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 Rob Pruitt  (1964 - )

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: installation sculpture-conceptual, panda painting

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Ad Code: 3
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Chinese Buffet, 2011
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following is from the New York Times, June 17, 2001:

Rob Pruitt: Back in the Arms of the Art World
By MIA FINEMAN

ROB PRUITT just wants people to like him again.  A rising star in the early 1990's, Mr. Pruitt was on everybody's A list until a politically controversial exhibition brought his career to a halt.  Now, nearly a decade later, his appealing blend of pop art and light-hearted conceptualism is winning back hearts in the art world.

Mr. Pruitt, who is 36, is tall and lanky and usually has a few days' worth of dark stubble on his chin.  He is soft-spoken and sincere, though there is also a hint of sly, Warholesque deadpan in his manner.  A native of Washington, he now works in a small studio above a discount fabric store on a busy street in Manhattan's Chinatown.

While still in art school at the Corcoran Institute in Washington, Mr. Pruitt met Jack Early, and in 1991 they had their first joint exhibition, "Artworks for Teenage Boys," at 303 Gallery, then in SoHo.  A provocative investigation of young men's testosterone-fueled fantasies of pinup girls, fast cars and heavy metal music, the show earned the two artists reputations as insouciant bad boys who courted controversy and reveled in bad taste.

The installation featured a full-size Camaro made of plywood with a Playboy bunny decal plastered on one side. There were crates of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer with decals bearing slogans like "Stacked" and "No Wimps."  When critics accused the artists of sexism, they responded with another installation,  "Artworks for Teenage Girls," featuring pillows emblazoned with the kind of phrases only bad girls would utter.

Leo Castelli, the renowned dealer and champion of Pop Art, noticed their work and offered them a show at his SoHo gallery the following year.  This time the artists turned their attention to popular representations of black culture.  For the installation, "Red, Black, Green, Red, White and Blue," they covered the walls in shiny gold foil and splattered them with paint.  Commercial posters of prominent African-Americans, including Michael Jackson, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and 2 Live Crew, were shrink-wrapped and mounted on obelisks. There was a blaring soundtrack that featured Mr. Pruitt and Mr. Early singing their own rap song.

The public reception was scathing.  Critics denounced the show as "cynical" and "degrading."  The artists, who are both white, were accused of racism. There were protests outside the gallery.

Looking back, Mr. Pruitt believes the show was provocative but poorly timed. "We wanted to point out the commodification of black heroes by predominantly white-owned companies, but we didn't realize what a land mine it was," he said.  "At the time, the art world was very sensitive to identity issues and political correctness, but you could only be an authority if you were talking about who you were and where you came from."

Mr. Pruitt's current dealer, Gavin Brown, agrees. "At that time, two Southern white boys making a show about black culture seemed like a big mistake," he said. "Looking back now, it was a genius show, but at the time I thought they were fools and that they deserved everything they got. It was just embarrassing. I was embarrassed for them and embarrassed for the art world."

After the show, support for their work vanished.  They were dropped from the 303 Gallery's roster, and exhibitions at other venues were canceled.  Their partnership, which had been romantic as well as artistic, soon disintegrated. When Mr. Pruitt tried to find a gallery to represent his own work, he was politely turned away. "You've ruined the market value of your name," one dealer told him.

Shut out of the art world, Mr. Pruitt drifted through a series of odd jobs.  He sold dresses at the Anna Sui boutique in SoHo; he sorted through donations at a Housing Works thrift shop; he developed ideas for do-it-yourself crafts projects at Martha Stewart's Living magazine.

After a few years, he managed to place a few pieces in small-scale group shows, but the tone of his art had changed: his bad-boy swagger gave way to a coy humility.  In 1997, in the basement of the 303 Gallery, he installed a live mouse on a wheel that spun a strip of paper inscribed with the words "You must love me."  On the walls, he painted the names of people who had shunned him upside-down and backward in glow-in-the-dark paint.  Mr. Pruitt, who has an interest in witchcraft, thought of the piece as a magic spell, "not to harm them, just to make them like me again."

It worked.  The following year he began showing his work at Gavin Brown's Enterprise in Chelsea, and eventually joined the gallery's roster.  His first installation there was a room-size fountain filled with bottled water and encircled by glitter-encrusted Evian cartons. "I was thinking about the idea of baptism, of washing away one's sins," he said.

Around the same time, he caused a minor sensation with a piece titled "Cocaine Buffet," a 16-foot-long mirror on the floor with a line of white powder running down the middle.  The cocaine was real and visitors were welcome to partake. "For about 15 minutes afterward, people thought it was the best art they had ever seen in their lives," Mr. Pruitt said. "Of course, an hour later, they probably didn't like it as much." A wry meditation on greed and glamour in the art world, the piece also served as a personal vindication. "It was kind of satisfying to see all those people who had treated me badly down on their knees," he admitted.

The following year, he had the further satisfaction of installing his first solo show since the disaster at Castelli.  In "101 Art Ideas You Can Do Yourself," which opened at Gavin Brown in 1999, Mr. Pruitt added a dash of humor and Martha Stewart practicality to the traditionally austere genre of language- based conceptual art.

The 101 ideas were presented in the form of a recipe book, and ranged from the sweetly simple ("No. 21: Pour a glass of water and look at it") to the labor-intensive ("No. 52: Using chalk, name all of the bricks that make up a wall").  Mr. Pruitt realized 35 of the ideas for the show, including "No. 95: Arrange flowers in unexpected combinations," which consisted of two glass vases, one containing cattails and dogwood, the other baby's breath and spring onions.  The exhibition will be on view again this fall at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.

Recently Mr. Pruitt has been exhibiting large, sparkly paintings of pandas and has adopted this cuddly, politically correct bear as his new personal logo. "I see it as a kind of corporate damage control like trying to market Perrier after they found benzene in it, or Firestone tires after they exploded," he said. "I was a reviled figure, but everybody loves a panda. They're the stars of every zoo they're in."

On Friday and Saturday, Mr. Pruitt will be the host of a flea market at Gavin Brown, which he has conceived as an alternative to the sprawling group shows that most galleries schedule at the end of the art season.  At a similar event he organized last year, Mr. Pruitt sold off his collection of Campbell's soup paraphernalia, which included coffee mugs, can openers, posters and cans of soup signed by Andy Warhol.  The vendors this year will include other artists, dealers and fashion designers. "I wanted to introduce the bartering environment of a Middle Eastern market into the sterile, white- cube space of the gallery," Mr. Pruitt said. "And besides, who doesn't love a flea market?"

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