Occupying a sacred and heroic space in American History, Richard Prince's Untitled is a frozen image of timeless dynamism. Set within the romance of the Arcadian wilderness, the cowboy marks the apex of Prince's ongoing investigations into the American archetype. Recalling so many of the country's fabled values, the cowboy is legendary for his hard work, a pioneering spirit, and a unity with nature-a remarkable vision of hands on, no restraints, shoot from the hip and ride off into the sunset. The word "Cowboy" alone elicits the image of the Plains cattle herder, combined with the legendary performances of John Wayne and Roy Rogers, with the bareback-bronco-riding amusements of the rodeo. The hardships of the good, the bad and the ugly combine to create a mythical landscape that remains infinitely evocative. Prince utilizes this celebrated 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.
Described by the artist as "Normalcy as special effect," Prince's series of appropriated images of cigarette advertisements explore the myth of the Marlboro Man at the very point in history when the company itself had been forced to abandon the cowboy as a viable image for their product (R. Prince, quoted in R. Brooks, Richard Prince, New York, 2003, p. 56). And while tensions clearly exist between the undeniable reality of law suits, health risks and controversy, Prince wryly exploits the freedom and romanticism of the Wild West. In his own beguiling fashion, the mastermind artist has cropped the original image--removing any original copy--and re-photographed it, creating a work of art entirely his own. In this deceptively simple act of appropriation, Prince waves a strange semantic wand over the picture. Prince's cowboy, whose original intent was to infuse the idea of rugged individualism and resilient virility into Marlboro cigarettes, is once again released into the freedom of a 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.
Prince's role as artist and appropriator is itself reflected in the figure of the cowboy--the renegade. In Untitled, and indeed in all of the artist's appropriations, Prince was deliberately trespassing, straying with only the faintest claim to legality into the territories of the cigarette giants and the ad companies. In this sense, the self-reliant cowboy who features in these pictures comes to represent Prince himself, waging his own unconventional, one-man campaign, breaking down the boundaries of the world of images and ownership, railing against the limitations of copyright; turning, in short, from regulator to bandito. The artist himself straddles the world of ruthless consumerism, exploiting demographics and markets, as well as that 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 nude in a bathroom setting, 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 kick-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 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....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).
Prince salvages the cowboy from the world of advertising, allowing our equestrian hero only the most Pyrrhic victory.