Richard Prince, ‘Untitled (Cowboy)’, 2012, Sotheby's: Contemporary Art Day Auction
Richard Prince, ‘Untitled (Cowboy)’, 2012, Sotheby's: Contemporary Art Day Auction

From the Catalogue

A fiery melee of hot oranges and ochres that expose a heroic cowboy, Richard Prince’s Untitled (Cowboy) 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 Hispanic 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 recognisable and thought-provoking works of the late Twentieth and Twenty-First centuries.

Prince’s career-defining engagement with 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 authorless advertisements and the familiarity of their imagery. He began re-photographing these found images, thereby removing all branding so that the images begun to look less like what they had been originally intended for and more as images to be appreciated for their own 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 copy 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 new found 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 earlier 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. In the Nurse paintings, exuberant strokes of paint occlude the entire surface of the canvas save for the nurse and the book's title, however, as Prince has remarked: “I wasn’t sure at first what to do with the titles of the cowboy books. The titles became part of the Nurse paintings. The cowboys didn’t need their titles. They were cornball titles (The Kid From Rattlesnake Bar). The titles 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 entirely effaced all traces of the book with great swathes of hot oranges and blazing yellows leaving only the illustration of the rearing stallion and rugged cowboy. Perfectly combining two of Prince’s most iconic series, Untitled (Cowboy) is the perfect summation of his extraordinary artistic enquiry.

Courtesy of Sotheby's

Signature: signed and dated twice 2012 on the overlap

Beverly Hills, Gagosian Gallery, Richard Prince: Cowboys, February - April 2013, p. 28, illustrated in color

Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2013

About Richard Prince

Though the quote “good artists borrow, great artists steal” is traditionally attributed to Pablo Picasso, it could well be Richard Prince’s motto. Prince mines mass-media images to redefine concepts of ownership and authorship, a practice he conceived of while working in the tear-sheets department of Time-Life. In his “Cowboys” series, for example, started in the early 1980s, he re-photographed Marlboro ads, cropping out text to generate close-ups of mythical cowboy figures. His “Nurse” works—first exhibited in 2003—were produced by scanning the covers of pulp paperbacks, transferring them to canvas, and painting over the prints. An avid collector of American subcultures, Prince has also turned his eye to biker chicks, Borscht Belt jokes, and Willem de Kooning canvases. “I don’t see any difference now between what I collect and what I make,” he says. “It’s become the same.”

American, b. 1949, Panama Canal Zone, based in New York, New York