The Cowboy Prince
In fall of 2015, Richard Prince exhibited a sculpture titled Cowboy at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea in New York City, which was both predictable and surprising. Prince’s long preoccupation with the cowboy image started with the work he produced in the 1980s while working in the tearsheets department of Time magazine. There he became attracted to the images used in Marlboro ads, which employed variations on the mythic, ruggedly handsome character to sell cigarettes. Prince rephotographed the ads with the skills of an amateur, cropping out the logo and ad copy and having them reprinted. That simple action—removing the brand identity—stripped the image back to the mythic cowboy-in-landscape by separating it from its intended function. Rephotographing the advertisements began to reverse engineer the process of motivating consumption, focusing on the raw associations triggered by the cowboy image itself. Thereafter (this work continued through the 1990s) Prince’s practice became synonymous with the Duchampian tradition of selection, alteration, and critique of authorship. It also aligned with other emerging artists of the time (including Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, and Sherrie Levine) who were exchanging found objects for found images, repurposing and dissecting a visual culture that had been built up around them for over half a century.
Prince later made paintings of cowboys—reworked cover illustrations from cheap Western novels. They served as another forum for Prince to work out his cowboy infatuation—variations on the overdrawn male hero thing itself. Though they demonstrated his willingness to approach the subject with a different medium, the artist’s interest in isolating and recontextualizing an existing mythology of images continued.
In that sense it was not at all surprising to walk into the Gladstone Gallery and notice Prince’s Cowboy—not a photograph or a painting of one, but a sculpture. It appears as a department store mannequin of a young boy, five to seven years old, in spotless buckaroo garb, much like something from an old Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog. The vintage elements immediately feel like a cheeky resurrection of that early-to-mid-century American cowboy image so romanticized today.
It seems obvious that the cowboy character is one that our culture wants to preserve, even as its authenticity dissolves in the impressions made upon us from the Western genre itself. It is an image connected to the National Rifle Association’s rhetoric of the “good guy with a gun,” which seems awfully derivative of American Western fiction but also tied to horribly mutated realities (such as the armed vigilante who recently threatened a Muslim community in rural New York,1 or the state of Texas legalizing open carry of loaded pistols,2 or the lone gunman claiming to be a pro-life warrior who killed three people while injuring four others at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado,3 or, as I write this, the armed militia that has occupied a federally owned building at a wildlife refuge in Oregon.4) Other blissfully ignored practices, such as Cowboys and Indians facing off under Friday night lights, perpetuate a symbolic feud in the field of play, while posing real problems in the field of cultural representation (cf. the Washington Redskins).5
Of course, there are more noble pursuits of the cowboy experience, like the documentary film Unbranded (directed by Phillip Baribeau, 2015), in which four Texas A&M graduates join the effort to save wild mustangs and embark on an extraordinary journey from Mexico to Canada on horseback. Projects like this aim to highlight more civilized ideas like good stewardship of land, livestock, and wildlife—contrasting trigger-happy rugged individualism with environmental awareness and social contribution.
After studying the plywood pedestal on which Prince’s Cowboy is placed, I realize that the entire piece is cast in bronze—including the pedestal. My mistaken tendency was to reduce Prince to the role of trickster—finding this boy mannequin, dressing it, and simply placing it on a wooden box. I would have accepted this at first, knowing Prince’s history of repurposing and navigating fair use (he’s been to court recently for his appropriation of Patrick Cariou’s photographs,6 and been called out for his reframing of images from the Suicide Girls’ Instagram account, for example).7 It seemed obvious at first that Prince simply selected the elements on display, and left it at that.
He didn’t. Prince spent about four years figuring out Cowboy.8 For months, nothing happened with the original mannequin (which his wife found in an antique store and gifted to him). More months went by as Prince added accessories (that he ordered off the internet), changed elements of the figure’s pose, and prepared to cast it. As he deliberated over how the bronze would be painted and displayed, a copy of it was put in his studio, where he bolted it to the floor and placed other work around it. He thought about his altered image of a dangerously young Brooke Shields (titled Spiritual America, 1983) as Cowboy’s girlfriend—two characters becoming charged in a romantic counterpoint. He then went to Utah and made landscape photographs to place around Cowboy, attempting to put the figure back in familiar surroundings. None of it worked. Cowboy had to stand on his own.
