A Conversation With Jack Pierson and Rob Pruitt

Rob Pruitt and Jack Pierson.
Rob Pruitt and Jack Pierson.

Jack Pierson and Rob Pruitt came up together in the late eighties/early nineties art scene of New York City—Pierson as the culture recycling photographer of what became known as the Boston School (alongside David Armstrong, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Nan Goldin and Mark Morrisroe); Pruitt as the political Pop purist of a briefly-lived collaborative duo with Jack Early—back when pioneering downtown gallerists Colin de Land, Simon Watson and Pat Hearn were carving out scenes in a post-Warhol Manhattan. While the two have achieved massive success with expansive multimedia careers in the ensuing three decades, they’ve also both carved out impressive retreats in the California desert—Pierson in Twentynine Palms and Pruitt in Palm Springs—as both a respite from the international art scene and a wellspring for new ideas. On the occasion of “Jack Pierson: 5 Shows from the ’90s” at the Aspen Art Museum and Rob Pruitt’s Flea Market taking over the lobby of the Palm Springs Art Museum as part of Neville Wakefield’s Desert X extravaganza, Cultured sat down with the two old friends at the latter’s hillside retreat and listened to them discuss everything from their early travails in New York and the allure of desert living in recent years to their embrace of gay culture in art and politics, the future of image-making after the 2016 election and how their processes relate (and react) to those of serial killers.


Rob Pruitt: I bought this book yesterday called “Hollywood Collects.”

Jack Pierson: I feel like I’ve seen it. RP: Tony Curtis has all of these Joseph Cornells.

JP: Oh right, because I think they were friends.

RP: I can’t teach you anything. It’s funny, in the little essay it says that through his friendship with the Cornells he so fell in love with them that he started making them himself. So there are all these Tony Curtis versions of Cornells out there in the world.

JP: Well, they used to be for sale in New York. One time way back in the nineties in one of those things where they have artists select another artist to show with I selected Tony Curtis.

RP: That’s kind of how I got my start with Pruitt/Early. Colin de Land was doing one of those shows and we got selected by Mark Dion. This was ’89. It was beer art. I was pretty naive. In all honesty I had been out of art school for like three or four years and I should have known better, but we were walking into Colin de Land and he wanted to make a studio visit and we said sure not even knowing of the existence of Cady Noland. The similarities are so obvious.

JP: But that’s okay. RP: I’m sort of glad we didn’t know because we wouldn’t have done it.

RP: I’m sure we met around that time. Because the scene around that time was Colin and Pat Hearn and that was your home, right?

JP: Pat more so. I wasn’t part of American Fine Arts, Co. until I got the show at Pat’s. It was very hard to get Colin to see the show at Simon Watson even though it was five blocks away. He finally came. To me, he was elusive.

RP: I remember Karen Kilimnik and I were like 13-year-old girls together and we both had the hugest crush on Colin and we would write love notes and stick them under the windshield wiper of his truck. I’m not even sure if I signed them.

JP: In 1990 I was just trying to get in, get on the walls of a gallery somehow. Make something that I hadn’t seen before and that’s why the photography was kind of the thing that clicked first because I was making paintings that were what I thought people wanted to see at that time. They were these tiny little monochrome paintings, before the blue encaustics, made on vellum paper that I would then stretch as though it were canvas. I was making them in the studio, and I was diligent. I made them in a series and they had vaguely to do with the body and decadence. Then I finally did these photographs and I showed them to Simon Watson as an afterthought. They were just this idea to do snapshots big, and he really responded to those immediately, so I had a show two months later. In 1990 nobody had seen snapshots done big because we were coming out of the eighties when photography was this thing that seduced you along the lines of painting.

RP: All of that commodity work was not casual. JP: Right, so I was coming out of this thing that was very much about the frame and how big it was and how expensive it looked and I just did this tossed off thing. I took 50 pictures to an hour photo store and had them made into posters for $10 a piece. They came back kind of crappy but with a style. It looked intentional and unified somehow.


JP: I collect but I don’t have the completist collector’s mentality.

