Lot 1115
  • 1115

RICHARD PRINCE | Untitled (Cowboy)

2,200,000 - 4,200,000 HKD
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  • Richard Prince
  • Untitled (Cowboy)
  • signed, dated 2001 and numbered 1/2
  • colour coupler print 
  • 59.1 by 39.4 cm. 23¼ by 15½ in.


Private Collection (a gift from the artist)
Sotheby’s, New York, 15 May 2008, Lot 479
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner


Germany, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Richard Prince: Principal, Painting and Photographs, April - July 2002


Robert M. Rubin and Richard Prince, Richard Prince: Cowboys, 2020, p. 382, illustrated in colour (installation view)

Catalogue Note

The image of cowboy is so familiar in American iconography that it has to become almost invisible through its normality. And yet the cowboy is also the most sacred and masklike of cultural figures. In both a geographical and cultural sense, a cowboy is an image of endurance itself, a stereotypical symbol of American cinema.

Rosetta Brooks

With its iconic imagery, Untitled (Cowboy) is emblematic of Richard Prince’s career-long investigation into the motif of the American cowboy. A compound symbol associated with ideas of American exceptionalism, the cowboy first seduced Prince as an image through Marlboro cigarette advertisements from the 1970s that used the symbol as a commercial vehicle. Beginning in the 1970s, Prince sought to deconstruct the semiotic mechanisms upon which the image was constructed and, in doing so, created one of the most iconic and enduring bodies of work of the Contemporary era. By re-appropriating images from Marlboro advertisements and presenting them unbranded, blown-up to the point of pixelation and refocused, Prince not only challenges the nature of photography and its authorship but more importantly deconstructs and interrogates romanticized images that shape American identity.

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, the silhouette in Untitled (Cowboy) serves as an icon for the “Marlboro Man” and his classic legacy rooted in national pride and cultural identity. Punctuating every major phase of his career, Prince’s engagement with the cowboy motif can be separated into distinct periods. The earliest Cowboys from the 1970s 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 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. Following virulent antismoking campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s, Marlboro eventually 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 projected cultural self-image is ultimately unveiled as inauthentic, while simultaneously revealed as timelessly powerful and enduringly irresistible.