RICHARD PRINCE Untitled (cowboy), 1986 on CONTEMPORARY ART & DESIGN EVENING SALE NEW YORK PHILLIPS AUCTION 3 MARCH 2015 6PM
Throughout his career artist Richard Prince has constantly called into question the notion of appropriation and authorship. Inspired by his early exposure to advertisement as an article clipper at Time-Life Inc., Prince recalls his 1970’s day job: “I was in the tear-sheets department. At the end of the day, all I was left with was the advertising images, and it became my subject. Pens, watches, models—it wasn’t your typical subject matter for art. (Richard Prince in K. Rosenberg, “Artist: Richard Prince,” New York Magazine, 2005) What seemed to Prince at the time as divergent artistic material, would later in fact serve as his lifelong inspiration. Culling his imagery from sleek and glossy advertisements promoting luxury good as seen on alluring female models, Prince strove to make these photographs his own by simply detracting their advertising slogans and toying with the image either by expanding, blurring or cropping the photograph. Prince explains that “The pictures I went after, ‘stole,’ were too good to be true. They were about wishful thinking, public pictures that happen to appear in the advertising sections of mass market magazines, pictures not associated with an author it was their look I was interested in. I wanted to re¬present the closest thing to the real thing.” (Richard Prince in “Spiritual America: No Holds Barred,” Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1992, p. 85)
The present lot, Untitled (cowboy), 1986, is an exemplary work from his infamous cowboy series which first took form in 1981. Prince chose the rugged and handsome cowboy depicted in the Marlboro cigarette ads as his cultural protagonist. Prince explains “I started taking pictures of the cowboys. You don’t see them out in public anymore—you can’t ride down a highway and see them on a billboard. But at Time-Life, I was working with seven or eight magazines, and Marlboro had ads in almost all of them.” (Richard Prince in K. Rosenberg, “Artist: Richard Prince, New York Magazine, 2005) The cowboy, a slightly mythic figure—one belonging to fantasy more than reality—had a cultural resurgence in the form of the “Marlboro man,” the cigarette ads in which this hero was seen had become widely recognizable with inviting slogans like “Come to where the flavor is …. Come to Marlboro Country.” The ads did not sell the consumer a product but an associated lifestyle of grandiose independence; the cowboy, with his charming weather-beaten physique, takes root in the historical days of the Wild West. "The image of the cowboy is so familiar in American iconology that it has 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. He is simultaneously the wanderer and the mythological symbol of social mobility. Even today, the image of the cowboy has not lost its luster. (R. Brooks, "Spiritual America: No Holds Barred," exh. cat. Richard Prince, 1992, p. 95)
The present lot’s cowboy is seen at the right hand side of the composition as though he has, just moments ago ridden into the vast meadow. Dressed in typical cowboy apparel—Stetson hat, chaps, and vest—he is a highly romanticized hero representing the perfect specimen of an American man, galloping onto the scene with a virulent presence and unwavering cool. The blurring of the image indicates a forceful command of the wild terrain he forges through, giving expediency to the scene as though the cowboy will disappear across the composition and out the left hand side of the frame in just seconds. By removing the text Prince makes a vivid point regarding advertising and how image and text have become inseparable even long after the text has been eradicated from the image. Smoking, like the cowboy, has become deeply ingrained in American culture as the essence of rebellious independence. Prince invites the viewer to question this western land and the cowboys who inhabit it in an effort to debunk American myths and question the very nature of advertising itself. The cowboy, like the artist himself has struck out on his own, alone in an unknown terrain, questioning and exploring the boundaries of what is both tangible and intangible.
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