Richard Prince began his career in the early 1970s as a figurative painter, but soon abandoned this practice for photography. Along with a generation of artists that included Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, and Cindy Sherman, Prince took conceptual photography to another level in the 1980s, directly appropriating materials from mass culture for use in his work. His best-known photographs were deadpan images he rephotographed from such sources as watch advertisements, New Yorker cartoons, and hot-rod and surfer publications. This redefinition of art and photography raised important questions about the ownership of public images, the location of the author, and the nature of invention itself.
In Cowboys and Girlfriends, Prince explores pervasive images from American culture. The works on view here relate to two larger series of photographs he made in the 1980s. The archetypal cowboy images, though cropped, are reproduced facsimiles of originals from Marlboro advertisements. The artist began rephotographing them after the company became the target of an antismoking campaign and was forced to stop using its famous model, the Marlboro Man. In Prince’s rendition, this “true American” is ironically turned from a hero into a survivor. The Girlfriends pictures in this series are appropriated from ads placed by women in biker magazines. Rephotographed by the artist and enlarged, the womens’ self-portraits reveal a fascinating commentary on gender, self-promotion, and the culture of desire.
These works join four others by Prince in the Walker’s collection, reflecting the museum’s commitment to in-depth acquisition of work by influential American artists.