"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 mask-like 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."
Heroic and spiritual with a vein of rebellion, nothing so much conjures the American myth as the cowboy. Recalling so many of America's fabled values,the cowboy famously represents hard work, a pioneering spirit, and a unity with nature; a spectacular vision of hands-on, no restraints, shoot from the hip and ride off into the sunset. The word alone elicits the image of the Plains cattle herder, combined with the legendary performances of John Wayne and Roy Rogers, with such historic events as the outlaw gunfight at the OK Corral. The hardships of the good, the bad and the ugly combine to create a mythical landscape that remains infinitely evocative--a perfect recipe for the arch-appropriator of images, Richard Prince, as Untitled (Cowboy) emerges as one of the artist's most celebrated works.
Not just any cowboy, Prince's image depicts the Marlboro cowboy from one of the most successful advertising campaigns. Despite being out of circulation in most of the world at the time of their creation, the images of the Marlboro cowboy are still markedly haunting--and instantly recognizable. In his own beguiling fashion, Prince has cropped the original image, removing any captions, and re-photographed it, creating his own work of art. In this deceptively simple act of appropriation, Prince waves a strange semantic wand over the picture. The cowboy of the ads, who was intended only to evoke the world of rugged individualism and manliness that would hopefully encourage people to buy Marlboro cigarettes, once again plays a role in an implied Western narrative. Without the labels and logos, this image appears to be a brief insight into a larger, overarching tale, or a movie still. The cowboy has become a character again, not just a visual means to promote a product--stripped from one mask, only to put on another. The picture straddles the world of advertising--of ruthless consumerism exploiting demographics and markets--and the world of the Alamo, Fredric Remington's paintings and Clint Eastwood's movies, leaving both image and viewer in states of extreme ambiguity.
The subject of the American West has always played an important role in U.S. arts and culture. Perhaps most aptly, in the decade preceding the Great Depression, modernism in America was a highly contested concept. Perhaps justifiably, Alfred Stieglitz considered himself one of the few qualified to dictate the course of American modernism. While spirituality emerged as a prominent dictate in his vision of American identity, he became disheartened with the new materialistic nature that was flourishing around him. Producing a picture of a harnessed, castrated horse--a pure representation of eradicated sexual prowess and retrained muscular energy--in a rare attempt of ironic commentary, Stieglitz titled the work Spiritual America. Thus, implying the absence of American spirituality by reinterpreting the horse--a traditional symbol of unstoppable force--as a trussed-up pattern of slick geometry.
While adopting Stieglitz's title for his own iconic portrait of a young Brooke Shields posing naked in a bathroom setting with the oiled body of an adult porn model, it is in his celebrated Cowboy re-photographs that Prince has, like his predecessor, adopted the myth of the American West as a critique of contemporary culture. Nearly 60 years after the Stieglitz picture, America had fully succumbed to the fetishization of objects in consumer society; America had emerged as a land of addictions. As "just say no" emerged as the decisive campaign of the 1980s, smoking, of course, became the primary target for self-reproach and Marlboro's advertising campaign developed into a quick target--the cowboy reverted to his outlaw status. Not attacked for the air of glamor the cowboy brought to the act of smoking, but rather for its heroifying image of the survivor--the strong and daring unmasked man that goes galloping into the wild, inhaling the harmful clouds of dirt and debris kicked-up by the hooves of his horse--the Marlboro Man emerged as the symbolic survivor of the great smoke of cigarette addictions. In the age of mechanical reproduction, and beyond the death of painting, Prince, like Stieglitz turns to the mythic--yet ever so familiar--American West. And, as Rosetta Brooks explains, "The image of the cowboy is rendered immensely potent because it is through this most authentic image of American life that we can glimpse the deepest reaches of inauthenticity in a culture of death" (R. Brooks, Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, pg. 96).
Leaving his viewer with the same pristine, cinematic vista that recalls--not without a trace of irony--the great Romantic tradition in painting, in Untitled (Cowboy) Prince has captured a certain seductive resonance. Employing the self-reflexive and critical principles of Minimal and Conceptual art, Prince explores how images shape our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. By re-presenting his sources, Prince manages to effectively release the medium of photography from its burden to record the truth, thereby opening it up to question and re-evaluation. These memorable images act to challenge the viewer's attitudes to both the media and to one of America's favorite images of itself. The cowboy's iconic status has endured for the very reason that it stands as an antithesis to a world that has become increasingly complex. As an image, it represents a man whose environment is simplistic and relatively pressure-free, and by shifting its frame of reference, Prince shows it up to be the beautiful lie that truly it is.