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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Image World: Property from a Private American Collection

Untitled (Cowboy)

Untitled (Cowboy)
signed, numbered and dated 'R. Prince 1997 2/2' (right edge)
Ektacolor print
49 ¾ x 76 in. (126.4 x 193 cm.)
Executed in 1997. This work is number two from an edition of two plus one artist's proof.
Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York
Skarstedt Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
N. Spector, Richard Prince: Spiritual America, New York, 2008, p. 88 (illustrated).
R. Prince and G. Burn, Four Cowboys, London, 2009, n.p. (illustrated).
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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis Head of Department

Lot Essay

Perhaps one of the most influential figures to emerge from the post-modern foray into appropriation art and the questioning of authorship in the late twentieth century, Richard Prince is a master of combining sly humor with a deep questioning of American consumer culture. Part of his much-lauded Cowboy series, Untitled (Cowboy) is a masterful treatise on the visual co-opting of an iconic figure for commercial gain. Lifted from advertisements meant for print, the cowboys in Prince’s works are twice removed from the reality of cattle driving. Marlboro contracted a photographer to take staged shots of a man in full riding getup and then Prince photographed the end result bereft of any textual indicators. By doing so, he calls for a reexamination of these romanticized figures.

With the cowboys and other re-photographed works, Prince is of two minds: he is enthralled with pop culture and its imagery, but he is also working to criticize the myths and ideals that they propagate. Curator Nancy Spector noted, “Prince’s appropriations of existing photographs are never merely copies of the already available. Instead, they extract a kind of photographic unconscious from the image, bringing to the fore suppressed truths about its meaning and its making” (N. Spector, in Richard Prince: Spiritual America, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2007, p. 26). By working with already extant imagery, Prince is able to critique the culture at large without adding new imagery that might be colored by the very ideas he seeks to investigate.

"In both a geographical and cultural sense, a cowboy is an image of endurance itself, a stereotypical symbol of American cinema.” Rosetta Brooks

Riding down a slope bathed in the light of a fiery sunrise, a lone horseman holds his lasso aloft. The white horse upon which he rides gallops majestically and kicks up a cloud of dust in the red earth as the cowboy’s long coat trails behind him. In the foreground, a deepening shadow threatens to swallow the scene and the scrub brush visible growing on the hill. In the background, a towering cliff face of craggy rock rises sharply upward and out of frame. One can almost hear the hooves as they trample across the ground in the still-dewy morning air. The American mythos surrounding the cowboy is vast and has touched many parts of the culture. From John Wayne and Clint Eastwood films to cigarette ads, the macho gunslinger in spurs and hat has become a symbol of the Wild West and the romanticized notion of America. Prince was fascinated by this, and saw the cowboy as a prime subject of inquiry. Rosetta Brooks, writing on the occasion of the artist’s retrospective at The Whitney, noted, “The image of the cowboy is so familiar in American iconology that it has to become almost invisible through its normality. And yet the cowboy is also the most sacred and masklike of cultural figures. In both a geographical and cultural sense, a cowboy is an image of endurance itself, a stereotypical symbol of American cinema.” (R. Brooks, in Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 95). The connection to cinema is especially poignant, as the real life cowboys of the American West were most assuredly never as clean and trim as those on screen. Translated from the theater to the printed page, the cigarette company Marlboro harnessed this icon of masculinity and untamed wilderness to sell tobacco products. Prince, in turn, rephotographed those advertisements and freed them of any logos, slogans, and identifying marks so as to focus on the figure itself and its staying power in the American ethos.

A member of the so-called Pictures Generation, named after the 1977 exhibition Pictures held at New York City’s Artists Space and curated by critic and art historian Douglas Crimp, Prince was educated in the theories and practices of Minimalism and Conceptual Art and sought a return to recognizable imagery. Along with artists like Richard Longo, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine, he was separate from the historical Pop artists, but still interested in the tropes, symbols, and imagery of consumer culture. These artists questioned ideas of authorship and originality while bringing attention to the visual structures that inform our daily lives. Prince in particular was interested in photographic appropriation and commercial images. Working at Time-Life in the department that dealt with tear-sheets, Prince became attracted to commercial images in the late 1970s because “they were over-determined. Psychologically hyped-up. Artificially defined” (R. Prince, quoted in J. Rian & L. Sante, Richard Prince, 2003, p. 14). Works like Untitled (Cowboy) are prime examples of the artist’s eye for source materials that appear instantly recognizable but are sentimental and enticing enough to pique the viewer’s interest.

Prince’s appropriations of existing photographs are never merely copies of the already available. Instead, they extract a kind of photographic unconscious from the image, bringing to the fore suppressed truths about its meaning and its making.” Nancy Spector
Prince’s knack for working with powerful, iconic imagery like the cowboy has assured that his long-lasting career continues to be one of infinite influence on generations of artists who came after. Often working in series, his artistic gestures run the gamut from more nuanced appropriation to one-on-one visual dialogues with artists like Picasso and Willem de Kooning to digital mining of the vast library of social media. His styles and working methods change, but the overriding ideas stay firm and poignant. Speaking to Art in America for an interview in 1987, Prince noted, "It's almost as if in this culture information touches a chord in us the same way a hit song makes you impulsively keep a beat with everybody else--because you know you're not the only one who thinks the song is great," (R. Prince, quoted in J. Rian, "Social Science Fiction: An Interview with Richard Prince," Art in America, Vol. 75, No. 3, March 1987, p. 88). Prince is keenly aware of the power images and language exert in our society and is always working to pull back the curtain on these aspects of our lives that are often taken at face value. Turning a mirror to consumer culture and the visual aspects of a shared human experience, he is able to start a pointed conversation with only the most nuanced of gestures.

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