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Tracey Emin (B. 1963)
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Richard Prince (b. 1949)

Untitled (Cowboy)

Details
Richard Prince (b. 1949)
Untitled (Cowboy)
signed and numbered ‘R Prince ap’ (on the reverse)
ektacolour print
50 x 73in. (127 x 185.4cm.)
Executed in 2001, this work is the artist's proof from an edition of two, plus one artist's proof
Provenance
Gladstone Gallery, New York.
Gagosian Gallery, London.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Exhibited
Moscow, Gagosian Gallery at Barviha Luxury Village, Insight?, 2007, p. 83 (illustrated in colour, p. 55).
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Annemijn van Grimbergen
Annemijn van Grimbergen

Lot Essay

‘The image of the cowboy is so familiar in American iconology that it has 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. He is simultaneously the wanderer and the mythological symbol of social mobility. Even today, the image of the cowboy has not lost its luster... of all of Prince’s art, the Cowboy works are Prince’s own mask—his self-portrait as a regular guy. In other words, as embodiments of “untruth”, they are the most truthful. Or, as Prince might say, they are the most “convincing”; picture-perfect dissimulations’ (R. Brooks, ‘Spiritual America: No Holds Barred’, in L. Phillips, Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 95).

In Richard Prince’s Untitled Cowboy, silhouetted against the golden rays of the setting sun, five cowboys astride horses are set against a panorama of the American West. Epic figures in the iconography of American culture, they conjure a wealth of values associated with the myth of the United States: hard work, a pioneering spirit, and a profound connection with the land; hands on, no holds barred, shoot from the hip and ride into the sunset. Occupying a sacred and heroic position within the American cultural consciousness, the image of the Plains cattle herder is a symbol of romance. He embodies the vast expanse of the Wild West, intermingling with a repository of images from the American cultural consciousness, drawn from pervasive representations on page and screen. Here, John Wayne meets the ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ of Sergio Leone, Roy Rogers collides with Rawhide; the hardships of the good, the bad and the ugly combine to create a specifically American landscape, infused with the legend of its lone rider. The subject of myriad cultural projections, yet simultaneously homogenised by his stereotype, the cowboy represents the perfect study for Prince, whose incisive appropriation art has interrogated the rapid expansion of post-War consumer culture and the flood of media images that it has precipitated. As such, in his celebrated Cowboys series Prince’s Western heroes are no ordinary cowboys – they are Marlboro cowboys, from one of the most successful and iconic campaigns in the history of advertising. Despite having been out of circulation since 1999, images of the Marlboro cowboys remain instantly recognisable. Created by cropping the original advertisement and stripping it of any branding, Prince then re-photographed his source, resulting in an image with a cinematic quality which, as though a movie still, seems to play a role in a broader Western narrative. With their lassoes frozen in motion above their heads, the cowboys in Untitled Cowboy seem poised to turn and gallop into the horizon. In this way, Prince rescues the cowboy from the clutches of ruthless consumerism: a beacon of the West again, they are no longer simply a visual means of promoting a product. Balanced between the world of advertising and that of the Alamo, of Fredric Remington’s paintings and Clint Eastwood’s films, Prince’s celebrated Cowboys series exposes the manner in which a potent symbol can become unmoored from that which it originally signified. By recapturing the image, Prince unveils the death of the American cowboy and the birth of the American consumer.

Prince first became attracted to the image of the cowboy in 1980 while working for the publishing company Time-Life in their tear-sheets department where he covered seven or eight magazines, most of which contained Marlboro adverts. Prince was struck by the volume of adverts – a new one nearly every week – and began to claim them as his own. Described by the artist as ‘normalcy as special effect’, Prince was fascinated by their mass appeal, representing America’s most ubiquitous image of itself: a symbol of health and the outdoors, of endurance (R. Prince, quoted in R. Brooks, ‘A Prince of Light or Darkness?’, in R. Brooks, J. Rian, L. Sante (eds.), Richard Prince, London 2003, p. 56). Yet, Prince’s appropriation exposes the paradox that lies at the heart of Marlboro’s campaign: the self-reliance and solitude of the cowboy is at odds with the corporate, self-serving promise of tobacco advertising. Rosetta Brooks writes, ‘The image of the cowboy is so familiar in American iconology that it has 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. He is simultaneously the wanderer and the mythological symbol of social mobility. Even today, the image of the cowboy has not lost its luster ... of all of Prince’s art, the Cowboy works are Prince’s own mask--his self-portrait as a regular guy. In other words, as embodiments of “untruth”, they are the most truthful. Or, as Prince might say, they are the most “convincing”; picture-perfect dissimulations’ (R. Brooks, ‘Spiritual America: No Holds Barred’, in L. Phillips, Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, p. 95).

First emerging in the 1970s, Prince represents a foundational figure within an important group of artists including Sherrie Levine, Elaine Sturtevant, Cindy Sherman and Jack Goldstein amongst others, popularly referred to as the Pictures Generation, whose work responded to an America disillusioned by the Nixon Watergate scandal, the ongoing war in Vietnam, and racial and social instability. Disenchanted by their environment, the Pictures Generation challenged the proliferation of media and marketing images that accompanied a rapidly expanding consumer class, deconstructing these seductive images and interrogating them for their role in the construction of identity and their abstruse claims to originality and authenticity. Prince’s Cowboys specifically relate to this media scepticism, exploring the genesis of consumerism with an overwhelming lack of confidence in its intentions. He notes, ‘Oceans without surfers, cowboys without Marlboros... Even though I’m aware of the classicism of the images. I seem to go after images that I don’t quite believe. And, I try to re-present them even more unbelievably. If there’s any one thing going on through these images, it’s that I as an audience don’t believe them’ (R. Prince, quoted in ‘Richard Prince by Marvin Heiferman’, in BOMB, no. 24, Summer 1988, http://bombmagazine.org/article/1090/richard-prince [accessed 23rd May 2015]). The time-honoured image of the cowboy, continually recycled, can never fail to remind the viewer of how images are constructed and more broadly how these visual constructions reflect the social apparatus that controls human desire. Prince’s appropriation of the Marlboro man investigates the way in which the identity and legacy of the American West and its most celebrated proponent have become symbols of that other great feature of American life: mass consumerism.

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