RP: I’m not a collector. What I am is a consumer. I tell myself that I need to consume these things for inspiration and for fuel, but I don’t want to keep them. That’s why I have this eBay store and why I started these flea markets years ago. I need to devour the stuff, I need to consume it, then I need to get rid of it. But it’s not enough for me to see it or take a picture; I have to take it home and sleep with it in my bed to suck the energy out of it. I’m from a pretty poor family and my mom had hippie tendencies so even before it was fashionable—you know when Molly Ringwald made a prom dress from thrift shop finds in Pretty in Pink—my mom was taking us to thrift shops in the seventies. It was our world but that sort of developed my love for that sort of thing, like a junior cultural anthropologist.

JP: At that time, I did think being an artist was a good gig, because I’d get other people to store my memories, with the photography and the installations I was making. I could offload my stuff to real collectors and museums. I was a 16-year-old flea marketeer. My mother had an antiques store part time in Manomet, Massachusetts, and I learned to buy things and resell them. I went to the flea markets on Saturday and Sunday and brought stuff and sold it. I learned early to ask for good prices and in my mind that was always my fallback job. I could always be a picker. I didn’t even know what a picker was at that time but I could run around, not have a job and sell something that I made or found.

RP: That’s how I put myself through Parsons, too. I’d go to the Salvation Army and find midcentury modern furniture. There weren’t a lot of people doing that in ’81, but I knew what an Eames chair was and sometimes I would just buy them, leave them there, and tell a shop owner there were four chairs with my name on them and if he paid me he could go pick them up.

JP: Wow, that’s good. You didn’t even have to deal with delivery. That’s smart.

RP: I think that for the most part, if the truth be known, I feel like I’m always being categorized as being terribly cynical, but honestly I just do what I’m good at and what I’m comfortable with. What I aspire to be is a type of artist who is like an alchemist. Someone who can take a little scrap of trash and turn it three-quarters, add something else to it and make some gold. I don’t really care that much about virtuosity, like someone who is very masterful with oil paints and can render your portrait to blow you away. What I like is someone who can take a little piece of this and a little piece of that and you leave them alone for 10 minutes and they come back with something you can’t even believe. Just like arranging a circle of cardboard Evian boxes and a sheet of plastic and a water pump from the hardware store [Pruitt’s Evian Fountain] and in 20 minutes having something very romantic, memorable... You were describing those people putting things out on blankets and then a couple years after that you have this word piece that says “Like Paris In The Rain On Second Avenue.” Does that have to do with those things being sold on blankets or just your neighborhood?

JP: I think it was the neighborhood. I did spend a lot of time on 2nd Avenue and it was also talking about a relationship. I wanted it to seem like I had an interesting life or at least look like I had an interesting life. It’s hard because my work is very fan-based. I’m a fan more than I am prepared to be a star. Even those photographs early on, those snapshots, were like pictures I’d see in movie star biographies. For some reason I was drawn to the fact that, “This is the house where he lived” or “This is the hotel she died in.” I’m a person who makes those kinds of pilgrimages. In the same way you might want to own things, I’m interested in “This is the corner where that occurred.”

Jack Pierson’s GET REAL, 2016


RP: I was always worried people would find out I was just normal, that I didn’t have any eccentricities, that I didn’t listen to some music that nobody ever heard of. So much of it comes from me being this gay, suburban kid fearing I’m going to be found out. It’s a different world now.

JP: It kind of sticks. The kids in the suburbs are still getting bullied and are freaked out and feel bad in a way that I presumed was over. Now, gays are on TV and everyone is friends with someone gay, but it’s still there. RP: But there’s been progress. I hope it doesn’t slip away in the next four years. I used to always think that this is so fucked that I am making the prom decorations and making them fabulous but then I can’t really go as myself.

JP: Interesting, that didn’t ever occur to me in those terms. I knew I was going to take a girl. I always thought I was very apolitical and I think I was truly trying to create a narrative that seemed like a movie that I could be in and then it worked out somehow. A big touchstone for me was “In Cold Blood,” the book. So many of my ideas came out of that book. It talks about one of the killers making these physique collages. Even though he’s supposed to be straight, he was making these weird scrapbooks of bodybuilders. So I think I inhabited that narrative because it seemed to be this meta thing: I could identify with the serial killers and I could identify with Truman Capote somehow and the places they went were places like Miami or the Midwest—but that’s one place I haven’t been, the house where that murder occured. I did romanticize, which many gays do, the handsome serial killers.

