Until a few weeks ago, Rob Pruitt had a lighthearted concept for his new show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise downtown: photo diptychs of art-world figures paired with “celebrity look-alikes” (think Lawrence Weiner and Charles Darwin). The show was ready to go, coffee-table book included. But then came the election. With the triumph of Donald Trump, a self-referential, art-scene show no longer made sense. “After the election, the tone just seemed all wrong,” Pruitt says. He and Brown, his longtime gallerist, scrambled to mount a more solemn alternative. Luckily they had just the ticket.
Every day since Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20, 2009, Pruitt has made a new painting of the president in acrylic on a two-by-two-foot square canvas, based on images in the news. The project, which Pruitt views as a single work, will not be formally complete until January 20, when Obama’s presidency ends. But the nearly three thousand pieces gathered at the gallery — Pruitt’s output through Election Day — are plenty to make an impression, with the atmosphere of crisis that has followed Trump’s election loading them with emotional freight. One gallerist reported that, in the first days of the show, many visitors were in tears.
First thing most mornings for eight years, Pruitt set to work on his Obama paintings, re-creating public and press photos with a gradient background that shades down from blue in one corner and back up to red at the opposite. The smudged white brushstrokes give the scenes depth and emotional accent, while the disciplined method and constrained color scheme — multiplied across hundreds of pieces, presented tile-like on each wall — create a muted, hypnotic effect, as if the past eight years were a dream. Obama walking his dog, palming a basketball, bending down to greet a child in the Oval Office — the familiar imagery is all there. So are the events: Obama meeting the pope, flanking global leaders at an international summit, speaking at a Hillary Clinton rally. Some are harder to place, lending them a classical air: A painting of what may be a bill-signing ceremony — a cluster of figures, in various poses, surrounding the president — has the feeling of some eighteenth-century tableau, perhaps a court scene.
A longtime figure in the downtown art world, Pruitt, 52, works at the edge of pop art (glittery pandas), provocation (a long mirror with a massive line of cocaine, consumption invited), commercial counterprogramming (flea markets of assorted cheap objects amid swank art events), and other ludic interventions, often aimed at the hypocrisies of the art community. The Obama paintings are something else: They’ve been absolutely earnest since day one. “During his campaign, so many of my friends and I were so excited about the prospect of his presidency, and we did all we could to get him elected,” Pruitt says. “And he won! So I had all this energy and enthusiasm post-election, and I needed a place to put it.” He adds, “I’ve admired Obama since I first became aware of him when he was a senator. It’s going to be hard to say goodbye.”
The show rings, of course, like just that: a goodbye to the president, to the aspirations and illusions that surrounded his time in office, and perhaps to something more fundamental about the country. The heyday of Obama portraiture was at the beginning — that Shepard Fairey “HOPE” print, of course, but much more, by establishment and street artists alike. Then the sheen wore off, as artists became disappointed by policy decisions or overwhelmed by the firehose output of official White House photos of the man in his every activity. Now, however — as Obama prepares to cede power to his polar opposite, who seems bent on reversing decades of social progress — to portray him is inherently elegiac.
Still, the staging of the exhibition makes it feel less like a funeral than an act of emotional archiving, with a couple thousand of the pieces racked sideways, like record albums, on flat-backed shelving units that divide the gallery space like stacks in a university library. “Clearly there wasn’t enough wall space to hang them all, but they all needed to be present and accounted for,” Pruitt says. The items are not placed in chronological order; they do not have titles, nor reference dates, nor are they for sale individually. Pruitt hopes the work will go on tour (its sole previous showing was in 2015, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit) and perhaps yield a book. “I don’t know if Obama’s aware of the project,” Pruitt says, “but hopefully one day he will be.”
Now Pruitt is looking to the landscape ahead. “The tears and disbelief have ended, and I’m now in fighting mode,” he says. He and “a bunch of colleagues” — artists such as Marilyn Minter, Cecily Brown, and Jonathan Horowitz, as well as writers and curators — have formed a group that held its first protest, themed as a message to Ivanka Trump, outside the Puck Building, where she lives, on November 28. If artists greeted the Obama era with doe-eyed fervor and a certain collapsing of critical distance, they’re readying for his successor in the streets. “Like a lot of other Americans, I have grave concerns,” Pruitt says. “It felt good to broadcast them, and hopefully it will do some good, too. All of us recognize that this is just the beginning, and we’re going to continue to speak out.”
Rob Pruitt: ‘The Obama Paintings’
Through December 18
Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, 291 Grand Street, 3rd floor