Untitled (Cowboy) from 2001 is a prime example of Prince’s definitive Cowboy Series, in which he appropriated and cropped images from advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes. Cowboy imagery has been the most persistent source of inspiration for Prince; he has engaged with this series in one way or another – most recently with a group of Cowboy paintings – for over thirty years. “Normalcy as special effect” is how Prince has described his Cowboy works (Rosetta Brooks, Jeff Rian, and Luc Sante, Richard Prince, London, 2003, p. 56). The images he chose, however, as typified in the present work, are far from this sense of normalcy. Stripped of their taglines, slogans and logos, the Marlboro cowboys exist as icons of American identity. Surrounded by the variously lush, arid and rocky terrain of the American West, the two figures in the present work allude to legends of the past – the independent, self-sufficient, masculine pioneers that our culture still associates with endless opportunity, hope and the American Dream.
Prince’s fascination with advertising is said to have begun with a job as a nightshift worker for Time-Life magazines in 1974. He was meant to clip editorials for staff writers to use in their research and ended up becoming absorbed and enthralled by what was left behind from his clippings. He was drawn to them aesthetically, but also enjoyed the fact that they were images we often take for granted and with which we have a familiar relationship. Prince’s preoccupation with advertising and consumer culture was symptomatic of a larger art world trend, captured by the movement of which he was a part, referred to as ‘New Image’ art. New Image art, emerging out of New York City in the late 1970s, embraced and cultivated a new cultural unity between the media and the art world. Among his peers in the new movement – artists such as Cindy Sherman, Richard Longo, and Sherrie Levine – Prince was and continues to be the most engaged with the power of advertisement. As explained by Rosetta Brooks, “Prince chooses to represent these images because he himself is seduced by them.” (Rosetta Brooks in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art and travelling, Richard Prince, 1992-1993, p. 28)
Though the theme is familiar, Untitled (Cowboy) itself is extraordinary. Dominated by richly variegated hues and compositionally balanced by the strong diagonals of the sloped ground and the darkness of the shadowed trees, the landscape is complex in its beauty. The two cowboys, dressed almost identically, their silhouettes defined by their Stetsons, are dwarfed by the majestic environment surrounding them. No longer associated with Marlboro cigarettes, the present work does, nonetheless, still embody the conventions of advertising: we are seduced by its seeming simplicity and inevitably attracted to its sheer aesthetic splendor.
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