Interview by Brian Appel
BRIAN APPEL: Hope you had a chance to read my review of your last show at Barbara Gladstone.
RICHARD PRINCE: Yes I did. Who are you? Do you write like this a lot? I’m amazed by your text on the auctions. Anyway, I thought it was pretty good.
BA: I think it was about 10 days ago or so that I saw you talking with Barbara Gladstone and a collector at the group show presently up at Barbara’s Gallery. I was with my daughter Li. She was enjoying John Dogg’s “The Final Curtain”.
RP: Hey, I remember you – especially your little girl. She was so great and seemed to be having so much fun running through the Dogg curtain.
BA: One of the highlights of the summer for me was having the pleasure of seeing two of your controversial re-photography pieces from 1983 turning up in two excellent survey shows; the subversively seductive “Untitled (Girlfriend on Motorbike)” a 44 by 64 inch Ektacolor print of a scrawny nude biker girl awkwardly splayed out on top of a Harley Davidson motorcycle in the Kristine Bell curated “GIRLS ON FILM” exhibit at Zwirner & Wirth, and the notorious “Spiritual America”, a 24 by 20 inch Ektacolor print (after an original by Garry Gross) of a prepubescent Brooke Shields emerging nude from a steamy bathtub in the Donna De Salvo curated “Landscape” exhibit from the permanent collection at The Whitney Museum of American Art. What struck me most was how these two images can still shock, even after twenty-two years, by revealing how the individual female body (one anonymous and one famous) is able to operate as a public site for the perpetuation of depraved notions of male supremacy and control. It also drove home how the highly mimetic medium of photography is so beautifully suited to make transparent the corruption that is possible for the fetishization and commodification of representations of women. It’s all part of the machinery of America.
RP: “The machinery of America”. That’s a pretty good way of describing the way images get out there. I like to think about making it again instead of making it new. Making it new was an Ezra Pound way of thinking (industrial), and “making it again” is a more R. Prince way of doing it (technological). Advertising images aren’t really associated with an author – more with a product/company and for the most part put out or “art directed”. They kind of end up having a life of their own. It’s not like you’re taking them from anyone. Pages in a magazine are more often thought of as “collage”. When I re-photographed these pages they became “real” photographs. They “looked” like real photographs. They looked like real photographs because they were real photographs. Tearing a page out of a magazine and pasting it up on a board would have been a collage. Re-photographing a page out of a magazine was something else entirely. That “something else” was and is good revolution.
BA: Your isolation of the tokens of masculinity in Madison Avenue’s longest-running fiction, the ridin’, ropin’ Marlboro man are generally thought to be the images that made your name in the art world. When and how did it first dawn on you that these ubiquitous images could be re-used by removing the text, cropping, enlarging and placed in a different context? When you see these images now in survey shows or being referred to in articles on the postmodern critique of commodity culture how do you relate to them?
RP: I first started “seeing” the Marlboro advertisement in 1980 while I was working at Time/Life magazine. 1980 was the first year they started using other models for the “cowboy” and not the one that had become so famous for the campaign. I thought these new models were more generic and less identifiable and could make it seem like after the logo and copy were cropped out that the re-photographed image could be more my own. Like I could get away with telling someone I actually did it. There was very little in the image that could hook it up with its original content. For awhile I never spoke or continued to deny that the “cowboy” images were from the Marlboro campaign. I’ve never thought about the commodification subtext in these works. It’s never been an issue for me. These images came out every week, a different one, and it almost seemed like they were being made by me. Every week I would “claim one. I was working with about eight magazines at Time/Life and they all had these “cowboy” images in them. It’s always been exciting to me to open up a brand new magazine.
BA: From your perspective today, how do you see the timing of these images and their relationship to the B-movie cowboy president who was in office at that time? For that matter, how about the cowboy who’s in office today?
RP: The definition of politics is the infinite number of relationships between men and women. That being said, I don’t really think much about who is the president of this or any other country. If you can tell me who the French president was when Gauguin was making his beautiful paintings in Tahiti… well, I might have to skip supper. Paintings, movies, dance, literature… comes and comes. Politicians come and go.