RP: I always have thought of myself as a political artist, although not like an academic. I love Barbara Kruger and Hans Haacke, but what I’m interested in is soft politics or addressing environmentalism with 700 glitter paintings of panda bears, which for me are just about the health of the planet even though I’m probably the only one who views them that way. That first project with Pruitt/Early with stacks of beer cans containing these misogynistic and xenophobic messages. In my mind, these were the messages that culture manufactured to produce a male-dominated society. You could not find the girl version that would empower young women, and I just thought we needed to gather these things because they may one day evaporate. I was kind of influenced by the Becher typologies. It was so important for them to photograph industrial architecture, like water towers, across Europe and North America because one day they would be gone. I was even thinking soft politics back in my mid-20s—I don’t want to make a portrait of who I am, I want to make a portrait of the enemy. I want to make a portrait of the person who makes me cross the street when I’m walking home late at night because I’m afraid that they’re going to beat me up because they can tell that I’m gay. It’s not a direct political statement but I think in general those are the political statements I’m drawn to. When Obama was running the first time, I certainly read about his policies and what his agenda had been and what it would be if he were to become president. But honestly what was more important to me was interrupting this string of white male faces and him becoming the first black president. I thought, “This what I’ve been waiting my life for.”


RP: I maintain a practice where I like to juggle several projects at once, even if the public only ends up seeing one of them. I also like really long, time-based things. I’ve been buying these cheap art surrogates from Ikea for the past 10 years. It’s a digital print on canvas that costs $30 or $40 and in a way I’m teaching myself how to oil paint again, which I haven’t really done since college, by repainting over these cheap Ikea things. Sort of like Dr. Frankenstein bringing a monster back to life, I’m taking this thing that’s totally dead and infusing life into it. I still haven’t gotten it right, but I have millions of them and work on it every single day. I’ve shown a few with The Brant Foundation, and it made sense in that context because he’s a huge Warhol loyalist and my Marilyn paintings were so different from Warhol’s.

JP: I thought those were great. Didn’t you do a project with Maccarone?

RP: Yeah, I showed several there, but if you could see the mountain that exists. Those that don’t end up selling, and hardly any of them sell, I just take them back and continue painting on them. They start out flat as flat can be and now some of them are two inches thick.

JP: But isn’t that really cheap canvas? Can they support all that paint?

RP: Yeah, well, the part that I might not tell if you hadn’t brought that up is that I un-stretch it from the Ikea stretcher and place it on a stronger stretcher to the exact dimensions and restretch it so it has an architectural support.

JP: I’m not nearly as hardworking as you.

RP: That’s a compensation thing. I don’t really believe in my own abilities so I feel if I just work six times harder than everyone else, something has to stick.

JP: That’s interesting because I think mine’s a compensation thing. But I always see a sensibility in your work that it’s always like, “I did it” or “I feel it” or “Yes, of course.” Those gorgeous paintings you do from the doodling, I was super into the idea of doodling or automatic drawing at the same time.

RP: They’re from the little notebooks I doodle in when I’m sitting at my therapist. I make them into big paintings, my “Therapy Paintings.”

JP: I used to live in this narrative where I’m completely itinerant and I don’t want to have big things weighing me down, so mine are just drawings in notebooks and I don’t want to try too hard. I don’t think you try too hard.


JP: I think for me it seemed very dramatic and very exotic coming from the East Coast and also being on an ocean all my life. Something felt compelling because this was so different and extreme. I was going to L.A. and people would always say, “You should stay at the 29 Palms Inn. It’s cool. It’s nice.” I fell in love with Joshua Tree and that blew my mind that you could sort of live at the entrance of something like the Grand Canyon. And it was super cheap. The perfect storm moment came for me when I was between studios in 1999 and it was so god awful expensive in New York. Then I came here and just happened to inquire about real estate, and was like, “I can own a house with five acres for half a year’s studio rent in New York?” Why wouldn’t I? It was pure impulse.

