What makes an artwork truly original? What does intellectual property ownership look like? For over four decades, celebrated American multimedia artist Richard Prince has been investigating these questions through his unflinching conceptual works, most notably through collections of photography highlighting the myth of the cowboy and the American West through repurposed, rephotographed, and cropped Marlboro ads from the 1980’s and 1990’s. Currently, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is exhibiting Richard Prince: Untitled (Cowboy) featuring not one, but two previously unseen photography projects of this nature from the 2010s.
Prince first became interested in photography, advertising, copyright, and the West while working in the tear sheet department at Time-Life as a young, aspiring artist in the mid-1970s. It was his job to clip articles for the magazine’s writers. Once he had removed these reports and features, he kept ruminating over the remaining advertisements. Prince was taken with their glossy, rose-tinted view of the world as well as their devotion to beauty and happiness through the products they sold. He was especially fascinated by the ubiquitous Marlboro Man, a hyper-masculine cowboy character depicted in the cigarette company’s commercials, billboards, and magazine advertisements. Aiming to deconstruct and decontextualize these images, Prince started rephotographing and enlarging these ads, a practice that has defined his body of work since (not to mention his countless lawsuits).
Heavily borrowing from this body of Marlboro ads, as well as 19th century history painting, this latest LACMA retrospective reignites this decades-old debate through two of Prince’s more recent photographic collections, 2013’s Untitled (Original Cowboy) and 2015–16’s Untitled (Cowboy). The former features highlights from Prince’s trip to Utah, investigating the legend of the cowboy as well as truth in advertising. The latter boasts highly stylized dye coupler print photographs. Full of Romanticism and references to Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and Frederic Remington, these picturesque scenes of rugged men on horseback are actually updated versions of Prince’s Time ads from the 1980s and 1990s. In many of the horizontal images seen here, the artist even included what look like creases and folds in the middle of the image, referencing their original purpose as magazine advertisements. Using modern technology to manipulate these photos, Prince somehow further locks these painterly, idealistic images in the past.
Assembled together, this group of works is a striking review of Prince’s recent practice in an ongoing theme, reflecting on the artist’s practice and his visits back to familiar ground. As this world evolves, so too does the images he creates, ultimately creating a space between printed image, real worlds, and the space they seek to share. With the age Instagram, constant commercials, and byzantine definitions ownership upon us, Richard Prince’s Untitled (Cowboy) series has proven to be incredibly relevant for reflecting upon modern American iconography, especially as these new modes of image creation and distribution create worlds of their own.
— E. Nimptsch
Richard Prince: Untitled (Cowboy) [LACMA]