BA: At the very beginning of your career, it wasn’t the content of your subject matter as much as your method of “stealing” commercial images reproduced in magazines that outraged both critics and artists. Now the chance to own one of these early images of severely cropped, stiffly posed models of both sexes is not only rare, but the question is when will the next opportunity be? How has time played into your bad-boy image as an artist who would simply crop them, enlarge them and call the work yours?
RP: I’ve just completed a “taking” project after thinking about it and trying different ways of presenting it, after “taking” my first photographs in 1977. The works are called “American/English” and it’s both editions of a published book. The American edition and the English edition of say “Lolita” are placed side by side on a specially made pedestal. It’s a piece of sculpture. There’s nothing done to the books except that I buy or find them and put them on ‘display’. Recent ‘editions’ include “The Dharma Bums” by Kerouac, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Joan Didion, “American Psycho” by Brett Easton Ellis. I first photographed these books and put them in a book three years ago. The publication was called “American/English” and came out of London.
BA: Today I saw one of MoMA’s latest acquisitions — Robert Rauschenberg’s “Rebus” from 1955. I thought, wow, this painting (including samples of paint chips from the hardware, pencil doodles, photographs cut and pasted from newspapers, pieces of fabric, and drips of paint) was really the harbinger of American postmodern painting. I was thinking how fabulous any one of your “Check Paintings” (the ones you showed at Gagosian’s Beverly Hills space) would have looked opposite that ’55 masterwork. Cannot wait to see where your paintings are headed, Richard.
RP: Yea. I’m looking forward to seeing that Rauschenberg. His “Combines” are amazing. He was so connected to what was going on in the culture. He practically invented the beatniks (at least what they painted). I’ve had a chance to meet him several times but somehow have passed. I’m not sure if it’s prudent to meet the people you would most like to meet.
BA: The demystification of the celebrity…
RP: Paris Hilton defines the idea of celebrity. At least that’s what I hear. And what I hear, famous for being famous is as good as any definition. Okay, so she gets on the covers of magazines and gets into restaurants without a reservation and doesn’t know what a velvet rope is, and gets to experience all things VIP. She might have more things going on, I’m sure she does. Maybe she reads Joan Didion, maybe she plays the piano, maybe does the occasional watercolor, maybe she writes in a diary. I don’t know. I don’t know her, I’ve never met her but a lot of people out there “Know about her”. It’s kind of like when something gets popular you check it out. “Checking it out” makes things more popular. It’s interesting how popularity defines something. There’s agreement, there’s consensus. Number one – the top ten. (I’m kind of blabbering on here). But I’m more of a “third place” guy – the least likely to succeed? Most things popular aren’t very interesting. Once something becomes popular it takes a bit of the edge out of it. When everybody knows about it, do I need to?
BA: Speaking of number one – your “Untitled (Cowboy)” from 2001 that sold at Christie’s this last May re-set your world auction record for a photograph at $2.8 million.
RP: For me, money means I can buy extra canvas at the art supply store or I can buy jars of colors I wouldn’t normally use if I didn’t have the money. It means I can experiment more and spend more time in my studio. It means I can fund my projects myself and not wait for a “green light”. It means I can take my time or buy a better frame. It means I can collect other artist’s works and get on a plane and not have to sit in the middle between two large people with leaking walkman on their heads. It affords convenience. It makes things smoother. But I still think no matter how much money you have you should be able to make a work of art with twenty-five cents meaning, with something as simple as a piece of paper and a number two pencil.
I spent a great deal of time living on East 12th Street and Avenue A in a railroad apartment paying seventy-five dollars a month on rent and working a graveyard shift at Time/Life. I did that for ten years. I could make twelve dollars last for twelve days. I would meet women who would have great apartments and move in with them. The art materials I used were free, (magazines). Friends would give me rolls of 35mm film. If I couldn’t afford to blow up a picture I could always just look at the slide. It didn’t cost anything to stand around naked.
BA: Richard, I’ve always loved the fact that your photographic editions were so small. The cowboy image from the 16th of May was from an edition of two. Traditionally, fine art photographers think nothing of going back to their negatives ten, twenty, thirty or even forty years after the original exposures are made and use photographic materials that are completely removed from the original technological conditions from which the initial images were created – in effect producing pictures that are divorced from their time frame. Lee Friedlander for example, who has recently enjoyed a one-man retrospective at MoMA, has, since 1994, produced several dozen copies (58) of one of his most ‘important’ images from his “Self-Portrait” series entitled “N.Y.C. (Shadow on Fur Collar)”, of 1966. This is, of course, not including all the ‘printed later’ versions he did in the 70s and 80s where records of prints produced are more difficult to ascertain.
