Stealing From the Marlboro Man - Richard Prince's $3.4M Cowboy Re-Takes Top Photography Spot at the Fall Contemporary Auctions in New York

Ousting Andreas Gursky’s well-stocked candy store color diptych “99 Cent 11” from its top spot and pushing Edward Steichen’s iconic “The Pond – Moonlight” into third place, Richard Prince’s super-sized, eight foot Ektachrome “Untitled (Cowboy)” became the world’s most expensive photo in history.  Selling for a never-seen-before $3.4 million at the prestigious Sotheby’s evening contemporary art sale on November 14th, 2007, the stunning silhouette of the ubiquitous Marlboro man etched against a fiery-blood-red sunset complete with rope, hat and spurs oozes virility and romance while representing one of America’s superstar producing mechanisms of popular culture and media.

This was the second print from the same edition of two (plus one artist’s proof) of this photograph to come up at auction this year – an event totally defaming the market axiom that images have to be “fresh” to set record prices.  Edition number ‘1/2’ sold back on the 16th of May, 2007 for $2.8 million – a personal world auction record for a photograph by the artist at the time.

To the plethora of newly minted multi-millionaires who are flocking to the contemporary art market as “an alternative asset allocation”, the cowboy from “Marlboro country” at auction represents an iconic symbol of an established name brand artist whose works seem to be staying ahead of the burgeoning art market curve and destined for continual historical, critical and monetary importance. Unlike the consumers looking for a sugar fix in Gursky’s discount 99 cent store, Prince brings us the emblematic cowboy caught in the act of taming an off-camera wild horse – the epitome of what some Freudian analysts would suggest represents the individual harnessing his own unbridled id allowing for a successful adaptation to an ever-changing environment.

Since 1963 when the Philip Morris corporation (now Altria Group, Inc.) began the “Marlboro Country” campaign, the brand has identified itself with the American symbol of masculinity – the cowboy.  Always interpreted as the pioneers of enterprising nature and fearlessness, the cowboy stands in for one of the major reasons for what America is today.  Focusing on maturity, masculinity, and the brevity with which they capture horses, or round up cattle, the glorification of Prince’s heroic single cowboy caught in the act of effortlessly roping a wild horse while sitting on a fence makes the connection between this almost heroic act with a form of symbolic nationalism.  Philip Morris, in conjunction with the premiere advertising agency Leo Burnett, brilliantly weaved the cigarette brand into this foundation of the American ideals of freedom, equality and democracy, making the Marlboro man, the first in “USA Today’s” list of “the 101 most influential people who never lived” list as well as the best-selling cigarette brand in the United States and the world since 1972.

In addition to the important questions raised by the artist about the role of authorship and the ability of the camera to record a totally manufactured fiction to resemble fact, there is the deep irony in the role the world’s largest tobacco corporation plays in spreading tobacco addiction around the globe – the seductive robustness and outdoorsy healthfulness of the Marlboro cowboy is in stark contrast with the deadly reality of the approximately 440,000 deaths recorded annually in the United States attributed to smoking.  Prince’s appropriation of this particularly American motif of deeply conflicting messages can also be seen by collectors as a mix of swagger and contrary thinking that has long defined the entrepreneurial spirit of the hard-nosed, go-it-alone style that has defined successful businessmen who have continued to make money in both an economic boom and bust.

This wasn’t the only Marlboro man image to do well at the fall November auctions in New York.  Two more Prince “Untitled (Cowboy)” photographs – both executed in 2000 in an edition of two (with one AP) made it into the top ten photographs at the contemporary art auctions.

Landing in third spot overall earlier the same day at the Christie’s “Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session” (it was the cover lot) – behind Jean-Michel Basquiat’s acrylic and oilstick on canvas “In the Wings” from 1986, and Agnes Martin’s sublime acrylic and graphite on canvas “Untitled #8”, (1997) – Prince’s Ektacolor cowboy received a frenzy of bidding.  When the dust settled, the 27 by 40 inch artist’s proof with an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 illustrating a posse of cowboys and their horses at dusk brought $1,049,000 at the hammer (including buyer’s premium).

The majesty of the snow-capped mountains and the mystery of the eerie landscape as seen through a tawny-red low-lying fog echos a much earlier appropriated picture by the artist – “Spiritual America” – where a pre-pubescent Brooke Shields emerges from a steaming tub.  It’s also a hat’s off to Alfred Stieglitz’s original “Spiritual America” which also had horses and fog.  But here, behind the quiet self-confidence of the men (all wearing white hats) whose sweat and soul allow for a legitimate claim on our admiration, we see the Golden Age of the American West channeling the “individualistic rebellion” that was the mythological hallmark of this great nation – freedom, equality and democracy.  This uber-powerful image of man co-existing in harmony with nature is in stark contrast to the reality that this icon has served to profit a single deadly entity – namely Phillip Morris – to spreading tobacco addiction around the globe.  It’s of note that a huge banner of this same image was selected to hang above the front entrance to the Richard Prince retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum (from September 9th, 2007 through January 9th, 2008), aptly named “Spiritual America”.

