photograph is an aesthetic object. Prince has said that he sees “a photograph as an object and not a repetitive multiple” (op. cit., p. 11). To this end, he creates editions of two. Instead of the appealing original text which would have beckoned the viewer to join the cowboys in Marlboro Country, the photograph offers up an attractive image open for aesthetic evaluation. Art critic Jim Lewis suggests that Prince’s works aren’t merely duplications of the original image, but shows how “the fiction, once it’s caught, fixed at last, and represented, reappears as real” (J. Lewis, Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 65). In its earlier setting in an advertisement, the image was a false representation of a fantastical land led by implausibly healthy, virile cowboys who smoked, where the ‘promise’ being advertised was that of decadent, fashionable consumption without consequence in a perversion of the original concept. Without this setting, the work rekindles the suppressed projections of desire towards the American West in its glorified beauty while demonstrating, without rancor or censure, the simulated reality of modern life, which is subjected to so much psychological manipulation driven by commercial activity. Prince’s regenerated representation is an exploration of the “sameness within difference” that has guided his appropriation art to a different direction from Pop Artist Andy Warhol’s strategy of replication (N. Spector, Richard Prince, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2007, p. 27). Untitled (Cowboy)’s production bears witness to our modern state of being in the twenty-first century without comment on the mechanical reproduction of imagery. Instead, it is a restrained revelation of the distortive effects of such multiple copying in the context of themes and the images used to convey such themes. Its excavation of an image’s presentation is an attempt to uncover the simultaneous, twisted meanings of such iterations, rather than to allow them to simply atrophy into the morass of our image-saturated, mediated culture.