A Conversation

Richard Prince and Damien Hirst, 2009

‘Ventolin’ (2005). Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Richard Prince  Do you have any predictions about the coming year?

Damien Hirst  Yeah, we ain’t gonna sell as much, art shows are gonna get better now the focus shifts away from money, a lotta people are gonna get in a lotta trouble – maybe Jesus will come back? And there’s the final 10 episodes of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ on TV. Larry Gagosian will be opening more galleries, you guys have got a black president  – that’s got to bring some confidence hasn’t it?

RP  You’d think so.

DH  I just read that de Kooning biography. Fuck me man, if those guys weren’t poor; I never realised how close to the edge they were. It’s hard to imagine now with the New York I know.

RP  Reading the de Kooning bio was scary. The fact that de Kooning would disappear, fall down and black out for a couple of days gave me bag memories... I was just in Tribeca the other day trying to explain to someone that in 1975 there was nothing there except burned out buildings...

DH  Yeah, it’s hard to imagine that now. I’ve always loved the idea of being a painter – I man above either an artist or a sculptor. Why is it that the idea of a painter seems better?

RP  Painting... it’s something you can do alone, it’s more immediate, you can do it in any scale... in a small room, on an easel, wearing a suit... you can talk to the painting...

DH  What about that joke where the guy says to the monochrome painting, “What do you represent?” and the painting says, “What the fuck do you represent!?!!??” I don’t know if it’s really true, but I love the idea of Turner strapped to the mast of a ship in the middle of the storm to see and feel the real storm to help him paint it. What a nut if it is true?

RP  Billy Budd, Moby Dick, Captain Bligh, Mr Christian, Joseph Conrad, thar she blows, rum and coke... Turner turns me on... passion and romance... What’s not to love?

DH  And then there’s that great scene in ‘Close Encounters...’ that always makes me think of artistic obsession, where he’s got the image in his head of the mountain where the aliens are gonna come and he keeps obsessively making the shape in his shaving foam and mashed potatoes, and in the end in his living room with all the earth an crap from his garden, where he’s throwing it all in through the window and he doesn’t know what it is and he’s so driven. It’s considered great to be so driven to create like that. He’s so obsessed, his wife and kids leave him – now that’s commitment! [laughs]

RP  Making a mountain out of a molehill… or making it out of mash potatoes… this is the end… crossing over to the other side, becoming so obsessive that tunnel vision is the only way you see… the seeing makes you mental… the commitment to wearing a straight-jacket… luckily for me I like loose-fitting clothes… making art isn’t the problem… it’s not making it… do you ever feel like stopping? Could you stop? Even for a week? If you were given the choice… marking art or making love… which would it be?

DH  Jeezus  that’s a hard one. You can’t have one without the other can you? It’s like those Picasso artist-and-model paintings isn’t it? He’s got to have been fucking them models or he’s got nothing to paint about. It’s a lot easier for artists to make art when there’s no money coming in – when times are bad.

RP  Good times, bad times… I’ve been fat, I’ve been thin… I’ve been pretty, I’ve been ugly… I think it’s still possible to make revolutionary art with a number six pencil and a piece of paper… it’s not that money has nothing to do with it… money means you can buy a better pencil sharpener…

DH  Joe Strummer once said to me, “Money buys the radio”. I don’t agree with the old Van Gogh thing that artists are supposed to suffer for their art, but a lot of people still believe that’s the way it should be. I think it’s tragic that great artists die penniless. I think Warhol made it ok for artist to deal with money and not be seen as a sell out. How’s your relationship with money now you’re selling for megabucks?

RP  Warhol made a lot of things possible… I don’t think artists should wait around for permission… or wait around for a green light. I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor.  I’d rather be rich. Let’s not fool ourselves. Van Gogh had his brother. I don’t think Mr Van had to wash dishes… the suffering artist is a Hollywood artist…

DH  I’ve got one of your nurse paintings up on my wall, and the way the paint has been applied, it has a neat visceral connection to the subject matter – wound dressings, drips, internal examinations – and I guess nurses come number one in the top ten of sexual stereotypes, don’t they, along with secretaries, librarians, traffic wardens, and maybe school dinner ladies – or is that just me?