RP: I think when I was younger, unlike normal people, I would not become susceptible to these milestones of life like turning 30 or 40. But when I saw 50 coming like five years ago I sort of practically thought it would be nice to make some changes and have some new experiences. Even all those years I stayed in New York, there’s nothing better than switching studios from one neighborhood to the next. I really love that phrase, “Go West, young man.” It sounds like it was from a Village People song, but it was earlier. Slogans have real legitimacy for me. From my experience here I’ve made Suicide Paintings and most of them look like desertscapes with blue at the top and earthy sandy colors at the bottom. Going back to that thing you were saying about people having that fascination with serial killers, I don’t know if I have that fascination, but sometimes with my art I feel like a serial killer. I get so wrapped up in what I’m doing, it’s like being manic. I’m not thinking about the consequences. I feel like that in the middle of the project and then when it’s being shown in the middle of the opening, I’m like, “What have I done? Now I’m caught.” I think when those guys are killing those people they’re not thinking about getting caught, it’s not even like they’re committing a crime. It’s more primal. But now I can leave all of those youthful projects behind and finally do what I was put here to do.

JP: What do mean by the “Suicide Paintings?”

RP: Like, why do I call them this very severe thing?

JP: Yeah.

RP: Well, my own mental health has been all over the place. Any anti-depressant you can name I’ve taken it. I’ve been in a really good place in the past eight years. I’ve had therapists since my 20s on and off, mostly on. I remember this time [Pruitt’s husband] Jonathan [Horowitz] and I lived in London. It was a dark period and I remember him pulling me off the edge of the building, but it wasn’t high enough so I probably would have only broken a leg.

JP: Right, it has to be 12 flights.

RP: Right, it’s a concept that’s not so foreign to me, but I wasn’t being so literal about it. It’s a theme I’ve seen in other people’s projects over the years. It was more about making an illusionary portal to another place. Even with these art openings we have with every project, it’s a celebration, but I sometimes fear them because it’s the worst situation for my social anxiety. Here I am in a room of my own making, everyone I know that might care about me arrives, and I feel horrible. My brain goes dead, I can’t remember anyone’s name.

JP: I don’t believe this because you’re incredibly social and everybody loves you.

RP: So in the Suicide Paintings, I’m very interested in escaping and exit doors and escape hatches. It’s pretty simple. They’re not complicated things. They’re like new possibilities. New frontiers.

Rob Pruitt’s The Obama Paintings, 2009-2017


RP: I think that everyone who is a professional image-maker probably has a similar impulse that this can be as bad as the eve of Hitler wreaking havoc, and if we see it, we need to say something. That doesn’t mean everyone has to, but I think everyone is experiencing that feeling and it will manifest itself differently for everyone. I always feel like I’m a showman in the Hollywood sense and part of that is understanding timing and understanding your audience. I happened to have something already that seemed more suited for the mood of New York City so it seemed very sensible to switch out my Obama Paintings for Official Art World/Celebrity Look-Alike [at the November 2016 show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise]. It made me feel better and that’s what I heard from people who spoke to me directly who had seen the show. It was a good place for them to come.

JP: And reflect.

JP: During that whole ramp up I was thinking about this phrase, Get Real, which is sort of everywhere but it seems very Massachusetts to me. Like, “Oh, Get Real!” It wasn’t like I set out to make that, but it just worked in some way. The word pieces come in two ways. One is that I have something that I think would be so cool to spell out, and then I have letters that look good together and what could I flesh out? I think Get Real was more like, okay, these colors look good together, so you’re gonna “Get” what? Get Real. The moment seemed good somehow to me for that. And since the work is getting less romantic and using more motivational slogans, I feel the ones lately are the best ones I’ve made like Don’t Complain or Get Real.

