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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection

Untitled (Cowboy)

Untitled (Cowboy)
signed, numbered and dated 'Prince 1999 1/1' (on a paper label affixed to the reverse)
Ektacolor print
60 x 80 in. (152.4 x 203.2 cm.)
Executed in 1999. This work is the artist's proof from an edition of two plus one artist's proof.
Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York
Diego Cortez Arte Ltd., New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2000
Carrboro, Partobject Gallery, Richard Prince: Princeville-1999 N.C. Flood Disaster Benefit, August-September 2000.

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Lot Essay

Part of his breakthrough series of Western-themed appropriations, Untitled (Cowboy) pushes Richard Prince’s provocative use of cigarette advertisements into a more filmic realm. Begun in the 1980s, the artist’s cowboy photographs are a testament to the artist’s sharp wit and intense investigation of image culture and semiotics in American consumerism. The present example was created in a second wave of production that expanded on the original project and increased the use of the source material to epic proportions. Creating wholly absorptive vistas replete with dramatic lighting and wide open spaces, Prince remains staunchly anchored to his conceptual roots. Though he presents these subjects for our viewing, he has never trod the tundra with these icons of masculinity. Instead, working from extant photographs, he manipulates and reframes the scenes in order to problematize their making and use. Rosetta Brooks, talking about his treatment of advertisements and appropriated images, notes, “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). Devoid of any direct link to a specific branding or the cigarettes they sell, Untitled (Cowboy) and its ilk question the role images play in selling lifestyles, ideas, and products, and how manufactured meaning can become intertwined in the reception of an image in various environments.

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).

Under a lightly dappled sky filled with thin white clouds, a green plain stretches into the distance. The hues move toward deep green and dark blue tinged with gray and black. Low hills and a higher peak rise upward in the middle of the composition creating a visually-rich scene that emanates the freedom and openness of the American West. In the foreground, a river burbles lazily and then bends out of frame. All is calm except for the explosive form of a horse and rider blazing across the sky in a sudden movement that takes the pastoral scene by surprise. Backlit by the diffused light, a man in full cowboy gear swirls a lasso over his head as his steed launches into the air destined for the opposite shore. The reins are taut, the horse’s tail is streaming in motion, and the pair’s vigorous trajectory pulls the viewer’s eyes from left to right with a rapid motion. However, except for the fact that this is a romanticized view of the Old West and life on the range, one can tell very little about where exactly the scene takes place or who the rider might be. Unless one is especially learned in topography, this is a completely ubiquitous outdoor scene meant to evoke a specific feeling. The empty spaces around the left-oriented subject are prime for an emblazoned slogan or logo, yet none appear by virtue of Prince’s keen post-processing maneuvers. What is left is a heavily codified image that would not warrant a second glance in a magazine full of ads yet here is foisted upon the viewer in an attempt to break the consumer spell.

Choosing to focus on the Marlboro men came about while Prince was still working at Time-Life in the early 1980s. Originally revolving around a single model, the company had pivoted away from the individual and begun using many different men to sell their brand. At that point, the figures became a type, an anonymous symbol of American freedom, the untamed West, and virile masculinity. As Rosetta Brooks writes, “They are dismissible generic signifiers, and at the point when Prince chose them, they had ceased even to be employed as ubiquitous ads for Marlboro cigarettes; they had been cut loose and were resting somewhere in the sediment of culture” (Ibid., p. 56). Intrigued by the underlying codification of personality traits and masculine virtues in the service of selling products, Prince stripped away any identifying marks in order to more fully investigate how the audience both recognized and failed to connect to the original sources.

Unlike the first Cowboys (1980-84), works like the present example made around the turn of the twenty first century are notable for their increased size and more expansive view. Instead of carefully cropping out the text to create 11”x14” enlargements of the Marlboro ads of the 1970s and 80s as he had done while working at Time-Life, these reiterations embody new methods of working and new questions about reproducibility and appropriation. “They’re done differently now. They’re done digitally… meaning I can re-photograph the entire ad. I don’t have to shoot around the copy because we can get rid of the copy with the computer and Photoshop. So now I get the whole picture… They’re pretty cinematic” (R. Prince quoted in “In the Picture: Jeff Rian in conversation with Richard Prince,” in Ibid., p. 24). Leveraging new technologies to further explore the realm of authorship, Prince set the stage with works like the current example for his later investigations of social media and internet-based image culture.

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