Just six lots later, the third Prince cowboy image from the fall offerings landed in the season’s top ten – this time with five mounted cowboys silhouetted against a rising sun – garnered $481,000 (see addenda below).

Prince had yet a fourth lot in photography’s top ten in the contemporary sales – this time a diptych hammered at Phillips de Pury & Co.  Inviting Cindy Sherman to collaborate in a double self-portrait entitled, “Untitled (Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman)”, a.k.a., “Untitled, (Double-Portrait)” from 1980, executed when the two were seeing each other romantically, the emerging, soon-to-be stars of the post-war market engaged in what is very simply two artists donning the same suit and tie and the same Warholesque wig.  On another level, as commented on by art dealer Cooke Maroney from the Gagosian Gallery: “We have Prince who is known for appropriation dressing himself up as another artist (Warhol) who is dressing himself up already and includes another artist (Sherman) who has made a career out of dressing up to be someone else is in this piece dressing up to be an artist (Warhol).”

The “Untitled (Double Portrait)” – which was executed by Prince in an edition of ten – was sold back at the “Veronica’s Revenge” sale at Phillips de Pury & Company on November 8th, 2004 for $102,000.  On November 15th, 2007 the take-home price was $481,000.

Speaking of Ms. Sherman, she was the only other artist of the sale to find herself in the extremely rare position of also having four images in the top ten photographs of the contemporary sales.

Her black-and-white 16 by 20 inch “Untitled (Film Still #48)” from 1979, numbered ‘2/3’ realized $1,217,000 – a new high for the series, placing it in second place overall after Prince’s $3.4M cowboy.  The image bears a striking resemblance to the pivotal hitch-hiking scene in Milos Forman’s classic Czech New Wave film “Loves of a Blonde”, (1965), where Andula, a small factory town worker hitch-hikes to Prague in a desperate search for love to see her one-night-stand piano playing paramour.

Sherman’s counterfeit film still is the perfect storm for the artist’s obsessions. Played out through a nuanced orchestration of character, setting and composition, the artist stages a scene that captures a frozen moment allowing for the viewer to ceaselessly speculate as to its eventual outcome.  Arguably the most epic image in the entire series (it appears as the end plate in MoMA’s published edition of the complete film stills), Sherman’s image could just possibly stand in for the type of characterization of women that she perpetuated throughout this hugely important body of work.  Fusing the lower popular arts vernacular of the film still within the vehicle of the fine arts, the artist has created a unique hybrid of the sacred and the profane – as if to hold up a mirror – a warning if you will, to the meek and poor in spirit who are no less important than the mightiest of the mighty in our culture.

All of Sherman’s female protagonists provide the narrative of the underdog – continually caught up in some event which invariably leads to a situation where her characters lose control or are on the precipice of doing so.  These are morality tales that provide a blueprint of survival for the rest of us looking on.

Both Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman harness the quintessential vernacular of the modern American cliché to trace the outline of how popular culture is infiltrating our lives and trivializing our sense of who we are.  Upon closer examination of these seemingly authorless constructs – the weaving together of both reverence and irony – their meaning widens to encompass nothing short than a sharp portrait of where American culture is heading.  Rather than being just the flavor of the season or the darlings of the contemporary art marketplace, these works represent the pinnacle of the post-modern aesthetic and their shadow will reach well into the future and beyond.      

TOP 25 PHOTOGRAPHS AT THE NEW YORK FALL 2007 CONTEMPORARY ART AUCTIONS

1) Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 2001-2002, from an edition of 2 plus one AP, Ektachrome print, 100 by 66 inches, lot #6, Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Evening, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $1.5 million - $2 million; price realized: $3,401,000.

WORLD AUCTION RECORD FOR A PHOTOGRAPH, WORLD AUCTION RECORD FOR THE ARTIST.

2) Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Film Still #48), 1979, numbered ‘2/3’ on the reverse, gelatin silver print, 16 by 20 inches, lot #50, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Evening, Nov. 13, 2007, est.: $800,000 - $1,200,000; price realized: $1,217,000.

2-WAY TIE

3) Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 2000, this work is an AP from an edition of two, Ektacolor print, 26 7/8 by 40 inches, lot #322, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $400,000 - $600,000; price realized: $1,049,000.

Thomas Struth, Pantheon, Rome, 1990/1992, numbered ‘7/10’ on the reverse, Cibachrome print executed in 1992, 72 ¼ by 93 ¾ inches, lot #1, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Evening, Nov. 13, 2007, est.: $500,000 - $700,000; price realized: $1,049,000.

