Punctuating every major phase of his career, Prince’s engagement with the cowboy motif can be separated into four distinct periods. In 1974, Prince was working once a week on the nightshift for Time-Life magazines, clipping editorials to assist the staff writers’ research. Uninterested in the editorial elements, Prince found himself drawn to authorless advertisements and the familiarity of their imagery. He began rephotographing these found images, removing all branding so that the images became aesthetic rather than commercial objects. It was during this process that Prince first found the motif that would come to define him: the Marlboro cowboy. Forced to shoot around advertising copyright to obtain the final edit, Prince's earliest Cowboys are distinctive for their grainy close-ups of ranchers printed in a standard format. When he returned to the subject a second time, improved laboratory techniques allowed him to substantially increase the scale and intensity of the final images; in the subsequent the third phase, he was able to work from high quality images, which imbued the photographs with a newfound crispness and clarity that surpassed the original advertisement, further interrogating the divide between art and commerce. Only then, having taken his photographic enquiry as far as it could go, did Prince turn to painting.
Unlike early iterations of the cowboy, in the fourth phase Prince completely abandoned the Marlboro advertisement as his source material. In its place, he employed pulp Western paperback novels, utilizing a process analogous to that of his celebrated Nurse paintings, which were born of racy nurse novellas from the 1960s. As Prince has remarked: “I started to go on eBay and buy hundreds of paperbacks that had cowboy themes. Some sellers had three or four to sell...others...up to fifty. The buying became part of the process. I didn’t even look at what the seller was selling. I would wait until the package arrived and after delivery, open up the cardboard boxes and go through the contents...waiting, hoping...to find just one ‘cover’ that looked good.” (Richard Prince, ‘Cowboy,’ Birdtalk, 2010) These covers were then scanned, enlarged, printed onto canvas and adorned with sumptuous painterly strokes. Unlike the Nurse paintings however, where exuberant swaths of paint cover the entire surface of the canvas save the nurse and the book's title, the Cowboy paintings were subjected to a more rigorous process of obliteration. As Prince has remarked: “I wasn’t sure at first what to do with the titles of the cowboy books. The titles became part of the Nurse paintings. The cowboys didn’t need their titles. They were cornball titles (The Kid From Rattlesnake Bar). The titles needed to be painted out, along with the ‘blurbs’ and the space where the blurbs were printed. It all needed to be painted to look like the original illustration… the one that had been handed in to the publisher.” (Ibid.) Indeed, in the present work, the composition’s reliance on the books has been entirely obliterated, recalling the cropping out of the Marlboro ad from the original series of Cowboys. Seamlessly combining two of Prince’s most iconic series, the Nurses and the Cowboys, Untitled (Cowboy) is the perfect summation of his extraordinary artistic inquiry.
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