- Richard Prince
- Untitled (Cowboys)
- Ektacolor print
- 73.7 by 101.6cm.; 29 by 40in.
- Executed in 1980-84, this work is number 2 from an edition of 2 plus 1 artist's proof.
Prince started to re-photograph magazine ads featuring the Marlboro cowboy while working in the tear-sheets department at Time-Life in 1980, the year that the present work was executed. Since then, cowboy imagery has remained among the artist’s most persistent sources of inspiration and he has engaged with the subject in various ways and mediums. In all of its diverse formats, ranging from photography to painting, Prince’s Cowboys brilliantly reveal the artifice and ambiguity of these staged images that deliver an anachronistic lifestyle, long-gone. At the same time, however, the cowboy has remained a relevant signifier of unbound freedom in the consumer’s consciousness through to the present day.
The revitalisation of the cowboy as the ultimate embodiment of adventure, self-reliance, and rugged individuality was made manifest by Hollywood icons such as Marlon Brando, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, who transformed the cowboy into a personification of the American Dream. Subsequently the Wild West became the ideal symbol for the cigarette industry to appropriate, and since 1954 the Marlboro man had reigned as the most iconic of advertising campaigns. At the time of this work’s execution, Prince’s borrowed cowboy panoramas immediately conjured the Marlboro brand, evoking the classic adverts featured on billboards across the globe. The controversy around these images gradually exacerbated when more and more men who posed as Marlboro cowboys were diagnosed with lung cancer; after more than four decades in 1999, Marlboro eventually discontinued the cowboy campaign. As a result, the nature of Prince’s imagery has also shifted and thus alludes to the symbolic power of images and their complex cultural signification. Thus, the picture and its content are not static in their meaning and interpretation but are in constant flux and highly dependent on the viewer’s evolving visual memory. Today, rather than immeadiately referencing the cigarette ad, Untitled (Cowboys) allures through pure compositional seduction and Romanticism. In a digitised era dominated by capitalist consumerism and object fetishism, the projected mythology of the cowboy, which was already a mirage at the time these images were created, stands in starker contrast to contemporary society than ever before.