WORLD AUCTION RECORD FOR THE ARTIST.

4) Wang Qingsong, Follow Me, 2003, number nine from an edition of ten, Chromogenic print, 47 ¼ by 118 1/8 inches, lot #503, Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Afternoon, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $150,000 - $200,000; price realized: $713,000.

5) Hiroshi Sugimoto, The Last Supper, 2000, number five from an edition of five, five panels: gelatin silver prints mounted on panel and framed, overall: 59 ½ by 291 inches, lot #511, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $180,000 - $220,000; price realized: $623,400.

6) Cindy Sherman, Untitled (#204), 1989, from an edition of six, color coupler print in artist’s frame, 59 ¾ by 53 ¼ inches, lot #323, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $300,000 - $500,000; price realized: $541,000.

3-WAY TIE

7) Andreas Gursky, Singapore Borse, 1997, an edition of six, chromogenic print, 69 by 108 ½ inches, lot #496, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $300,000 - $400,000; price realized: $481,000.

Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 2000, number one from an edition of two, plus one AP, Ektacolor print, 28 by 40 inches, lot #328, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $400,000 - $600,000; price realized: $481,000.

Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman), 1980, set of two Ektacolor prints signed by ‘R. Prince’ and numbered ‘10/10’ on the reverse of each print, 20 by 24 inches, lot #19, Phillips de Pury & Co., Part 1: Contemporary Art,  Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $200,000 - $300,000; price realized: $481,000.

8) Cindy Sherman, Untitled (#225), 1990, from an edition of six, color coupler print mounted on Sintra, 48 by 33 inches, lot #324, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $200,000 - $300,000; price realized: $469,000.

9) John Baldessari, Person With Pillow; Desire/Lust/Fate, 1991, acrylic on black and white photograph and color photographs, in three parts, overall: 104 ½ by 69 inches, lot #458, Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Afternoon, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $350,000 - $450,000; price realized: $451,000.

10) Gilbert & George, Gold, 2004, hand dyed gelatin silver prints, in 24 parts, overall: 112 by 201 inches, lot #415, Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Afternoon, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $250,000 - $350,000; price realized: $391,000.

11) Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Film Still #64), 1980, numbered ‘1/3’ on the reverse, black and white photograph, 30 by 40 inches, lot #469, Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Afternoon, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $120,000 - $180,000; price realized: $373,000.

12) Andreas Gursky, Athens, 1995, from an edition of six, diptych – color coupler prints face-mounted on Plexiglas, each: 72 ¾ by 72 3/8 inches, lot #492, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $300,000 - $400,000; price realized: $361,000.

2-WAY TIE

13) Thomas Struth, National Gallery 2, London, 2001, number six from an edition of ten, color coupler print face-mounted on Plexiglas, 58 ½ by 67 ½ inches, lot #509, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $150,000 - $250,000; price realized: $349,000.

Thomas Struth, Pergamon Museum, Berlin, 2001, from an edition of ten, color coupler print face-mounted on Plexiglas, 67 ½ by 85 ½ inches, lot #493, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $150,000 - $200,000; price realized: $349,000.

14) Cindy Sherman, Untitled #97, 1982, numbered ‘9/10’ on the reverse, color photograph, 45 by 30 inches, lot #465, Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Afternoon, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $200,000 - $300,000; price realized: $337,000.

15) Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1999, from an edition of two, Ektacolor print, 24 by 20 inches, lot #203, Phillips de Pury & Co., Part 11, Contemporary Art, Nov. 16, 2007, est.: $200,000 - $300,000; price realized: $265,000.

16) Cindy Sherman, Untitled (#214), 1989, from an edition of six plus one AP, color coupler print mounted on foamcore on artist’s frame, 40 by 34 inches, lot #326, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $100,000 - $150,000; price realized: $253,000.

17) Richard Prince, Untitled (two women, two men, in three-quarter profile), 1980, number four from an edition of ten plus two APs, four Ektachrome prints each 20 by 24 inches, lot #332, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $120,000 - $180,000; price realized: $229,000.

2-WAY TIE

18) Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Film Still #59), 1980, numbered ‘2/3’ on the reverse, black and white photograph, 30 by 40 inches, lot #468, Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Afternoon, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $120,000 - $180,000; price realized: $205,000.

Thomas Struth, 1988, printed in 1989, The Art Restorers, San Lorenzo Maggiore, Naples, number three from an edition of ten, color coupler print, 41 ¼ by 62 inches, lot #503, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $120,000 - $180,000; price realized: $205,000.

19) Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Film Still #12), 1978, number one from an edition of ten, gelatin silver print, 8 by 10 inches, lot #330, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $70,000 - $90,000; price realized: $187,000.