RP  Some people say the nurse paintings are all about desire – but isn’t that more to do with their proximity to life and death? Isn’t that why we find nurses sexy – because they embody this ultimate contradiction? You’re the artist, you can tell me. As kids we are interested in sex and death because we can never imagine either one ever happening to us – I had an old black-and-white TB and the volume didn’t work. I turned channel one day to “The Addams Family” and Morticia was lying in her coffin in a really low-cut black gown that showed a lot of cleavage. Lying there like that, she seemed to embody these two preoccupations – they met at this precise moment y’know – since then I’ve only ever wanted fuck dead girls in coffins.

DH  There’s a world of difference between need and desire. Art and images can make you desire the craziest things – desiring art is crazy.

RP  I was recently reading Nabokov’s short account of what led him to write ‘Lolita’. He said that as a kid on the verge of puberty he was on a beach holiday with his family and his parent’s friends, who’d brought their illegally sexy 13-year-old daughter. He was 11 at the time I think, and anyway, the upshot of it was that both sets of parents cottoned on to the fact that the two of them seemed to be spending an unhealthy amount of time together. So, for appearances sake, they cooled it in front of the grown-ups, and arranged to meet one night in secret down on the beach. Nabokov arrived at the appointed time and place – a sandy dune among the eel-grasses – where he sat down to wait. There follows a brilliant account of waiting in an almost unbearable state of expectation, his whole body in such a heated riot of lust that to cool down he had to burrow below the top layer of sand, still warmed by the sun, until he got to the cooler, damper layers beneath. Unfortunately for him, his parent’s friends had locked their daughter in her room and she couldn’t make the assignation. The idea is that all future sexual encounters can never live up to the pitch of expectation promised to offer – and … therefore he always wanted this particular encounter, which just “happened to be with a 13-year-old. This would be ok at 12 – 13 – 14 – it was even possibly ok at 15 and 16, but not at 40. But for him, it was the encounter – not the age of the girl – that was significant.

DH  I had a friend who always said he felt like a painter who didn’t use paints or canvas. I kind of know what he means; he made apiece that was two pieces of board, each with an image of a rally car travelling through a snowstorm. And he stuck dead (not working) fluorescent tubes on top of it. I asked him why he’d done it, and he said that the rally car seemed like a really odd way to be trying to get form A to B in that environment, and the dead tubes were about the point when something functional becomes decorative, and he felt like that, as a painter.

RP  “Something functional becomes decorative” is an interesting way to put it. Is that how you feel you do it? Or the living becomes dead, then becomes art? I like it when artists use paint and canvas because the mediums are so traditional… it’s almost impossible to use, but still it’s possible… there’s nothing old or new, nothing past, present, future… it’s all the same to me. Do you feel Turner, or for that matter Bacon, is living inside your head? Right behind your eyes… tapping on your brain, looking over your shoulder, sitting next to you in your booth at the restaurant… “I’ll have a whiskey, neat”. Is that what they’re saying?

DH  There are a helluva lot of people living in my head, most of them nuts. I’ve never really felt a need to be original – most of my ideas are stolen. I think about other artists a lot. Did you get to see the new paintings I sent?

RP  Dude, your new painting are fan-fucking-tastic… love ‘em. Finally got a chance to look at them this afternoon… the iguana, the lemon, the dots, there’s love in those paintings. Must be nice to hole up in the studio and spend the day on them… nothing better and it shows… bananas!

DH  I’m happy where they are right now. I went through some weird shit to get here, and they seem like they can work in this market. Who the fuck knows? They are very different to my other work. It feels odd to be painting on my own.

RP  Liberace crossed with Freddy Mercury… or something like that. I hear you mnan… the economy sucks and things are going south and it’s only going to get worse – a lot worse – but it’s happened before and it’ll weed out a lot of the punters and poseurs, and there are far too many. I feel like I’m on a pirate (ship?) right now and telling people to walk the plank… get the fuck off my ship… because my ship is sailing for sunny seas.

DH  Why do you think there are so many conceptual artists painting nowadays?

RP  Because they think it’s a good idea.

DH  When do you consider a painting finished?

RP  When the cheque clears (laughing).

DH  Check this out – someone I considered a friend sent me this SMS recently: “I am really disappointed with our friendship. It is always about you. You don’t really care about me and what is going on in my life. Regardless of our friendship, I am also disappointed in you as a person. You seem so focused on power and money. You are such a great artist and are wasting your talent.” I can’t work out what she really feels – I think she’s sitting on the fence. [Laughter]

RP  I only have one or two old friends anymore. Glenn O’Brien and Christopher Wool I still see… but yeah, it’s definitely affected the way I relate to people.

