Rosetta Brooks in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of Art (and traveling), Richard Prince, 1992, p. 95
In Untitled (Cowboy), Richard Prince presents a foreshortened horse and rider in the foreground, with lush vegetation and chromatic blue sky beyond. With its iconic imagery, the present work represents the absolute apogee of the artist’s career-long fascination with the cowboy motif. Indeed, no other figure and theme has captured Prince’s attention so vividly for the entirety of his forty-year career. The cowboy is the quintessential American symbol, at once representing freedom, lonesome independence, and chivalry; this handsome and rugged ideal of masculinity embodies an utterly mythical construct. Elevated from his original Southern roots and position as a lowly ranch-hand, the imagination of Hollywood and hyped-up masculine performances by Clint Eastwood and John Wayne transformed the cowboy 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, to both men and women. In Prince’s iconic Cowboy series, he seeks to innovatively expose the very mechanisms that construct this perceived mythical status. In doing so, Prince has created some of the most instantly recognizable and thought-provoking works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The cowboy motif punctuates major moments in the artist’s career and can clearly be separated into four distinct phases. In 1974, Prince was working one day a week on the nightshift for Time-Life magazines and clipping editorials to assist the staff writers’ research. Uninterested in the editorial, Prince found himself drawn to author-less advertisements and the familiarity of their imagery. He began rephotographing these found images, thereby removing all branding so that the images began to look less like what they had been originally intended for and more as images to be appreciated for their intrinsic beauty. It was during this process that Prince first found the motif that would come to define him: the Marlboro cowboy. Forced to shoot around ad copyright to obtain the final edit, the first phase of cowboys are distinctive for their grainy close-ups of ranchers printed in a standard format. In the second stage, improved laboratory techniques allowed him to substantially increase the scale and intensity of the final images. In the third phase he was able to work from high quality images, which imbued the photographs with a newfound crispness and clarity that surpassed even the original advertisement. Finally, having taken photography as a medium as far as it could go, Prince turned to painting.
Unlike early iterations of the cowboy, in the fourth phase Prince completely abandoned the Marlboro advertisement as his source material. Instead, for this enigmatic last corpus of works he took cheap Western paperback novels for his source, in a process that is similar to his infamous Nurse paintings that were born from racy nurse novels 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, online). These covers were then scanned, enlarged, printed onto canvas and adorned with sumptuous painterly strokes. Of this series, Prince explains that the “titles of the cowboy books…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, Prince has almost entirely effaced all traces of the book with great swathes of blues, whites and greens, leaving only a glimpse of the source material while illuminating the stallion and his rugged rider in full force. Seamlessly combining two of Prince’s most iconic series, Untitled (Cowboy) is the perfect summation of his extraordinary artistic inquiry.
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