Following the prolonged conflict that was the Vietnam War and the failure of that era’s counter culture to enact any kind of lasting social change, America found itself embroiled in a severe identity crisis. Youth patriotism had all but crumbled, many feared that the traditional notion of the nuclear family was threatened by the burgeoning women’s and gay liberation movements and Michel Foucault proclaimed the manufactured nature of identity in the age of mass media and consumer culture. The artists who came to define this age of flourishing anxiety did so by means of subversion, abandoning the popular mode of painting in favor of photography, performance and video—media that reflected the abundant artifice of the time. The aptly named Pictures Generation, composed of artists such as Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince, began making art that was at times cool and elusive, confrontational or even derisive of the American cultural landscape from which it culled its source material. In the case of Prince, that source material would constitute the art entirely. Utilizing photography as a means to eradicate any trace of involvement in the making of his art, Prince exposed the twisted psychological machinations of the invisible forces guiding popular culture. The present lot, Untitled (Cowboy), 2000 is a hauntingly beautiful example of the artist’s incendiary technique.
As a young man, Prince stumbled upon a photograph that would change his life. As the artist recalls, “It was of Franz Kline staring out the window of his 14th Street studio—foot up on the sill, cigarette in hand, his face a mask, intent on what he was thinking about, looking out over that scene, what was outside the photograph. Whatever was in that photograph was what I wanted to be” (R. Prince quoted in “In the Picture: Jeff Rian in conversation with Richard Prince,” R. Brooks, J. Rian and L. Sante, Richard Prince, London, 2003, p. 10). As a result, in 1973 Prince relocated from the suburbs outside of Boston to New York City, eventually landing a magazine job at Time. That brought Prince into daily contact with an endless stream of advertising images. The ethereal quality of the ads and the seductive fiction towards which they aspired served as the inspiration for Prince’s artistic sensibility of the author as thief, echoing a provocative adage that has been variously attributed to Stravinsky, Faulkner and Picasso: “good artists copy; great artists steal.” He began to re-photograph select advertisements, being careful to avoid any text that could quickly identify the source material, and framing them so that they would masquerade as—and, of course, become—fine art. Prince describes the moment he determined this process: “This was the break. This was what I was hoping for…the dive into the empty pool, the dive off the empty wall, the can of shit, the nude descending the staircase, the African mask, the dripped paint, the huge canvas” (Ibid., p. 12). He was right. His unique mode of appropriation would lead to significant critical acclaim and lay the foundation for his career.
The 1980s ushered in an era of economic security, art market speculation and cartoonish decadence that proved fertile inspiration for Prince. At the beginning of the decade, he embarked on his landmark series of photographs depicting the notorious dual emblem of manifest destiny and terminal disease—the Marlboro Man, archetypical cowboys reeking of freedom and rugged virility. At this time, the ill-fated icon had already sustained its very public fall from grace. As Rosetta Brooks writes, “They are dismissible generic signifiers, and at the point when Prince chose them, they had ceased even to be employed as ubiquitous ads for Marlboro cigarettes; they had been cut loose and were resting somewhere in the sediment of culture” (R. Brooks, “A Prince of Light or Darkness,” ibid., p. 56). It was perhaps this disgraced displacement, and the road that led to it, that attracted Prince. Until the mid-1950s, Philip Morris had marketed Marlboro exclusively to women. When the first reports linking lung cancer to smoking emerged, the company quickly masculinized its product with the help of the ad agency, Leo Burnett. After testing an array of masculine cyphers on audiences, the agency determined that the cowboy appealed most widely to male American audiences. By the 1960s, Marlboro ads needed no longer even make direct reference to smoking in order to sell their cigarettes; they simply deployed the intimately familiar image of the cowboy, superimposed with text beckoning their audience to escape to “Marlboro Country.” However, when smoking-related illness began to claim even the lives of Marlboro’s cowboys, public backlash ensued, and finally the Marlboro Man was banished from the frontlines of visual culture. Prince found in the Marlboro Man a potent metaphor for the sinister perversion of values and ridiculous propaganda that proliferated 1980s America. The motif of the cowboy as hijacked and treacherous symbol was an especially fitting analogy for the country’s political climate. It is no mere coincidence that former Hollywood star, Ronald Reagan’s consecutive terms as president began in 1981. Not only did Reagan portray cowboys in his former career, he was frequently photographed wearing cowboy garb on the campaign trail.
From Frederic Remington to John Wayne, the mythic figure of the cowboy has long been associated with the fundamentally American ideals of independence and fortitude. However, the origins of this hugely romantic figure are humble in the extreme, and can hardly be said to belong to America. We can trace the bloodline of the cowboy back to the 19th century vaquero traditions of northern Mexico, or even further back in time and across the Atlantic to medieval Spain. The American cattle ranching industry, mostly operating out of Texas, recruited cowboys from the lowest social structures of the period. The pay was poor, and both the physical and emotional demands of life on the range were high. As a result, the cowboys developed a rigorous code of conduct, a blend of frontier and Victorian values that would lay the foundation for their romantic symbolization. Heralded in songs and poetry for their individualism, honesty and perseverance—and later immortalized in film as selfless defenders of righteousness—the cowboy finally became the ultimate American insignia of patriotism and free will. And yet, by the 1920s the image of the cowboy had already begun to destabilize, deriving a negative association to gun-slinging hotheads or gambling drunkards. This richly tragic trajectory is crucial to understanding the myriad ways in which Prince’s images of the Marlboro Man subtly subvert American values.
Untitled (Cowboy), 2000 is a vivid and truly stunning large-scale example from Prince’s return to the motif of the cowboy, dating to the beginning of the 21st century. Unlike his photography of the 80’s, in which he was obliged to severely crop his source imagery due to the analog restraints of the medium at that time, the new century afforded Prince expanded creative control: “They’re done differently now. They’re done digitally… meaning I can re-photograph the entire ad. I don’t have to shoot around the copy because we can get rid of the copy with the computer and Photoshop. So now I get the whole picture… They’re pretty cinematic” (op. cit., p. 24). Wit a glowing panorama, Untitled (Cowboy) presents the viewer with a peaceful forest tableau of cowboys and their horses silhouetted in the orange morning mist. Given the latent social commentary embedded in Prince’s cowboys of the 80’s, the sublime calm of the subject image would seem to be in direct conflict with the tumultuous political climate of the new millennium. Indeed, another divisive president, George W. Bush, whose foreign policy was referred to by Time magazine as “cowboy diplomacy,” served consecutive terms in office beginning in 2001. As such, we can consider Prince’s cowboys as ominous and alluring milestones at the vexed edges of convoluted eras in American history. Untitled (Cowboy) is just such a milestone, and one that is remarkable for its technical refinement, delicate beauty and formal complexity.