DH  I did the DAAD in Berlin when Chris Wool was there; he’s a great artist. I remember he was constantly taking pictures to make books from, everywhere he went. He’s carved out a unique painting language for himself – I love his shit. Yeah, friends are rare – happy people too.

RP  Success puts you in a bubble and you start protecting yourself with only those you can trust. I hardly see anyone anymore. I’m so far underground, I get the bends.

DH  I’m in Bali and saw Ashley Bicketon today. He said he’d had a really nice time with you recently in New York. He also said that when he used to live in New York, he wasn’t cool enough to be in your gang (ha ha ha!). I think he was joking.  He’s a funny guy, a great artist; I love his work. Did I tell you that a whale washed up dead in front of the house here and all the locals came with chainsaws?  Maybe 800 people in the end, and they cut it up and they were all drinking the blood in cups and eating the stomach contents, and yellow pus and blood from its liver! They are mental – they’ve been filling up orange-juice containers and passing it around and drinking it. What the fuck is that all about?

RP  Not Jesus, that’s for sure.

DH  I found out from Ashley’s nanny that they were not after the whale parts as food; it’s all about medicinal value. That’s why they were drinking certain oils directly from the carcass. Many whale parts and oils are reported to have major significance in traditional cures.

RP  If they believe it, then it must be true?

DH  I like John Ruskin’s idea of art as if there’s an unbroken line all the way back to the cavemen and we are just the most recent additions. Do you buy into ideas like that?

RP  I like to walk like a caveman. For me art is the last place on Earth that God didn’t finish... or have I said that already? For me it starts with people like El Greco and Goya... when t hey did what they liked and didn’t pay as much attention to craft.

DH  How do you think photography has affected painting recently? I noticed that there seems to have been a big change – since newspapers started having colour images, it’s switched back to where people don’t believe photos anymore, and they believe paintings again. I think it used to be the other way around.

RP  Painting has and always will... the medium is direct, simple and you can do it in a bedroom. I’ve always thought it would be hard to present a painting as evidence in a trial... like on the ‘Perry Mason’ show; it was always photography the lawyers would put before the judge. It’s hard to imagine 12 angry men arguing over a painting... but then again, it was a large painting that Quilty, played by Peter Sellers, hid behind in the movie ‘Lolita’ when James Mason was shooting at him. 

DH  It says a lot about the power of art. When do you think about art as a celebration of life? You deal with irony and humour a lot in your paintings, or do you? But I think they seem ultimately hopeful, or does that say more about me than you? 

RP  Art as hopeful?  Of course. Every time I walk into my living room and look at the de Kooning hanging on the well, I feel great.

DH  Do you give a fuck what people think of you?

RP  Honestly?  No. The 10 reactions of people when I put out a new body of work? The first person has an orgasm. The second and third are over the top, the fourth person congratulates me, the fifth person doesn’t say anything, the sixth and seventh avoid me on the street, the eighth person doesn’t return my phone calls, the ninth person talks trash behind my back and the tenth person says the work is vomit...

DH  Most people who hate my work haven’t seen it, they have just read about it.  I dunno if it’s right, but I try to think that I’m making art for an audience that hasn’t been born yet. Do you think a lot about getting old and dying?

RP  I think more about disappearing, checking out – still working of course, but cutting myself off from the world of phone, fax and internet...

DH  I know what you mean – I go away for three months every year at Christmas; it keeps me sane. What about God and the world’s obsession with it?

RP  I think there have always been a lot of fools and stupid people who have nothing better to do than worship something that promises a better life. Believing in a God also helps people justify cruelty. We still burn witches. Don’t forget the cartoonist who was shot in the name of Islam. Mormons hate gays but love to fuck underage teenage girls. According to Mary Baker Eddy and the doctrines of Christian Science, there’s no such thing as Aspirin. Remember, religion is big business.  It’s one thing for a musician to pass the hat, but it’s another, more sinister, side of humanity to take up a collection in the name of abstraction faith.

DH  What’s that joke you told me? A priest says to the Rabbi, “See that altar boy over there?  Want to fuck him?” And the Rabbi says, “Fuck him out of what?” [laughs] What about images and desires?

