Along with his contemporaries from the Pictures Generation of the 70s and 80s, Prince belonged to a disillusioned group of young American artists who rose to prominence at a time when their predecessors had already stripped the art-making process from its representational, durational and even material constraints. In belonging to an image-saturated, highly commercialized culture, Prince and his contemporaries directly took on the visual vernacular that characterized their generation. Faced with an abundance of pre-existing pictures, Prince “never thought of making anything new”; as he has stated, “I am very much against making anything new in a modernist approach.” (the artist in conversation with Noemi Smolik in Carl Haenlein, ed., Richard Prince, Photographs, 1977-1993, Hannover, 1994, p. 32) His relation to these image readymades vacillates between Warholian fascination with pop-culture and criticism of the myths they propagate. As outlined by Nancy Spector, “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.” (Nancy Spector, “Nowhere Man” in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Richard Prince: Spiritual America, 2007, p. 26)
The cowboy is the quintessential American symbol. As a rugged, handsome and paradigmatic icon of masculinity, he is the ultimate example of an industry-fabricated cultural construct, mythologized and distanced from his true historical origin. At once synonymous with freedom, lonesome independence and chivalry, the cowboy was elevated from his original Hispanic roots as a lowly ranch-hand by the imagination of Hollywood and hyped-up masculine performances by Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. Herein, the cowboy was transformed into a signifier for both male and female desire. Indeed, it was the cowboy’s utter universality that made him the perfect vehicle for marketing Marlboro’s filtered cigarettes, not only to women but also to men.
Advertiser Leo Burnett’s idea of using cowboys in Marlboro ads was a way of promoting filtered cigarettes to a masculine audience at a time when they were almost exclusively smoked by women. To this day, even the simple silhouettes in Untitled (Cowboy) with their trademark Stetson and horses serve as an icon for the legendary character of the “Marlboro Man”. Furthermore, the large rectangular and horizontal format here enforces a cinematic reading, acknowledging the culture that pioneered the image of the cowboy as a powerful American icon and cemented its status as a timeless, glamorous legacy rooted in national pride and cultural identity. Yet, when Prince first appropriated Marlboro imagery in the 1980s, the cowboy was already an outmoded and passé commercial icon. Coming under fire in the 80s and 90s after a period of health awareness that lead to a virulent antismoking campaign (as well as a controversy following the smoking-related deaths of several former Marlboro Men) the brand acquired the macabre nickname, “cowboy killers”. Seeking to distance America’s ostensibly wholesome mythology from the increasingly negative connotations of smoking, Marlboro relinquished what is still considered by many today to be the most powerful advertising campaign in history. Re-photographed and scrutinized by Prince, the immensely potent image of the cowboy as a nostalgic, innocent and rugged projected cultural self-image is unveiled as inauthentic and yet remains extraordinarily powerful and utterly irresistible.
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