When the painted bronze was finished, Prince had it boxed up. It sat in a crate for another year before he unpacked it again. He then placed it on a plywood box that happened to be in his shop, and the piece seemed complete. The base would not, however, be an independent accessory. It would be cast and painted also, and become part of the whole. When he fitted the figure to the base and saw the finished piece, he could then, in his own words, “stop thinking about it.”9
It was unpredictably satisfying that this bronze Cowboy was the only thing in the gallery. No distractions diluted the figure centered in the room. Nothing else existed in this space and time other than Cowboy himself. And thus, with the young boy in his costume, an identity forms early—an aspiration toward a character, an idea of what a cowboy should be, an idea of what a man should be. It’s all present in the gesture of the figure, cute and adorable in his mini getup, a boy aiming to be well mannered and dressed but poised to draw his pistol at the sight of a challenge, the moment of anticipation so dreadfully magnetic in Western films and literature. It’s about a boy becoming a man, but also about men being childish.
Cowboy takes on a different material mix within Prince’s practice without straying from his path. As a sculpture, it becomes much like a Jeff Koons—with his painstakingly mimicked details of a cheap mylar balloon or an inflatable lobster in bronze—but it’s also on a not-so-crooked trajectory from the tradition of the nineteenth-century Frederic Remington, another New York artist fascinated by the facts and fictions of the American West. Curiously, at the Frederic Remington Art Museum website, under the heading “Authenticity,” we read: “The words ‘authentic’ and ‘original’ do not apply to Remington bronze reproductions. If you are wondering whether something is original or not, consider the price that’s being asked and the circumstances under which it is being offered for sale.”10 Would this seem so out of place on Prince’s homepage?
All things considered, there is a phenomenological reckoning with what is being looked at; the piece as sculpture, and as image. Cowboy, a lone figure in the center of an empty room, is a monument—a traditional work of art in the material sense and a contemporary work of art in a Western sociopolitical sense. Though it could seem like a quick and obvious trick at first, it took Prince a good chunk of time to work this out. And by no stated intention, it demands the same of us.
John Aäsp is an artist, writer, and curator based in Rochester, New York, where he is gallery director for the College of Imaging Arts & Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology.
NOTES 1. Chris Michaud, “FBI searching for armed anti-Muslim protester after Facebook threat to Muslim community in New York,” Raw Story, November 29, 2015, www.rawstory.com/2015/11/fbi-searching-for-armed-anti-muslim-activist-after-facebook-threat-to-muslim-community-in-new-york. 2. Daniel Costa-Roberts, “Texas approves open carry law for handguns,” PBS, www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/texas-verge-passing-open-carry-law. 3. Wesley Lowery, Jerry Markon, and Danielle Paquette, “‘No more baby parts,’ suspect in attack at Colo. Planned Parenthood clinic told official,” Washington Post, November 28, 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/politics/no-more-baby-parts-suspect-in-attack-at-colo-planned-parenthood-clinic-told-official/2015/11/28/e842b2cc-961e-11e5-8aa0-5d0946560a97_story.html. 4. Andy Sullivan, “Oregon activists picked the wrong battle, militia leaders say,” Yahoo News, January 5, 2016, http://news.yahoo.com/oregon-activists-picked-wrong-battle-militia-leaders-012913167.html. 5. “Washington Redskins Name Controversy,” Huffington Post, www.huffingtonpost.com/news/washington-redskins-name-controversy. 6. “Patrick Cariou v. Richard Prince, et al—The Appeal Verdict,” AmericanSuburbX.com, July 24, 2015, www.americansuburbx.com/2015/07/patrick-cariou-v-richard-prince-et-al-the-appeal-verdict.html. 7. Alex Needham, “Richard Prince v Suicide Girls in an Instagram Price War,” Guardian, May 27, 2015, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/27/suicide-girls-richard-prince-copying-instagram. 8. Richard Prince, “Cowboy,” Richard Prince website, www.richardprince.com/birdtalk/. 9. Ibid. 10. “Sculptures: Authenticity,” Frederic Remington Art Museum, http://fredericremington.org/sculptures-c32.php.