When I look at your photo based artworks I always know that the image I am looking at is a print done in close proximity to the original exposure. Your ‘copy’ of someone else’s ‘original’ is in effect ‘authentically vintage’, quite ironic given the fact that your image started out as a ‘copy’ of someone else’s work.
RP: This was a choice I made back in 1980. I was treating the photograph as an object. Always thinking about the way it was presented. The framing was important. I always wanted to present it so it looked like a ‘regular’ photograph – nothing fancy or creative. Normality is the next ‘special effect’.
Anyway, a lot of photographers made huge editions or “open ended” editions that seemed to make their photos almost into ‘posters’. I thought by making my photo into an edition of two it would still be a multiple – it would still be within the norms of what a photograph was supposed to be; i.e.: more than one, but it would make it more like other art works which are usually unique. “Almost unique”, but not quite. I think this choice was fairly radical at the time, especially in the “Photo World” (not that I got any attention from the photo world – I still don’t). It was the perfect number to edition my photos. You’ve got one, I’ve got one.
BA: I’m always cautious when I look at a fine art photographic print – trying to decipher whether it’s a ‘vintage’ or ‘printed later’ print. But with your work, the prints are always locked into the act of the original exposure and carry with them the appropriate color aging and patina of prints made at the time of their creation.
You’ve chosen to put forth a naïve posture in regards to your skills involved with the photographic process – feigning you are an ‘amateur’ photographer as opposed to being a ‘professional’ or a ‘fine art’ photographer. I wonder if this is really a smoke screen (see Prince’s “Practicing Without a License” of 1977) given the fact that your photographic based pieces have been bringing in six and more recently seven figures at auction as opposed to being available to any enthusiast, as in the case with Friedlander where an “open edition” modern print from a 1970s image is available for under $5,000? Was this a strategy employed earlier on to provide collectors and critics with the clear signal that you were not the ‘typical’ fine art photographer but, in fact, an artist who chose to use the camera because it best suited your needs and interests at the time? Was this pre-meditated spin implemented to keep you out of what Joshua Holdeman, the world-wide head of Photography at Christie’s has referred to as “the ghetto of photography”?
RP: There wasn’t really a plan. I’ve never been included in any photography based survey, museum show, photo magazine. I’ve heard Peter Galassi hates my work. That he would never acknowledge it in the photo department at MoMA. I think he’s wrong. I think my photo work is all about photography. But there was never an idea about where the work was going in the beginning when I started to re-photograph images. When you don’t have any training in a particular medium you can bring something to it that hasn’t been brung. I “brung” the sheriff and I shot him. I killed photography. Maybe they hated that. I always look for my name in Photography mags but I never see it. Maybe I should have “rescued” photography.
BA: In 1986, after almost ten years of working within the photographic appropriation/re-photography mode you picked up the paint brush and began working through the vehicle of the “joke” paintings. You have been quoted as saying that you needed subject matter to paint and the 50s style, middle American humor provided you with a rich reservoir through which to confront issues of sexual identity, fantasy and frustration. I’m wondering if the fact that photographic appropriation was actually becoming widespread made you decide to switch gears? What were the underpinnings for this shift?
