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Details
Richard Prince (b.1949)
Untitled (Cowboys)
Ektacolor print
48 x 35½ in. (122 x 90.2 cm.)
Executed in 1984. This work is an artist's proof from an edition of two with one artist's proof.
Provenance
Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1999
Exhibited
Magasin Centre National d'Art Contemporain de Grenoble, Richard Prince, September-November 1988.
Hannover, Kestner-Gesellschaft, Richard Prince, Photographs 1977-1993, June-July 1994, pl.17 (illustrated in color).
New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-2000, September 1999-February 2000.
Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst; Zurich, Kunsthalle; and Wolfsburg, Kunstmuseum, Richard Prince: photographs, Photographs, December 2001-April 2002, p.88 (illustrated in color; another example exhibited).

Lot Essay

Richard Prince's Cowboys series are among his most iconic works and one of the emblematic images from the 1980s. Appropriated directly from Marlboro cigarette advertisements, Prince selected the images that were most interesting to him and re-photographed them, subtracting the text, and often focused on a part of the original that seemed to be the most action-packed. By the time Prince produced the Cowboys, Marlboro had stopped using the original images for advertisements, so they were already cultural relics.
A cowboy on horseback in a vast Western landscape is a powerful image of American sovereignty and symbol of the triumph of the individual. It is also a banal and clichéd picture, which had nearly entirely lost its potency, because for so many years it was delivered merely as a repetitious cigarette ad. 'Normalcy as special effect' is how Prince described this group of works. If this work were a painting in the American plein-air tradition, it would inspire feelings of reverence and veneration. But contemporary viewers have come to know these as fully appropriated images by Marlboro for the purpose of selling. Prince, in his deft ability to read and re-read cultural signifiers, has re-appropriated the image of the cowboy into a sublime limbo. The viewer wants to feel the awe for the American cowboy, but at the same time, realizes the image has been forever tainted with a message from corporate consumer culture.
Could Prince have known that 20 years after Untitled (Cowboys) was made it would look so fresh as a critique of contemporary politics? Prince knows that America's own mythic sense of itself is antiquated, sentimental and dangerous territory. In colluding with history by calling up the true cowboy in the landscape, and then referencing its own extinction--the image's life as a cigarette ad, the artist has managed to return the image to a sublime state.
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