Rob Pruitt’s studio in Brooklyn is exactly as you would imagine it – spacious, busy, with NPR playing loudly and bric-a-brac plastered on the walls, such as printed images of famous people and their celebrity doppelganger. Naturally, the place is also decked with artwork, including one of Pruitt’s famous massive gradient paintings, which reclines against the wall opposite of where the artist is sitting. The D.C. native, who is as clever as he is intriguing, has been an important figure in the art world for over twenty years, with his multi-media and multi-stylistic pieces encapsulating a broad spectrum of creativity and autobiography. With the lull of the radio serving as a phonetic background, Pruitt speaks about the rebellion of the self, his first memory of painting, and his lifelong love affair with Jacques Cousteau.
NeueJournal: You’ve often been labeled as post-conceptual. What does that mean to you?
Rob Pruitt: Making art with a total awareness of what the conceptual movement made 20 years before me. It’s a little bit of revisiting and it’s a little bit of parody, in the warmest way, and it’s an explanation as to what conceptual art is. I made a project twelve years ago called 101 Art Ideas You Can Do Yourself, which are little recipes for how to make art. I think what was at the forefront of my mind when I made that project was explaining to the laymen what conceptual art was. Art, I think, exists in a very rarefied space. For example, my parents would walk into museums and not know what in the world was going on.
NJ: Do you communicate different messages with different mediums?
RP: Switching mediums helps me to shake things up and to think of new ideas. If I get too comfortable with one particular thing, then the whole thing becomes stagnant. I really like to speak in an entirely new technique that’s unfamiliar to me. It feels fresh, like I’m in school again.
NJ: What’s your preferred medium?
RP: Photography. It’s so easy – you just press a button and it’s almost always good. That sounds cynical, but I don’t really show any of this photography that I’m bragging about being very good (laughs). I mean, I don’t even have a fancy camera, I just buy the latest iPhone and take lots of pictures every day. It just feels good to be making some things with speed and ease.
NJ: Do you share these photos?
RP: I have an Instagram. I think it’s time to redesign it, though, because right now one-third of it is advertising things that I’m listing on my eBay, which is a project that I’ve been maintaining for two years. I list stuff that I don’t want anymore and give all the money raised to a charity at the end of the year. It feels like a nice thing, to turn junk into something that can help a few people.
NJ: How would you describe your artistic aesthetic to a blind person?
RP: I think I would begin describing it as having almost no virtuosity in any area. Some people are really skilled at getting a likeness to another person down on paper or the canvas, but I don’t know how to do that very well. What I mean to say is, if I’m any better at any of these things than the person across from me on the subway it’s because I’ve been doing this every day for the past 25 years, but I don’t think I was born with any special talent or skills.
NJ: What made you pursue art?
RP: Growing up I was very shy. It was easier for me to communicate with pictures and through drawing. I retreated a lot as a child into my own head and that manifested itself from drawing, not so much from story writing or playing house.
NJ: Were there ever any other options for professional pursuits?
RP: There were options that I romanticized, but I’m not sure that I would have been good at them. I’ve had a lifelong love affair with Jacques Cousteau, for example, so I wanted to be a marine biologists. I’m 50 years old now, and I don’t even know how to swim – not that you need to know how to swim to be a marine biologist. At another point I wanted to move to Bennington, Vermont and be a potter. I think that I was in love with the lifestyle more than the idea of making pots, but I guess making pots is virtually the same thing as making paintings so…if there was a fork, it wasn’t such a big fork.
NJ: What did you care most about when you were 10 years old?
RP: I remember I really loved playing with dolls. My sister inherited all of these dolls when the next door neighbor went off to college. She had outgrown her dolls and her mom gave this huge collection of them to my younger sister, but she didn’t really care for them. They were Barbie dolls. I had an old sewing machine and would make clothes for the dolls in accordance to the characters I had given them. I cared tremendously about that, and I also cared that not too many people found out that I was doing this. On one hand I was proud of it, but on the other I wanted to keep it private as well.
NJ: What’s your first memory of painting?
RP: Around the same age, just under 13, I took some small canvases and jars of acrylic paint to the beach on the weekend with my family and I tried to paint the sea from the beach. It was a mess. Sand got all over the painting. I remember not being terribly distressed about it, thinking that maybe the sand was working out to be a good part of the painting. I think that’s the first time I remember painting, because it didn’t go smoothly and it was a bit of an ordeal.
NJ: What was your biggest rebellion as a teenager?
RP: I was a teenager in the late 70s and early 80s, and the acceptance of gayness then, even though it wasn’t that long ago, was not that great. So I went to school every day maintaining this secret about myself. Maybe for someone else the two things wouldn’t have been so opposed, but for me maintaining this secret was all I could do. I don’t think I was in a place where I could rebel exactly. I was just trying to not get beat up. Sounds kind of sad, but I actually had a relatively happy experience in high school. It was probably just different from everyone else’s. It’s really strange to be in the committee that makes decorations for the prom but then not go.
NJ: Trying to be yourself is a constant rebellion.
RP: Yeah, it is. Even though I was maintaining a secret, it was important for me to still let everyone know who I was, with some degree of honesty.
NJ: How are you superstitious, if at all?
RP: When I get an exciting offer or there’s something on the agenda that I can’t believe is happening to me, I tend to keep it to myself until just before it happens. I don’t want anything to jinx things and have them not happen.
NJ: If you could have witnessed any historical event, which one would it be?
RP: Cave people discovering fire.
NJ: When is the last time you cried?
RP: I asked a friend to write an essay for a catalog and it took him a couple of months to eventually send me something. I was in the car with Jonathan Horowitz, my husband-partner, and I had my iPhone in my hand when the essay came in through email. I was reading it aloud and was so moved that somebody took so much time to think about me and what I’ve done over the past 20 years, that I burst into tears as I was reading it. I was overwhelmed.
Photography: Harris Mizrahi for NeueJournal