RP: I never really like to speak about other people's projects since I think its best to go to the source, so I may not be qualified to talk about The Daily Trumpet (@dailytrumpet), which is Jonathan Horowitz's Instagram project. But what attracted me to it, is that I feel that in face of the current administration and moving forward it's so important to abandon complacency and to pay very close attention to what the president and his cabinet are doing. And as artists, we need to speak up and speak out when we feel inclined to. I was happy to be the first artist, and I always thought the piece I created [ready for the shit show?, a video of Pruitt unspooling a roll of toilet paper with a photo of the President's face on each ply] is perhaps not a terribly potent message in that it doesn't address any particular position or policy, but in terms of theater, it does set a tone for what's to come symbolically and address it with humor. One thing that I love about Jonathan's projects is that they organize the community of voices and since it's daily it will maneuver the events as they are encountered.


RP: The flea market will be different here and I hope people will like it. Part of what I love about having made the desert my other home over the past three years is these crazy people who I just run into and meet who have little junk shops.

RP: All these people have made it to the desert to reinvent themselves in a way, and they’re all like aesthetic geniuses. Some have fancy boutiques while others have junk shops that will only be open a couple days a month. I like how these shops tell the story of the desert because they drive around in their trucks and find the stuff of this location, then they bring it back to their location and create these accidental narratives with all these objects. So this will be the first flea market that isn’t run by artists.

JP: You’re going to have locals participate in it?

RP: Only locals.

JP: And they agreed? How incredible!

RP: It’s like six people with little junk shops in the lobby of the museum. No artists, not even me. But I think it’s going to be great because the ground floor of the museum is where they have all the regional desertscape paintings from the last 100 years and this is just another version of that regional documentation.

JP: And I’m doing Aspen Art Museum, which is work from 1990 to 1995. It’s basically work from five shows: the Simon Watson show, Pat Hearn show, a Tom Cugliani show and two Luhring Augustine shows. Those were the first five shows in New York. It traces from photography back to painting, these digitally sprayed canvases.

RP: Early jet prints on canvas.

JP: When the technology was less advanced, you had all these textures and layers, like a pixelation. You can’t even get them to be that bad anymore but at the time it was state of the art.

RP: One of the works from that period I just love so much was at Paula Cooper and it was a cardboard box full of porno magazines.

JP: Oh, yeah, that was a really good one.

RP: Does that have a title?

JP: Old Friends.

RP: Yeah. I just loved that so much because it was shown in the context of Paula Cooper so it brought to light these minimalists and this is a box shape, too, but it’s a box of all this content.

JP: That was one of my favorite pieces ever and it was a result of this AIDS auction for ACT UP. That was my box of porn that I’d kept in the closet and I just thought, “Paula Cooper? Why not this?” I’ve always been one of those “Now, that’s art” people. And I thought, “Now that can be art” in the context of Paula Cooper. Here’s another case of, “Oh, I can get rid of this.” In a certain sense, it was already very edited. I don’t want to have more than one box of porno, but this was the good stuff.

RP: Besides making art, I’ve spent my life looking at art and that’s on my short list of 20 things that have just taken my breath away.

JP: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much.

RP: When we made a show during that period the show was kind of an artwork. There were maybe 10 discrete objects and the show itself was an installation. A lot of us at that time were thinking about these things as environments.

JP: It was also capitalizing on the space. A box of porn is just a box of porn until it’s on the floor of Paula Cooper Gallery.

RP: I think that for eight years we were so comfortable and complacent because we thought somebody wise was at the helm of the ship, and we could be in our studios and not read The New York Times every single day because he was taking care of it. But now we need to read The New York Times every day and not be complacent. Art is not separate. Maybe the Zombie Formalism of the past four years could only have occurred in Obama’s second term because we thought that life was good and everything was being taken care of. It certainly wouldn’t start right now at a time of crisis.

JP: The weird thing to me is in the last year or so, I’ve been fantasizing about having another fantasy of traveling around and taking pictures of America because I still romanticize the small town and the West and simple people. But now it just seems like, “Uck, no fucking way,” I’ll just stay in New York and California. But yesterday we went way out and I did have that sensation where I’m like, “Forget that, I’m doing it.”

RP: You can’t really decide, “What am I going to do now that Trump is going to be president?” You have to live life.