Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1980-89 (detail), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Richard Prince: Untitled (Cowboy)

by Boris Cornelissen | 16 May 2020

With only four works in Australian museum collections (all in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and all donated by John Kaldor), Richard Prince is not exactly well-represented in Australia. However, one of those four works happens to be very important, and that’s what I’ll be looking at this week: Untitled (Cowboy) from 1980-89. Executed on a monumental scale, the nearly 3 meter wide photograph is amongst the largest, if not the largest, of the artist’s Cowboy photographs from the 1980s. Prince also produced a smaller edition of two prints that are half the size of the work at the AGNSW, one of which resides in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the other one was the first photograph to ever break the $1 million price threshold when it came up at auction back in 2005. The image was furthermore included in the Time Magazine list of Most Influential Images of All Time, cementing its position in popular culture as well as art history.

View all works by Richard Prince in Australian collections

 “The American cowboy of the mind is a romantic, monumental pulp-fiction figure… He is Alexander the Great in chaps and boots. He is colourful, masculine to the point of caricature, a license-plate emblem, a billboard, a restaurant chain, a figure of speech indicating rough fun or brash aggressiveness. Abroad he is the representation of America, so deeply is he embedded in our national character and ethos.”
– Annie Proulx

Andy Warhol had Elvis and Marilyn, Richard Prince has his cowboys and girlfriends. All four are the products of contemporary American mythology, but whereas Warhol found his sources at the higher end of popular culture (the rich and the famous), Prince digs into its less fabulous underbelly: the dreams and aspirations of everyday Americans. Whether it’s the biker culture, cheap novels, low-brow humour full of racism and sexism, obsession with cars, sub-cultures on instagram, the aesthetics of impoverished rural America, or indeed the aspirational lifestyles that are sold through advertising, Richard Prince holds up a mirror to society – and upon closer inspection it’s often not pretty.

Andy Warhol - Elvis (1963), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Andy Warhol, Elvis, 1963, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The mirror isn’t much of an analogy either. Most of Prince’s work doesn’t do more than highlight something that’s already there, in the most literal sense. Working at the Time Life Publications tear-sheet department in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Prince’s job was to cut out the editorial from the magazine for it to be stored in their archives, leaving him with cut-up magazines devoid of any content – apart from the advertisements. Noticing how similar the advertising images were even when the products being sold were from different brands, he started to re-photograph them straight from the magazines. Prince’s images were cropped and enlarged, but otherwise unedited reproductions of found advertising imagery. 

Tear sheet of the original Marlboro advertisement
Tear sheet of the original Marlboro advertisement

Especially when seen in a series, the repetition of interiors, luxury watches or pens, upper-middle class couples and business men in suits are striking, and give the distinct impression that what’s being sold is a lifestyle rather than an individual product. Nowhere was this lifestyle aspiration captured more effectively than in the Marlboro Man ad campaign, which ran from 1954-1999 with the aim of converting men to filter cigarettes (which had previously been marketed to women). The inspiration was a Life Magazine cover from 1949, which emphasised the prominent position of the cowboy in American culture. The 45-year long Marlboro campaign would further cement its appeal in the collective imagination of the American consumer, and in many ways it would become the ultimate symbol of American masculinity: heroic, fearless, brash and adventurous. And it worked: when the cigarette brand tapped into the associative power of the cowboy imagery, it quickly became one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history that quadrupled sales in just two years time to $20 billion by 1957.

Cover of Life Magazine, 22 August 1949
The cover of Life Magazine on 22 August 1949

 “The image of the cowboy is rendered immensely potent because it is through this most authentic image of American life that we can glimpse the deepest reaches of inauthenticity in a culture of death” 
– Rosetta Brooks

But what attracted Prince just as much as the strong associative power of the Marlboro man, was its inauthenticity. Some of the cowboy models weren’t smokers themselves, and even if they were real cowboys they would still be playing the part for the photoshoot. In that sense, the ‘original’ photograph for the advertisement was as inauthentic as Richard Prince’s re-photograph of it: both perpetuated a mythological figure, whose life had been romanticised in the public imagination to an extent that its symbolic value overshadowed its reality.