RP: The jokes were a mistake. The jokes were wrong. I was living in Venice Beach in Los Angeles in a bedroom on a non-descript cookie-cutter housing project. I had left N.Y.C. – personal crisis – girlfriend trouble, and needed to get away to beach boy country. It was 1985. I’d left Time/Life after working there for ten years. I started to look at other magazines now that I was out of the building. I started looking at the cartoons that appeared in certain mags and thinking they would be something I could draw. I’d always loved making drawing and I never knew what to draw. I started to collect these cartoons and got some 160 lb. hot-press darche paper and a #6 pencil (it’s best to know your materials before you make art). So I started to re-draw my favorite cartoons. Whitney Darrow had a style that I liked. He drew cartoons mostly for the “New Yorker”. But some would show up in “Playboy” and “The New York Review of Books” (Darrow it turned out was an early roommate of Jackson Pollock). Anyway, after I re-drew these cartoons I started to call them “jokes”. I’ve always liked to title my work ‘correctly’. The description should be accurate. It should take some of the speculation and subjectiveness out of the interpretation. I realized the cartoon drawings were not “jokes”. They were cartoons. It occurred to me that if I was to call them “jokes” then I would need to get rid of the illustration and concentrate on the punch line. So that’s what I did. I started to think about the ‘text’ underneath the cartoon. I started to hand-write the words that were typed below the cartoon. They weren’t funny or ‘telling’ when separated from their original source. I bought some “joke” magazines and found the “Psychiatrist’s joke the first day of looking (I went to a psychiatrist, I told him everything. And now he’s doing my act). That’s the way it went.
At first I didn’t really understand the joke but I thought it had something to do with ‘substitution’. It was perfect. Abstract. And by hand/writing it out on a small piece of paper with a pen was a pretty good way of “making it again”. It didn’t cost anything to do it and it didn’t really look like anything – at least anything that I could think of.
BA: What were the initial responses?
RP: When I showed people that this is what my art looked like they reacted with disbelief. “I don’t believe you” was their ‘take’. Great I figured. I had truly made it ‘wrong’. The hand-written jokes, which were introduced in 1986 I think, were some of the best work that has ever been done in the history of art. The horn is blowing? I don’t think so.
BA: How did the silkscreen get incorporated into these works?
RP: I started to think how I could present the joke in a bigger way. It was 1987. I thought instead of “Disneyland” techniques. I would simply use ‘conservative’ materials – canvas, stretcher bars, paint and silkscreen. I had no expertise with silkscreen and I thought it was a medium that was pretty much taken care of. I started to silkscreen jokes with black paint onto white canvas. I chose a modest size canvas – 48 x 56 inches. Within about six months I got rid of these beginnings and started to do the jokes in “colors”. I thought the color would be a substitution for an image. The background would be one color and the joke would be another. I picked jokes that were ‘meaningful’ to me. I don’t know how to explain that except that the jokes’ ‘content’ was something that I could identify with. These “jokes” were later identified as the “monochromatic joke paintings”. I fell into them. I was walking around in a dark room looking for the light switch. I was moving by wading more than swimming. I was mowing the lawn. No direction home. I was caught in a landslide. My headaches were gone. I started painting with my fly open. I stopped crying. I started to laugh. Rock bottom sometimes isn’t the bottom. Barnett Newman, William De Kooning, Clifford Still – look out.
BA: I think the failure of Pollock’s Ab-Ex works and the success of Warhol’s ‘all-about-the-image’ paintings (at the Sotheby’s evening contemporary art sale on the 15th of May, 2007) is an indication of much more than just higher numbers at the rostrum. David Mugrabi (America’s largest private collector of Warhol with 800-some paintings) was just telling me that there is no reason that Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko should be trading at these high levels and not Warhol. He feels the Ab-Ex painters did not even have their own style – they just expanded a bit on what had been going on in Europe. David believes Pop was the first real American movement that was truly developed in the U.S.A. (minus Hamilton in the U.K.) – it was not a stem off something else. All the market needed was one large scale GREAT painting. It seems that the rule is changing as the new, younger buyer is looking more for ‘content’ that reflects their own generation. Representational art has returned bigger than ever and the role of the camera cannot be under-estimated in this shift in paradigm.
RP: Yeah, I pretty much agree with that point of view. Image has always been key. Abstract is a bit boring, unless it’s a Pollock or Gorky or a de Kooning. It becomes fabric and pattern after awhile – even decorative. Those who can’t paint… paint abstract – those who can, paint representational. Stella’s Black Paintings are an exception and Larry Poons. Even with Judd’s sculptures you have to realize they have a huge debt to furniture designers like Prouve (even if he didn’t know it). I also think there’s this idea of the “complete” artist out there… like Picasso, Richter, Manzoni, Carlo Molino, Warhol, Richard prince… artists who work in multiple mediums and excel at them… did I say Prince?
