New York

Hannes Schmid, Cowboy #5 (Tailgate), 2007, oil on linen, 48 × 71".

Hannes Schmid, Cowboy #5 (Tailgate), 2007, oil on linen,
48 × 71".

Hannes Schmid

Hannes Schmid, Cowboy #5 (Tailgate), 2007, oil on linen, 48 × 71".

The seventy-two-year-old Swiss artist Hannes Schmid—the subject of a compact, fascinating show at Mitchell Algus Gallery—is not a household name, but he can lay claim to a pair of intriguing distinctions in the postwar-image canon. First, he was among a select group of commercial photographers responsible for the pictures of handsomely weather-beaten cowboys in wide-open spaces in the iconic Marlboro Man ads, a campaign that turned a languishing brand originally pitched to women into the echt embodiment of consumerist masculinity and, not coincidentally, the best-selling cigarette in the United States. Later, the photographs he and his colleagues made would find a second life in the contemporary art world when they were appropriated by Richard Prince for Prince’s celebrated “Cowboy” series, which the artist began in the early 1980s while working a day job in the archive at Time-Life. “Every week, I’d see one,” Prince later recalled of the Marlboro ads, which he came across over and over again among the tear sheets he worked with, “and be like, ‘Oh, that’s mine. Thank you.’ It’s sort of like beachcombing.” 

Unlike photographers such as Donald Graham or Patrick Cariou, both of whom sued Prince for his scavenging of unattributed images washed up along the cultural shoreline, Schmid decided against pursuing legal action. Instead, he began his own reappropriation project in the late 1990s, painting large, photorealistic versions of his original works, four of which—along with four prints from the Marlboro sessions, in moody black-and-white rather than the jewel-toned versions familiar from the ads—were all on view here for the first time anywhere. Schmid, as it turns out, is an adroit painter, and his large and richly colored oil-on-linen works are satisfying in the way all good photorealist painting is. Cowboy #230, 2017, for example, puts his technical chops on display: A reinvention of a 1999 photo called Cowboy #30, it depicts a mounted rancher driving a herd of horses, his circling lasso ascending amid a cloud of rising prairie dust. Meanwhile, in Cowboy #1 (Round ’em up), 2007, the protagonist, dressed in a Marlboro-red shirt, sits atop his stallion at the foot of a craggy Monument Valley escarpment. Staring stonily into the distance, he’s a butch symbol of stoic individualism, channeling equal parts Caspar David Friedrich and John Ford. Only in Cowboy #5 (Tailgate), 2007, in which the subject reclines on the bed of a pickup truck, Zippo in hand, does the product at the heart of the entire enterprise make an appearance.

Schmid’s paintings might seem to represent a neat, full-circle riposte to Prince’s borrowings, but in fact they are just one more iteration of the spiraling authorial mise en abyme that structures the status of his original photos and their subsequent deployments. As the gallery’s press release notes, while Schmid’s images were of course never really Prince’s, they were never really quite Schmid’s either. The products of work for hire, the photographs legally belong to the company that commissioned them—so Schmid’s re-creating them as paintings is as much a way for the artist to reclaim his work from Philip Morris as it is for him to take it back from Richard Prince. Prince’s croppings and enlargements superficially uncoupled the images from their explicit commercial contexts, but his repurposing (like all successful appropriation, including Schmid’s here) was never intended to fully sever the relationships between the images and their earlier functions. Instead, in isolating them and making them generic, both men paradoxically summon the full range of the previous significations embedded in the photos: the American cowboy with his mien of macho self-reliance, yes, but also the complex processes of capitalist propaganda designed to hawk a given product as successfully as possible, never mind its toxicity. Schmid’s intervention adds yet another layer of meaning to these iconic representations, an additional chapter in the story of image production and consumption that further complicates the original works’ odd status as quasi-autonomous actors in both the mythic and matter-of-fact operations of American commerce and art.