RP  Eyes and loins... I think I’ll let Hugh Hefner answer that one. You seem to think about, or at least address, the idea of religion in your work, but what about you?  What do you think about some guy in New Hampshire USA finding some tablets in his backyard and starting a religion? I think it was Brigham Young who said, “I don’t care how you bring ‘em... just bring ‘em young”.

DH  Yeah, I was brought up Catholic ‘til I was 12, so I’ve got a lot of that imagery locked inside my head, and I know it’s bollocks, but I like to use the images. I think I’ll never get rid of all that shit even though I don’t believe in the big fella. Indoctrinating children is bad shit man, but fuck me if it don’t work like a dream. I just watched that dvd “Deliver Us From Evil”, about paedophiles in the Catholic Church – very good film.

RP  Don’t think I need to ask, but do you give a shit about what people think of your work?

DH  I try not to care, but we all wanna be loved. I started to feel a whole lot better when I realised a few years back that I only wanted to be great in my own terms and not other people’s, but that ain’t every easy. I just got a copy of ‘Interview’ magazine and read your interview; it’s funny, I read yours, and mine and Jeff Koons – quite a contrast. Three very different interviews, it took me a while to realise he meant Serra. I’d have said Serra was more of an influence on you than Koons, but hey, what do I know? I remember walking through a Serra sculpture at the Saatchi Gallery in London, back in the day, and when I got about halfway through, thinking, “Fuck! This shit could fucking fall and kill me man!!!”, and I kinda hurried out the other side. It was one of those big moments in my life where the power of art really hits home; it was one of those big double standing pieces. And in a similar way – I mean in the way that a work goes from being something conceptual to something in the real world, like a life-threatening object, in the blink of an eye. In a similar way, when I was walking around your Guggenheim show after seeing a few joke paintings and kinda knowing the jokes, and feeling like I was getting the work – understanding it on many levels – I was hit by the one where the guy goes to the doctor with a bright orange penis. The doctor says, “Now what’s going on here? Have you been taking any medication?” or something, and the guy says, “No doctor, I’ve just been lying around the house watching porn and eating Cheetos”, [laughter] and I didn’t know the joke, and I just completely cracked (up?) laughing uncontrollably, and I was on my own in the gallery and felt a bit stupid, and it was unexpected, which is also stupid, ‘cos what do you expect if you’ve been reading jokes on paintings for 20 minutes?

RP  It’s funny; I thought the same thing about what Jeff said about “Richard” in ‘Interview’ magazine. No, I don’t think Serra has been much of an influence on my work. I would have to say more Carl Andre, even though I hate to give the bastard any credit for anything. I think Jeff is truly a “fantastic” artist. I’ve known him for over 30 years and he’s always been the same – he’s had the same kinds of visions and raps and come-ons... his unreality is virtuoso-real.

DH  One idea for an artwork that I never made was a white plinth-type box in a gallery with a big, red, Fuck Off! button in the middle of it, and a sign that says “Do Not Touch”. When you touch it, a big red boxing glove comes out and punches you in the face. [laughs]


'A Conversation' originally published in Damien Hirst 'Requiem II' (Other Criteria/PinchukArtCentre). Copyright © 2009 Damien Hirst/Richard Prince.

Biography — Richard Prince

Born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1949, Richard Prince first drew art world attention in the early 1980s, presenting rephotographed magazine ads.  With these works, he sought to challenge and redefine the ideas of authorship, ownership, and the aura of a work of art.  His unique oeuvre has since expanded to all mediums, encompassing painting, sculpture, printed matter, and fashion, in addition to photography.  His work is filled with the echoes of other artists’ signatures, yet it is always, unquestionably, his own.

A unifying theme across Prince’s work is a perceptive commentary on American subcultures and vernaculars, and their role in the construction of American identity.  Sexism, racism, psychosis in mainstream humor; the mythical status of bikers, cowboys, customized cars, and celebrity; and the banalities of “upstate” life are among the depths his work has probed.  Recently, he has focused on the push-pull appeal of pulp fiction and soft porn, producing such unlikely contemporary icons as the seductive Nurse paintings. His allure ultimately lies in eye for the bypassed elements of our culture, and his ability to be at once the consummate insider and the coolly detached outsider.  

His work has been the subject of major exhibitions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg; Serpentine Gallery, London (2008). A retrospective survey opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2007 and traveled to The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis in 2008.

He lives and works in New York.