BA: Publicity stills whet our appetite for moving images yet unseen or prolong our pleasure after the act of seeing. They can also be looked upon as intimate products manufactured by men and women who consciously participate in their own exploitation. Your hip, irreverent send-up of show business celebrities in your continuing series “Untitled (Publicity Stills)” also turn celebrities into objects to be consumed. Can you talk about your process of arranging, classifying and manipulating these images and how these pieces allow the viewer to ‘master’ the world of celebrity?
RP: I’ve always collected 8x10 publicity pictures of celebrities, movie stars, T.V. and music personalities. I’ve always liked the way they present themselves – hair and make-up, three-quarter shot, the head-shot – secure looking. A sophisticated year-book picture. I like where you find them too. Sometimes up on the wall of a barber shoppe or back of the counter of a deli – the hall of fame wall in a niteclub. Before the person is famous it’s a give-away. The picture is given away. After the person is famous you pay anywhere between ten and two hundred dollars. Most of the time this buy-in picture is signed or additionally inscribed by the celebrity. You can get “signed” publicities at memorabilia stores or on-line “collectible” sites. You can go to conventions where you stand in line and wait for the celebrity to sign one of their pictures (kind of like a book signing). My favorite convention is GlamorCon. This is put on by Playboy. Centerfolds both contemporary and from years past are sitting behind desks signing away for fans like myself. These conventions usually take place at the Sheraton or Hilton or a Holiday Inn out by the airport of a major city. The last one I went to was in Chicago. I just stayed at the airport. The nice thing about standing in line is you get an “in person” signature. You can ask the celebrity to personalize the picture to you. There are lots of auctions now that deal with hard to find publicity pictures. Pixs by Dylan and the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and Lenny Bruce and Marlon Brando and James Dean are especially hard to find. I have an 8x10 of James Joyce signed by Joyce and Bernice Abbott, the photographer who took it that I especially like. Picking a publicity still is another way of letting someone else know you’re out there. Like all great art it’s way of sharing.
BA: Why would someone want to stand in line to have a ‘hooker’ who appeared as a Playboy centerfold autograph her picture?
RP: That’s a good question. People stand in lots of lines. I saw a bunch of people waiting outside a bakery yesterday (the line was about a block long) waiting for some kind of pastry. I guess if what’s at the end of the line is sweet enough, you’ll stand forever.
BA: I find it very interesting that you ‘signed’ some of the autographed celebrity publicity stills made out to you.
RP: In the beginning I faked the celebrities’ signature. I did it on a publicity still of Courtney Love. I signed it, “To Richard Prince, All The Best, Courtney Love”. I’m not sure I knew what I was doing but it reminded me of that joke that went: “My parents kept me in a closet. For fifteen years I thought I was a suit”.
I used to collect “flyers” of heavy metal “hair” bands in 1985 when I was living in Los Angeles. These were really small posters that the bands would tack or staple up in Laundromats and coffee shoppes announcing when and where they were playing. They looked all the same and there were hundreds of them. Sometimes it seemed that these flyers were made-up and were put up by the same person. I mean there couldn’t be that many of these bands could there be? It almost made it seem that everybody in L.A. was in a metal band. Everybody was in a band and everybody was in a picture of a band. That’s what got me – the inclusion.
BA: You have an opportunity to purchase what you consider to be two of the finest artworks from the nine living artists below. Please name the artworks chosen and respond with why you selected those two pieces above all the others – Cindy Sherman, Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons, Charles Ray, Christopher Wool, Edward Ruscha, Gerhard Richter and Jeff Wall.
RP: Christopher and Ed.
BA: I was going over some of the writers who have commented on your work over the years and I came up with a pretty impressive list of people. Would you care to comment on any of these scribes – Craig Owens, Hal Foster, Tricia Collins & Richard Milazzo, Michael Kimmelman, David Robbins, Brian Wallis, Douglas Crimp, Lisa Phillips, Collier Schorr, Dave Hickey, Roberta Smith, Judd Tully, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Andy Grundberg, Vince Aletti, Eva Prinz and Glenn O’Brien?
RP: I’m not really in touch with any of those critics. I’m not even sure if they’re still critics. I guess I was making work back then that they thought “represented” some kind of platform/agenda, a way to “de-construct” the media. I wasn’t de-constructing anything. And I certainly wasn’t a “spokesman” for anything “October”. When they found out I wasn’t the poster boy for “appropriation/picture generation simulation” they stopped calling. Maybe they never called. I don’t know. I was driving around in a speed boat back then, high flying through red lights and ignoring the safety of fashion and style.