“The things about those ads was that it wasn’t a cowboy you were seeing. It was a model. But the model might be a real cowboy, acting like a cowboy. It was making itself up.”
– Richard Prince

Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1980-89, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1980-89, ektacolour photograph, 181.5 by 271.5 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Just as Warhol saw in Elvis and Marilyn symbols of the American Dream, Prince recognised in the cowboy another American myth – less glamorous, but powerful. As a symbol of the Wild West, the cowboy embodied the American ideal of freedom, and his series of re-photographed images capture exactly that. In Untitled (Cowboy), our hero is captured in mid action, set against a deserted landscape of prairie and clouds, with one hand in control of his horse and the other swinging his lasso, going too fast for the photographer to capture him in the centre of his frame.

The quality of Richard Prince’s work is not that he invents something new that represents America. Instead, he distills its essence from what’s already out there. He picks and selects for his taxonomy of Americana and in doing so highlights a side of contemporary culture that has immediate visual power, but which also obscures a darker side. The cowboy ads are seductive and heroic, and almost make us forget how tough their lifestyle actually is (or how deadly cigarettes are). Yet what has arguably stuck most with the general public was not the rich symbolic importance of the cowboy series, but the blatant piracy by Prince – the fact that his images were taken from other people’s photographs.

That leads to a second perspective on Prince’s work. Beside the symbolic value of his art, its production process often takes unexpected forms. From car hoods ordered off the back of magazines and cartoons taken from newspapers, to publicity photos sourced from eBay and copies of advertising images, his work relies heavily on pre-existing material. In the context of the 70s and 80s this is particularly relevant, as a generation of artists and philosophers questioned the notion of the ‘original’ in an age of easily reproducible visual imagery. Moreover, French postmodern texts like Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author (1967) had now been translated into English, and made an argument for the separation of the author from the interpretation of her/his text.

In practical terms, what this implied was that the reading of an image (such as the cowboy) was conditional on the viewer’s understanding of the symbolic meaning of that image, not just the photographer’s intention. That makes the idea of an original less relevant, and this is exactly what Richard Prince’s practice of re-photography demonstrates: the power of the cowboy images does not arise from the photographer’s intentions (or even Marlboro’s goal to sell cigarettes for that matter), but from the image’s cultural resonance with the viewer.

Prince wasn’t alone in exploring this concept, as many artists in the 1980s (some of whom were grouped together under the umbrella term ‘Pictures Generation’) engaged with these new ideas. Sherrie Levine re-photographed famous Walker Evans photos for her 1981 exhibition titled After Walker Evans at Metro Pictures in New York, and Louise Lawler organised an exhibition of other artists’ works and presented them collectively as her own under the title Arranged by Louise Lawler, also at Metro Pictures in 1982.

Richard Prince in his New York studio in the 1980s
Richard Prince in his New York studio in the 1980s

Richard Prince’s ability to engage with contemporary theory whilst using an artistic language that is at times closer to the vernacular of rural America than that of contemporary art, is what makes his work so appealing: it’s layered yet accessible, not unlike Andy Warhol’s art. Although he has used this strategy in different ways, the cowboy series has emerged as the most influential body of work – so much so that Untitled (Cowboy) is considered amongst the most influential images of all time.

Although Australia’s public collections could certainly accommodate more works by Richard Prince as many important series are missing, it is exciting to have one of his most important works featured in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Moreover, not unimportantly, it is testimony to the great eye of collector John Kaldor, who donated the work along with masterpieces by Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Andreas Gursky, Christo, Sol LeWitt, Robert Rauschenberg and many others.

View all works by Richard Prince in Australian collections