Rob Pruitt: Hail to the Chief

Maxwell Williams

In May, beloved New York-based artist Rob Pruitt will open major exhibitions at the  Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit  and the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, Connecticut. At the former, The Obama Paintings features over 2,000 paintings of President Barack Obama unfailingly completing daily tasks since his January 2009 inauguration, as well as a sculpture of copper-painted truck tires filled with over 200,000 Lincoln pennies.

The exhibit at the Brant Foundation is unconventional as well with Pruitt using the Brant family as inspiration in the survey’s design—alongside a recognizable series such as his panda paintings, Pruitt will hold a garage sale of the Brant family’s sundry items, for instance. Here, Pruitt shares some details about the two shows, his eBay auctions and what he considers his own favorite exhibition.

It seems that between The Obama Paintings, your eBay flea market and your “Art World/Celebrity Look-Alikes” series on Instagram, you have a daily to-do list. Is ritual important to you? It feels good to have ongoing projects that I am committed to maintaining. It makes art-making more like gardening or working out at the gym—the ‘slow burn’ approach. Also, the uncertainty regarding how something will develop over a long period of time is very exciting since when I set forth to make a painting, it generally takes me no longer than a week.


Puitt’s The Obama Paintings at MOCAD, a series the artist has worked on since Obama took office in 2009.

Detroit is an interesting place because it is where American industrialism begins and ends. Does Detroit represent, for you, a particularly important place for discussion about the American presidency in any way? Detroit is the American city at this moment in time. It was the symbolic pillar of American industry, it collapsed and now it’s finding a new way for itself. Those changes have caused a lot of suffering and grief for the city and its people, but I think Detroit is also regarded for its resolve, and I believe there can be beauty in a second act. Beyond that, I think it’s crucial that Detroit stays in the greater American consciousness and that its stories continue to be told. It’s not just some place ‘over there’ that ‘once was.’

Can you talk about the process of making The Obama Paintings? After a morning review of Google image search results, the most interesting from the previous day’s news cycle is selected and turned into a transparency for projecting. There are a lot of liberties taken at this stage with the composition—cropping, simplification—and it takes around 15 to 30 minutes to paint it.


Installation detail from The Obama Paintings. Courtesy of the artist, Gavin Brown enterprise, and MOCAD.

Do you think that Obama will visit the show? Does it mean anything to you to know that Obama will likely, at the very least, know who you are? I haven’t thought about that. Throughout my art-making career, there are really just a handful of people that I think about seeing the things that I make and it’s usually just some very old friends or comrades in art. However, in the past year, I made a piece about Pharrell, and I was really hoping that he would see it and contact me. He Instagrammed that he liked it, but that was it. And that left me feeling a bit empty.

Both pieces at MOCAD are portraits of American presidents. Is there a particular correlation between Lincoln and Obama that you are interested in? There are many obvious connections between the two, but there was never a single correlation between them that motivated this project. In fact, I tried not to think about any at all. I grew up in Washington, D.C., where monuments to the legacies of American presidents loom large. So I’m very aware of the impression my environment left on me during those years, and have carried that with me. But, lately I’ve been more interested in how to create monuments that aren’t so obvious or conventional. The Lincoln Monument was inspired by how a single penny in your pocket, however small and overlooked, is still a monument to Lincoln. The larger monument is comprised of all those individual pennies, not unlike how an individual portrait of Obama does not necessarily have the grandiose quality of the complete project.


Installation view of Pruitt’s “An American Folk Artist”, Aspen Art Museum in 2013. Photo by Jason Dewey.

You also have a survey opening at the Brant Foundation. Your previous survey was at the Aspen Art Museum in 2013. What were the different approaches to the show? The show in Greenwich at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center has a lot to do with the Brant family and their love for art, and Peter and Stephanie’s passion for collecting and connoisseurship. The kids have grown up around this collecting and this passion, and I’ve tried to weave the family into the exhibition in a very natural way. I’ve created heart-shaped canvases that have different patterns and icons (one for each family member) to hang next to their favorite work in the show, similar to how one ‘likes’ an image on Instagram. It’s just one way some of the personality of the family seeps into the exhibition. Additionally, the exhibition will also include a fundraising garage sale of the Brant family’s belongings.

You’ve been doing Rob Pruitt’s Flea Market in different iterations since 1999. It brings up a lot of questions about kitsch, readymade, what is art and how do you sell art on the Internet. In your own words, how do you view the objects in the flea market? It’s a performance and therefore I consider it all one thing, but each sale is a thing unto itself as well. It may or may not be kitsch—I haven’t really deconstructed it in my mind that way. For me, it’s just myself moving toward a simpler, less cluttered life, and it’s important to me to remove one thing from my apartment every day that I had previously been compelled by, and then set it free.

Rob Pruitt's Untitled, 2013

Rob Pruitt’s Untitled, 2013. This painting is part of his best-known series and will be in a show at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center, opening May 10.

Does it surprise you what items sell at what prices, and what items don’t? I, along with those at the studio who help me maintain the eBay stores, of course want the store to be a success because it feels good at the end of the year to have a large sum of money to give to a charity. For that reason, we’re always trying to figure out what is the best way to describe and promote something so that it reaches its peak price, but I have to say it’s difficult to predict what will do well, except that the more ‘art-like’ something seems, and less utilitarian, the more likely it is to sell for a higher price.

What is a touchstone of your career that you, personally, love to re-visit? I really enjoyed the haunted house [Surreal Estate, 2003] that I made with Jonathan Horowitz in the Catskills right after 9/11. It was the perfect blend of public sculpture and art about one’s private life, as well as an exercise in design and social interaction.

When you are finished with The Obama Paintings after Obama leaves office, will you turn your attention to something new? I’m sure that I will, but I’m not going to tell you! Things have to just develop privately and slowly. If I announce something before it’s done, that tends to kill it. I will say there are some more monuments I would like to make. I had a friendship with Malcolm McLaren, and I feel like he deserves a monument in London on Kings Road.