'Prince's appropriations of existing photographs are never merely copies of the already available. Instead, they extract a kind of photographic unconscious from the image, bringing to the fore suppressed truths about its meaning and its making' (N. Spector, 'Nowhere Man', Richard Prince, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2007, p. 26).
Dramatically executed on a heroic scale, Untitled (Cowboy) presents an iconic denim-clad lonesome ranger, bowing his Stetson and prepping his lasso as the gleaming parody of the all-American man. Executed in 1999, it is a magnificent example of Richard Prince's most celebrated series of Appropriation Art, marking the nadir of his ongoing investigations into the American archetype. Elevated in the popular imagination through the practice of Philip Morris's cigarette brand management, as well as Hollywood luminaries such as William S. Hart, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, this cowboy came to stand in the 1950s for the ultimate alpha male. Representing the proud, solitary hero, the cowboy is almost always portrayed as white, handsome and tough: an idol and sex symbol to men and women alike. Prince uses this imagined figure of exaggerated masculinity as grounds for deconstructing society's own ingrained preconceptions. In the process, he reveals the extent to which our thoughts and choices are determined by a pre-prescribed set of visual codes, desires, fears, gender and cultural stereotypes.
In Untitled (Cowboy), Prince carefully selects a closely cropped area of the original advertising image, stripping it of its captions and branding until it stands alone in this romantic and expertly rendered 're-photograph'. He reframes the original, focusing upon the powerful diagonal movement of the cowboy's shoulder, forearm and wrist as he works his lasso. Blown up to a monumental scale, the realised picture dissolves into a selection of beautifully coloured shapes, recognizable as a whole but somehow uncanny, standing at odds with its original presentation. Unlike the small, matt, source image, Untitled (Cowboy) has a silken and luxuriant surface texture, lending the work a captivating and previously devoid sense of animation. At its newly articulated scale, the pixilation of the original print image becomes visible, lending the composition, a remarkable abstract quality. It is a strategy that Prince himself has described: 'normalcy as special effect' (R. Brooks, 'The Prince of Light or Darkness?', L. Sante et al. (ed.), Richard Prince, London 2003, p. 56).
First emerging in the 1970s, Richard Prince represents a foundational figure within an important group of artists including Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman, David Salle and Jack Goldstein, popularly referred to as the Pictures Generation. Together, these artists were responding to an America disillusioned by the Nixon Watergate scandal, the ongoing War in Vietnam, racial and social instability. Unlike the confident 1940s Baby Boomers, these young contemporaries felt disenchanted by their environment, sensing that the 'utopian promise of the counterculture had devolved into a commercialized pastiche of rebellious stances prepackaged for consumption' (D. Ekland, The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p. 16). Waves of Minimalism and Conceptual Art had already largely transformed the cultural landscape, first through a renunciation of expressionism and then through the 'dematerialization' of the object to coin Lucy Lippard and John Chandler's renowned term. What remained however was an unchallenged mass of media and marketing images, proliferated in step with the rapidly expanding consumer class. Influenced by emerging postmodern currents in cultural philosophy by Michel Foucault and Guy Debord amongst others, Prince and his peers began to deconstruct these seductive images, interrogating them for their role in the construction of identity and their abstruse claims to originality and authenticity. It is an approach that seeks to engage Roland Barthes's famous manifesto, 'the birth of the reader is at the cost of the death of the author' (R. Barthes quoted in D. Ekland, The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p. 17).
In Untitled (Cowboy), Prince invites the viewer to reconsider the aspects of the mythical cowboy character, the romance of the Arcadian wilderness and its place within the popular American imaginary. As Nancy Spector has explained, 'Prince's appropriations of existing photographs are never merely copies of the already available. Instead, they extract a kind of photographic unconscious from the image, bringing to the fore suppressed truths about its meaning and its making' (N. Spector, 'Nowhere Man', Richard Prince, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2007, p. 26). Through a process of deconstruction, the gorgeous image reveals its seductive ploys, playing on conventions of beauty, strength, virility and sex appeal to the mass public. Forever departing into the sunset, Prince's cowboys are perhaps also clever proxies for the artist himself. Working with 're-photography' as his principle medium, he has consistently hijacked the authority of a picture only to subvert it to his own end. In an era of pervasive materialism and commercial illusion, Prince stands as a renegade, challenging convention and the surface effects of popular images. Untitled (Cowboy) is perhaps best understood then, as the artist's own reflection on Western culture's continued attraction to the spectacle over the realities of the lived experience.