The contemporary artist known for his exuberant panda paintings does the decor for the nonprofit’s annual benefit
Tequila-fueled panda-monium broke out at RxArt’s 2016 gala last night at Stephan Weiss Studio in New York’s West Village. As the nonprofit led by Diane Brown—known for commissioning energizing contemporary artworks for children’s hospitals (a Jeff Koons CT scan, an Assume Vivid Astro Focus mural)—auctioned off paintings by the likes of Martin Creed, Jonathan Horowitz, and Ed Ruscha, a fleet of fuzzy cater-waiters chipped ice, poured cocktails, and served hors d’oeuvres from grass-covered trays. The genius behind the unquestionably cute scheme? Artist Rob Pruitt, of course, recipient of the RxArt Inspiration Award, presented to him last night by J.Crew president Jenna Lyons. Since Pruitt began working with RxArt, he has created a dry-erase mural that allows kids to color the walls at St. Mary’s Hospital for Children in Bayside, New York, and mounted sparkling panda paintings in the cafeteria at St. Jude in Memphis. We caught up with Pruitt, who has been painting glittery bears since 2001, for the inside scoop on his decorating scheme and how to make a party into serious Instagram fodder.
Architectural Digest: Tell us about the scheme you devised for the RxArt party.
Rob Pruitt: Since I’ve spent a good portion of my life painting the panda bear, it almost seemed as if I was being handed this party theme. So why not just use it? Everyone loves pandas. So much, in fact, that if you just do a Google for “panda-themed party” or “pandabilia,” you’ll find all sorts of different things—panda-shaped Mylar balloons, straws that look like cartoon versions of bamboo, panda plates, panda cups, it’s absolutely endless. It’s not an obscure theme in the world of commercially available party stuff. There is just a cornucopia of possibilities.
AD: So it started with that Google?
RP: It was kind of like a drunk Google. You know, someone should be monitoring you late at night. You can go a little too far, a little too deep with the credit card. I just ordered as much stuff as I could find.
AD: Have you ever designed a gala before?
RP: I did Rob Pruitt’s Art Awards for the Guggenheim in 2010, which was kind of like the Academy Awards for the art world. Then at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. in 2013, I designed the gala on April 20. You know that is the pot-smoking holiday, so I had a big pot-smoking–themed party.
AD: This party planning is getting to be a little side business for you.
RP: Yeah, I guess you could say that.
AD: So, describe the scheme.
RP: Well, there are a lot of balloons and twisted balloon centerpieces in the shapes of pandas. Everything is black and white with accents of green to represent bamboo. I was just really excited that the caterers all agreed to wear panda costumes. When you’re being offered a delectable treat by a panda bear, that’s definitely an Instagram moment.
AD: What do you love about the panda?
RP: I mean, there’s a whole laundry list of reasons. I like the way it’s beloved culturally. It’s just adorable, but also if you blur your eyes a little bit, its head looks a little like a skull, so there’s this life-and-death dichotomy. It should elicit a bit of guilt for the precarious position that it holds on the endangered species list. I like that it’s abstract. Years ago I wanted to make paintings that were both representational and abstract, and one of the reasons I was drawn to the panda was I thought that it was an interesting symbol. It’s like the yin-yang symbol come to life.
AD: Are there any similarities between planning a party and creating art?
RP: I think about the history of party planning, like Robert Isabell and the great parties that used to happen—I was too young to go, but I read about them—or Bianca Jagger at Studio 54 under a blizzard of confetti falling on a white horse. Those kinds of theatrics and spectacle really can stop one in their tracks and offer this moment of pure beauty, which is what we all hope to experience from art when it’s working really effectively. Even with a kid’s party, if all of the elements are thoughtful and unique and with lots of good spirit, I think that some theater is achieved, and that’s a really interesting thing for me. I like to participate in cult conventions that belong to everyone and put my own spin on them. Everyone plans parties, but isn’t it fun to see an upside-down version of a party that an artist is responsible for?
AD: Is there a certain type of atmosphere you were trying to create?
RP: I guess I was hoping to create a lot of Instagrammable opportunities for people to want to snap pics of their friends because they’re funny and beautiful, and interesting things happening that make for good pictures.