BA: Carol Vogel has referred to you as a “trendy living artist” in a number of articles in “The New York Times”. How does that make you feel?
RP: I didn’t read the article. Someone told me about it. I was getting my car washed when someone called me and told me about it. My car was really dirty. It’s hard to keep clean. We live on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. I’m thinking of getting the car waxed.
BA: I don’t recall where I read this quote of yours: “I don’t see any difference between what I collect and what I make…” “It’s become the same. What I’m collecting will, a lot of times, end up in the work”. Your “Untitled (Publicity)”, 1999 that I saw at the Armory with two publicity stills (Pamela Anderson & Brett Ekland) at the Mai 35 Gallerie booth was my hands down favorite at the fair. Here it is – your collecting chops full throttle.
RP: Yes, I think “collecting” has become the new “expression”. It certainly collapses a lot of activities into a new form or “forms”. It addresses the question of “do you see what I see”? It’s funny because “consensus” used to be a dirty word when applied to art/politics. Now, I think “agreement” is a powerful position.
BA: You mentioned my text on the auctions – I wonder if auctions create stress for you or if they are an amusement? The secondary market serves as an art historical re-assessment in a way, as the art viewing public is re-introduced to the works when they are ‘shown’ prior to the auction and a “value” is placed on the work in the catalogue. These pre-sale estimates set by the ‘experts’ are supposed to reflect the import of the work historically as well as reflecting what they think the present value might be given the ‘climate’ at the time of the sale. Then there is that secret agreed-upon minimum or reserve that is set between the consignor and the house which is approximately 10% less than the low pre-sale estimate that determines if a piece will be sold or ‘bought in’.
RP: If someone spends a million dollars on an art work does that mean it’s better than an art work that sold or sells for one thousand dollars? I don’t have that answer. Putting your money where your mouth is. I guess there’s something to be said for ponying up, making a withdrawal, looking it over. Most of what I read about my work these days has to do with “how much” it’s going for, who owns it, and when can I have one. The biggest essays about the work are in the auction catalogues. I’ve seen my work go for very little money. I’ve seen my work go for a lot of money. It’s kind of like that quote from Marlon Brando when he was asked about the way he looked. He said something to the effect that I’ve been thin and I’ve been fat. I’ve been handsome and I’ve been ugly. It’s all the same to me.
BA: When I got close up to the yellow paint dripping down the pretty head of your “Dude Ranch Nurse #2” from 2001 that was hanging at the pre-sale exhibition at Sotheby’s in May, I thought of the head of Christ bleeding from the crown of thorns. The ink jet print and acrylic on canvas trumped your previous painting record landing in at just over $2.5 million. It seems like there are a lot more eyes looking at the work when it has that global stage at those evening auctions in New York? Where were you when that gavel came down?
RP: Wow, that’s pretty cool. I like when things happen away from you. When all this was happening I was playing in the yard with my kids – we play a strange form of baseball we’ve invented – and it’s strange to think all this activity is going on without you there. Thanks for letting me know about the picture. Of all the early nurse paintings, this is probably one of the top three.
There are so many auctions I don’t really follow them anymore, except when you tell me what happened. It’s all pretty interesting – the prices and all – but I think some of the best artists are all but passed by. The auctions have definitely become a way of measuring – a kind of new critique. Private museums are the other trend I believe will become the next standard.
BA: In the last five years your profile has moved from relative avant-garde obscurity to art-star celebrity. What do you see as the pros and cons of your new high profile status?
RP: It’s true that the last couple of years have changed the whole “relationship” to other people (not just my dealer – but friends and family) significantly. It’s hard to put into words. It’s not that I don’t trust the recent activity. It’s just that I don’t try to think about it that much. I try not to be “surprised” by it. I’ve always thought it would happen and have a great deal of confidence in all things “art”. It’s really the only thing I know. I pretty much edit out all the temptations to “cash in” – and stick to the day to day activities in my studio. Right now my focus is on a couple of new bodies of work and plans to open up a “real” body shop up here. Also this show at the Guggenheim is taking up a lot of time. The good thing about the money coming in – is it allows me to experiment and make more mistakes and gives me more time to think about work that I’m not sure about.
