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Untitled (Cowboy)

Untitled (Cowboy)
signed, numbered and dated 'R. Prince 2/2 2000' (on the reverse)
Ektacolor print
50 x 72 ½ in. (132 x 184.1 cm.)
Executed in 2000. This work is number two from an edition of two plus an artist’s proof.
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2008
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis Head of Department

Lot Essay

There is perhaps no other artist working today who has so effectively mined the fringes of American culture than Richard Prince, uncovering hidden truths about what’s been called “the machinery of America” (R. Prince, quoted in B. Appel, “Money, Paint and Jokes: An Interview with Richard Prince (2007),” in American Suburb X, March 12, 2013). His ongoing Untitled (Cowboy) series continues to build upon a forty year obsession with the ultimate American icon, that of the cowboy; a rugged symbol of masculinity who epitomizes the spirit of individualism that characterized the dream of the American West.
The present work belongs to the second series of Cowboys that Prince created around 2000, when he began to use a digital scanner to manipulate the original image and enlarge it to cinematic proportions. While the original Cowboy series (1980-84) were small 10-by-14-inch iterations of the classic Marlboro cigarette ads of the late '70s and early ‘80s, for this new series Prince enlarged the imagery to a monumental scale. The results—as in the present work measuring six feet wide—transcend the original. Lush, expansive and ravishing, it envelops the viewer in the beauty of the Western landscape, whilst also calling to mind its own inherent artifice.
Like the very cigarettes they were once used to sell, the Cowboys are a guilty pleasure. Taking a moment to pause, and take in, the lush panoramic scenery of the present work, offers a rare moment of pure enjoyment. In this large-scale, haunting portrayal, the scene is bathed in a golden light. The fiery orange tones of the fall foliage evokes the nineteenth century landscape paintings of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. Here, the natural setting is pristine and glorious, evoking fresh air and the great outdoors. In contrast to the stillness of this hushed landscape is the cowboy himself, spinning his lasso overhead, who rushes toward the viewer with the speed and velocity of a roaring freight train. The thunderous crash of the horse’s hooves as they splash through the water is a powerful counterpoint to the almost sacred stillness of the bucolic setting.
Richard Prince came of age in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s alongside a provocative group of young artists including Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Sherrie Levine, who were associated with the “Pictures Generation” movement. Their strategy of using pre-existing advertisements and photographs in their work ushered in a new era. By photographing an already pre-existing photograph, they “appropriated” the image and placed it in a new context. This working method was postmodern, calling into question the originality and “aura” of a work of art. For Richard Prince, the seeds for this strategy were planted during his tenure at Time/Life in New York in the 1970s, where he routinely combed through glossy magazine advertisements as part of the job. He began to re-photograph the ads that he came across, removing their captions and cropping out extraneous detail. He became fascinated with the Marlboro Man in particular, saying:
“I first started ‘seeing’ the Marlboro advertisement in 1980 while I was working at Time/Life magazine. 1980 was the first year they started using other models for the ‘cowboy’ and not the one that had become so famous for the campaign. I thought these new models were more generic and less identifiable and could make it seem like after the logo and copy were cropped out that the re-photographed image could be more my own. … These images came out every week, a different one, and it almost seemed like they were being made by me. Every week I would ‘claim’ one. I was working with about eight magazines at Time/Life and they all had these ‘cowboy’ images in them” (R. Prince, quoted in B. Appel, Ibid.)
For the Cowboy series, Prince has always created a deliberately small edition size of only two. “It was the perfect number to edition my photos,” he said. “You’ve got one, I’ve got one.” (R. Prince, quoted in B. Appel, Ibid.). There is also a rather hazy, atmospheric quality that lingers over the Cowboys that the artist enjoys. This is a byproduct of the technological deficits of low-resolution printing of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Rather than sharpen the edges, however, Prince deliberately leaves the grainy quality of the original. This drives home the image’s origins as a magazine ad, and thereby heightens the fallacy of its original content. As the curator and art critic Rosetta Brooks has explained: “His unmaskings and dismantling expose the vacuity that lies behind the consumer image...we see a representation that is somehow suspended from what it represents. ...the image [is] a kind of shell…” (R. Brooks, “Survey: Prince of Light or Darkness?,” in Richard Prince, London: Phaidon, 2003, p. 54).
The cowboy is a powerful, emotional symbol, occupying a sacred space in the American consciousness. It evokes the romance of the Wild West and the sense of Manifest Destiny that inspired America’s first pioneers, and symbolizes the hard work, determination and independent spirit of the American West. Indeed, this is what makes Richard Prince such a provocative artist—his ability to zero in on one of the most potent symbols of our own shared identity. That the Philip Morris company co-opted this concept should come as no surprise to the artist, who routinely digs below the surface to expose the preconceptions that lie at the heart of America. Although at first glance the artist’s Cowboys appear identical to the Marlboro ads that inspired them, they actually expose the underlying mechanics of gender, identity, desire and control encoded within.

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