20) Andreas Gursky, Ayamonte, 1997, from an edition of six, Chromogenic print, 68 ¾ by 98 ¾ inches, lot #500, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $150,000 - $250,000; price realized: $181,000.

2-WAY TIE

21) Gregory Crewdson, The Dream House Portfolio, 2002, number 10 from an edition of 15, plus five APs, digital cibachrome print mounted to museum board in 12 parts, each 29 by 44 inches, lot #471, Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Afternoon, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $150,000 - $200,000; price realized: $169,000.

Elger Esser, 75 Saint Jean de Luz, 2004, from an edition of five, C-print with Diasec face, 72 by 104 ¾ inches, lot #332, Phillips de Pury & Co., Part 11, Contemporary Art, Nov. 16, 2007, est.: $80,000 - $120,000; price realized: $169,000.

22) Vik Muniz, Maria Callas (From Diamond Divas), 2004, number 5 from an edition of 10, Chromogenic print mounted on Sintra, 39 ½ by 31 ½ inches, lot #461, Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Afternoon, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $50,000 - $70,000; price realized: $157,000.

2-WAY TIE

23) Bernd & Hilla Becher, Cooling Towers, Ruhr District, 1983, nine gelatin silver prints mounted on board, each: 16 by 12 inches, lot #494, Christie’s, Post-War and Contemporary Art Afternoon Session, Nov. 14, 2007, est.: $70,000 - $90,000; price realized: $145,000.

Thomas Ruff, Nudes BO 36, 2000, numbered ‘4/5’ on the reverse, Laserchrome print with Diasec face, 59 by 41 inches, lot #573, Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Afternoon, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $80,000 - $120,000; price realized: $145,000.

7-WAY TIE

24) Matthew Barney, Envelopa: Drawing Restaint 7 (manual) C, 1993, triptych from an edition of six; three black & white photographs in artist’s nylon frames, 18 by 15 ½ inches, lot #18, Phillips de Pury & Co., Part 1: Contemporary Art, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $100,000 - $150,000; price realized: $133,000.

Paul McCarthy, Tokyo Santa, 1996/1999, this work from an edition of six, C-print flush mounted on board, 71 1/8 by 49 1/8 inches, lot #363, Phillips de Pury & Co., Part 11: Contemporary Art, Nov. 16, 2007, est.: $40,000 - $60,000; price realized: $133,000.

Richard Prince, Untitled (Publicity), 1999, ink on color photographs in 5 parts, in artist’s frames, 33 ¼ by 41 ¼ inches, lot #459, Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Afternoon, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $20,000 - $30,000; price realized: $133,000.

Gerhard Richter, KI Badende (Small Bather), 1996, from an edition of 45 plus four trial proofs, Cibachrome print in the artist’s frame, 26 ½ by 19 ¾ inches, lot # 403, Phillips de Pury & Co., Part 11: Contemporary Art, Nov. 16, 2007, est.: $20,000 - $30,000; price realized: $133,000.

Thomas Ruff, Substrat 17 111, 2003, from an edition of five, C-print with Diasec face in the artist’s wooden frame, 75 ¾ by 50 ½ inches, lot #227, Phillips de Pury & Co., Part 11: Contemporary Art, Nov. 16, 2007, est.: $60,000 - $80,000; price realized: $133,000.

Thomas Ruff, jpegny06, 2005, from an edition of three, C-print with Diasec face in the artist’s wooden frame, 110 by 74 inches, lot #228, Phillips de Pury & Co., Part 11: Contemporary Art, Nov. 16, 2007, est.: $70,000-$90,000; price realized: $133,000.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Film Still #18), 1978, numbered ‘3/3’ on the reverse, black and white photograph, 30 by 40 inches, lot #466, Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Afternoon, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $100,000 - $150,000; price realized: $133,000.

3-WAY TIE

25) Bien-U Bae, Sea, 2007, from an edition of five, C-print with Diasec face, 69 by 118 inches, lot #124, Phillips de Pury & Co., Part 11: Contemporary Art, Nov. 16, 2007, est.: $40,000 - $60,000; price realized: $121,000.

Thomas Ruff, Nudes RG07, 2003, numbered ‘4/5’ on the reverse, Chromogenic print mounted on Diasec face, 51 1/8 by 51 1/8 inches, lot #576, Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Afternoon, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $80,000 - $100,000; price realized: $121,000.

Thomas Struth, Museo del Vaticano 1, Roma, 1990, number two from an edition of ten, digital color coupler print mounted on Plexiglas, 66 1/8 by 81 7/8 inches, lot #568, Sotheby’s, Contemporary Art Afternoon, Nov. 15, 2007, est.: $120,000 - $160,000; price realized: $121,000.



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