Bill Powers: You have a wall in your studio where you match art-world figures with their celebrity look-alikes for your Instagram. What famous person do people think you look like?
Rob Pruitt: Somebody said Jim Carrey, but I don’t see it at all.
BP: You claim to be shy, but I once went to a book signing in New York where you were nude except for a stuffed panda bear sitting in your lap.
RP: I’m so deeply insecure about what I’m presenting to the public that I always feel like I need to go the extra mile, you know—gild the lily. Just sitting there signing copies of my new book would be boring. I’ve had this feeling since art school that the key to any good performance art is nudity.
BP: Your show at the Brant Foundation opens on May 10, which also happens to be your birthday.
RP: I wanted to deflect the pressure I feel with the exhibition opening by turning the whole thing into a birthday party, keeping everyone outside on the lawn. Maybe Martha Stewart will bake me a cake and friends will bring presents.
BP: What are you hoping to get in terms of gifts?
RP: A live panda bear would be nice. People always give me figurines. I’m over it.
BP: I’ve heard Bjarne Melgaard talk about dressing up to paint. Is that something you’ve ever tried?
RP: Probably not for the same reasons Bjarne does. He’s a very stylish guy. I’ve never even lived with a mirror. I shave in the shower by touch. I don’t like to look at myself, and I don’t spend that much time thinking about my clothes. However, when I was making portraits of Paris Hilton 14 years ago, I wore very high stiletto heels in the studio. I’m sure it made the paintings a little better. And it really did free something up in myself, as I’ve never quite felt 100 percent the gender I was born into.
BP: Why do you call your gradient abstract pieces “suicide paintings”? Is it a cry for help?
RP: I imagine the viewer stepping through the painting into another reality, into another dimension.
BP: You’re also going to hang some of your new Marilyn Paintings in the Brant show?
RP: Four years ago I started painting over ink-jet prints from Ikea. Last year they put out this portrait of Marilyn Monroe with her head tilted back in ecstasy, which looks kind of like a Warhol, but is very generic and mass-produced looking. So I’ve spent a year in the studio adding oil paint to these Ikea prints, and that accumulation has become an important aspect of the new paintings. I want that year’s investment of time and paint to be evident.
BP: Didn’t you force your parents to drive you to an Andy Warhol book signing when you were in high school?
RP: Yes, I was 15. My father drove me to a book signing in D.C. after I’d stocked up on Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup cans and old issues of Interview magazine. Andy signed everything. I still have them all on a bookshelf in my childhood bedroom at my mom’s house.
BP: You’ve displayed your father’s ashes at a number of shows. Will the ashes be on view at the Brant Foundation?
RP: Yes. When my father was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago, I took a teaching job in Washington, D.C., so I could be closer to him. The doctors gave him something like a year to live. He asked to be cremated so I floated the idea of me making an urn for his ashes and turning it into an artwork. I think it offered him a window into what conceptual art is, or at least the kind I practice.
BP: So how did a model Corvette end up on top of his urn?
RP: My dad never graduated high school. He didn’t have a lot of money, but he enjoyed the simple pleasures in life. And he always dreamed of owning a Corvette.
BP: A few years ago, I watched you chase Sasha Grey outside Indochine and have her sign a piece of burlap on the sidewalk while Questlove took pictures.
RP: I’ve done so many foolish things in my life. I’m trying to be more dignified now.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 32 under the title “‘The Key to Any Good Performance Art Is Nudity’: A Talk With Rob Pruitt.”