Yeah. I’ve noticed that older artists who used to say hello to me and shake my hand and invite me to sit down and have a cup of coffee and shoot the breeze – are not so nice to me. The money thing has gotten in the way of some of the relationships that I’ve had with other artists. Ten years ago it was never a factor. It wasn’t something anybody had to think about. It used to be the work pissed people off. The work still pisses some people off but with the money it just shakes their heads and says my god I’m here all alone.
BA: Warhol’s prescient statement of 1975 – “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art” (The Philosophy of Andy Warhol [From A to B and Back Again]) seems to dovetail with your recent works that incorporate your old personal checks that have been clipped and painstakingly fitted within lines of text that spell out old jokes. Are you slyly commenting on your own commercial control of your artistic practice while simultaneously asking us to reflect on the notion that jokes are simply lighthearted fun?
RP: The check paintings came about like most of my other work. One thing led to another. After collecting the “publicity” pictures, I noticed in some of the “memorabilia” catalogues they were selling celebrity “cancelled” checks. They were selling them because they were “signed”. I liked the information on the check, the shape of the check, the color, the dates, the diary aspect of the check (who or what it’s made out to) – the “cancelled” quality. I liked how some of them were presented underneath a “picture” of the celebrity, then framed up in the same frame. Anyway, I bought a couple – the first one was a Lenny Bruce check and the second was a Jack Kerouac check. About a year after the “buying” I realized I had my own “cancelled” checks – lots of them – thousands in fact and I thought why not kind of just paste them “all over” a canvas, you know, use them as a ground and try to make it appear abstract. I did a bunch of these and put them in frames under glass (works on paper so to speak – well, not so to speak but real speak) – after these I went online and found “sites” that sold blank checks – ones with all kinds of images and others you could design yourself. I found a site that sold checks with Sponge Bob on them and Jimi Hendrix on them. I got a bunch of these, pasted them on canvas and stenciled jokes on them. I never thought about quoting a “money” thing with the check paintings. I liked the idea of calling them the Check Paintings and maybe people would think I was doing paintings with “patterns” on them but then they would see them and see that they were really “check” paintings after all. I’ve always liked a title that’s non-fiction. Like the “Girlfriends”, the “Hoods”, the “Gangs”. When I use my own checks it’s like you can “read” what I was up to that year. Where I went, what I did, who I might have been hanging with. In the end, the “check” paintings were always there even when I wasn’t painting them.
BA: The point at which an artist reaches his or her zenith of creativity is often referred to in art historical terms as hitting their ‘mature’ phase. This is the work that’s considered by critics as the first manifestation of the artist’s ‘authentic voice’. Do you think an artist can reach a ‘mature’ phase more than once of twice in a lifetime? Can you give me an example of an artist like this? Can you give me an example of an artist who peaked early and is simply an “aging franchise”?
RP: This is a complicated question. Frank Stella is someone who comes to mind. His first three shows were pretty amazing. His last body of work, forty years later look pretty good too. I’m sure you could agree that Jasper Johns did his best work in the fifties – but I’m sure he wouldn’t agree. De Kooning was always doing good work. Guston must have had a personal crisis to have made that work in the 1970. Larry Rivers made some great paintings in the early fifties – then? I don’t know. He was an interesting artist. The word “interesting” is hardly used to describe artists work. Burning bright, flaring out, top of the heap, I don’t know. Sometimes it’s nice to spend time doing something you feel comfortable with. Other times it’s good to give up and do something you have no business doing.
BA: The Museum of Modern Art has invited you to curate a show on portraiture. You can select any artists living or dead and have a space no smaller than 4,000 square feet. You are not limited to the museum’s own collection. The world is your oyster.
RP: I can’t eat anything that’s not cooked. I get an awful stomach ache. I start rolling around the floor and go into the fetal position. It feel like I’m been born.
BA: Can artists control the way history records them?
RP: I’m reading a chapter of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. It’s called The Psycho-historians. I started it last night. There are two types of history – the one where Mao is on the way to the revolution and the one where Mao is fucking in the bushes on the way to the revolution. I always tell the truth about what I do. But no one believes me.