Another work from this edition is in the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In this image of a generic cowboy in a prototypical Western setting, an image so familiar that it is almost invisible, Richard Prince extends his practice of rephotography to the celebration and subversion of the mythology of the Wild Wild West. "Normalcy as special effect" is how Prince himself described his Cowboy series (R. Brooks, Richard Prince, Phaidon Press, New York, 2003, p.24). Taken from the popular Marlboro cigarette advertising campaign, but cropped in such a way that the text and at least some of the original image are missing, the images in this series allow us to peer behind a mask by emphasizing the artifice of the mask. The unseemly contradictions evoked by this work's inception and subject afford us, perhaps, the rare and elusive taste of truth. The represented cowboy, for example, is frozen on the page and in our consciousness yet, at the same time, is riding across the plain, across our imagination, and through generations of cultural history. What does a representation of a representation of a representation represent? Indeed, can it represent?
The Cowboy series stems from a body of work first begun in the late 1970s when the artist was employed as a press cuttings collator in a publishing firm. It is there that Prince started to clip, cut, reframe and re-photograph groups of images that had a seductive resonance in their banality for him. By extracting these objects of desire from the context of a magazine and collating them into his own precise cultural anthropology, Prince created a space in which he could question the very operation of desire and aspiration. The desires induced by these images are fake or, rather, they are desires whose reality is elusive. To what do they refer? What is desired? It was only after Marlboro had stopped using the Marlboro Man in their advertisements that Prince began re-photographing and reusing the images, so this work is about a lot more than the desire for a cigarette or the masculine virility of the West: It is about desiring those desires in a wistful state of truth that is not quite as shallow as nostalgia.
This Cowboy is arguably the most important and iconic example of Prince's work. The Whitney Museum chose this image for the cover of their 1989 monographic survey of Prince's work, and one in the edition resides with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is at once abstract and mimetic, beautiful and banal. The composition triggers associations with classical landscape paintings as well as the melancholic allegory style of 19th-century Romantic painting, such as Casper David Friedrich's The Lonely Wanderer. Here, we are able to witness the ingenious confluence of the artist and cowboy in a powerful implosion that lays waste to any concept of original authority. Has the solitary and pensive subjectivity stereotypically reserved for the artist been usurped by the cowboy who appears existentially alone on the plain? Or, is this cowboy, an actor hired to play at the mythology of the old West the real artist here? Couldn't we similarly say that the very mythology of the cowboy, virile in the solitary company of nature, lies at the heart of this work? Doesn't the cropped nature of this Cowboy also call into question the very possibility of solitude - the artist's and the cowboy's?
Prince is interested in smartly toying with the Benjaminian concept of the aura of a work of art, the notion that an original is inherently more valuable than any copy, however identical. "Prince is clearly not an ideologue, but rather an artist who insists on questioning the implicit values embedded in any work of art produced well after the age of mechanical reproduction" (L. Phillips, Richard Prince, Whitney Museum of American Art, exh. cat., New York, 1992, p. 15). Yet, one cannot accuse Prince of counterfeiting; indeed, how can one counterfeit something that is itself counterfeit or, at least, not original. Where does originality lie in the representation of the Wild West? Here, Prince rightly laughs at our conservative conceptions of originality, authority, fiction and reality. For Prince, truth is what is. By simultaneously being the author, subject and audience of the work, Prince explodes those very concepts and renders them obsolete.
Prince's work is about the seductiveness of simulation and the inherent meaning it possesses. "Prince functions as a simulator, exposing the artifice that has invaded our sense of reality" (Ibid., p. 91). Prince not only deconstructs the possibility of differentiation between original and copy, but also between reality and simulacrum. W.J.T. Mitchell coined the term post-photography for such photographic images that no longer claim to picture the world, but self-reflexively explore the process of photographic representation freed from the responsibility of indexing reality (W.J.T. Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, Cambridge and London, MIT Press, 1992). In other words, Mitchell tells us that photographs like Prince's liberate us from the onus of representation and can instead be about representation. Here, we don't have a picture of a cowboy: We have a picture of a picture of a staging of a cowboyesque scene.
Prince describes his working method as that of a deliberate amateur which provided him with accidental effects like distortions and unexpected alienations from the original. When asked in an interview for Art in America about his use of the camera, he replied: "My limitations or mistakes become a kind of freedom.These mistakes always happen because I'm not a photographer. Practicing without a license is the way it's been referred to" (L. Phillips, Richard Prince, Whitney Museum of American Art, exh. cat., New York, 1992, p. 91). While an enlargement of a good photograph usually reveals more detail and yields a grainier picture, Prince's blow-ups of the Marlboro Man scenarios do not provide us with more information. Instead of some unexpected details we see only the materiality of the photo-image: the gridded print of the cheap magazine or newspaper that he takes as a source. The work deconstructs itself and, beyond artifice, in its hollow interstices, we glimpse the dangerously real.
A gushing river of mercurial meanings will pour from these images and we should taunt ourselves with unanswerable questions like whether or not we are being coerced by endless image repetition in the market, whether we retain the freedom to think for ourselves and whether Prince's photos manipulate the viewer in the same way as the original commercial ones. Here we are permitted to lose ourselves in a riot of meanings, have fun, and, hopefully, consumed by a flicker of truth.