Perhaps you caught New York artist Richard Phillips’ latest show at Gagosian last month. You know the one. Massive oil paintings of Lindsay Lohan in Cynthia Rowley surfer chic and Adriana Lima prone on her back in a black bikini dominated the walls. Short films starring Ms. Lohan and Sasha Grey played continually in a darkened chamber inside.
The work caused some divide over what sort of work, really, it was. Can a masterful likeness of a debauched starlet painted with no apparent irony – or malevolence – be considered Art? Should it? Some thought not: “There are no redeeming qualities to this show,” opined The L Magazine in one critique. Many others, led by the world’s most powerful art dealer himself, Larry Gagosian, begged to differ.
Phillips stands at the center of it all a picture of the artist in repose, seemingly as unperturbed by the celebs and criticism as he was when Hurricane Sandy rendered his studio unusable for months (land-based phone lines there have yet to be activated). The man has formed quite an opinion about his detractors, to be sure, and is happy to share it. But he’s also just as happy to discuss music, or his favorite place to get a cup of coffee.
Below, all of the above and more.
GL: You’re originally from Massachusetts. What brought you to New York City?
RP: I migrated down the east coast over a period of a few years to go to school. I went to grad school at Yale University and then got to the city in the summer of ’86, which kind of put me squarely in the middle of the art scene in the ‘80s, the East Village scene. Which was kind of fading in that moment – all the galleries were moving to SoHo.
It was a really different vibe. You had the boom and the bust in the East Village and then the rise of SoHo and more a kind of upscale thing with the galleries. It was a bit grittier and wild when I was in college.
GL: Why do you choose to remain New York rather than, say, Paris or Los Angeles or Berlin?
RP: For me what has constantly attracted me to New York is that it’s an ever-changing environment for art, and when people show up here they show up to go absolutely all out to test the limits of what could be considered art at all times. And there was no greater time to feel that than the late ‘80s, early ‘90s.
GL: Who do you think was doing great work then?
RP: I would say people like Jeff Koons or Rosemarie Trockel. She had these great shows in the Barbara Gladstone gallery in SoHo at that time. Being able to see those shows was incredible. Being able to go down to SoHo and see a Louise Lawler show or Cindy Sherman. Those were the original shows. We are now more used to seeing the retrospectives and the occasional solo show, but these people were breaking out – they were really contesting the direction of art every time out. Nobody was in a holding pattern. Nobody was cruising. They were literally going all out.
Back then the art world was very different. It was a lot smaller, and the impacts that could be made were pretty pervasive. It wasn’t that diluted. People really weren’t producing as much known ideas about the market – they were literally just creating original ideas.
What was really interesting at the time too were the artist-written press releases. Press releases that came out were literally manifestos, so you heard directly from the artist what their intentions were. I think there’s a similar thing right now on the Lower East Side, with those galleries.
GL: How long did it take until you felt like you could say, “Okay I’ve built something for myself. I feel a little bit solid. I’m not struggling so much?”
RP: Well I had some initial success coming out of art school – I mean it was brief. It was really the end of that art boom so I had this false sense of, “Oh yeah wow the art world is awesome!” Only to be humbled beyond measure in 1990 when the economy went through the floor and the brakes were put on pretty much to the point of nothingness.
That’s when I began drawing and painting because I made sculptures when I first came to New York, not paintings. In those alternate wiped-out times I started making drawings, and eventually friends convinced me to make paintings of those drawings, and they were pretty wacky, pretty wild, but I was able to begin my art program all over again from scratch.
GL: New York! It can be so good and so harsh almost at the same time. It teaches you very quickly.
RP: One of the things I have learned is that whole cruising impulse that might take hold just never is there. It’s the pressure and what it demands that keeps me here because I feel like every time out you must go all the way and really think hard about what you’re going to do. Unlike any other place in the world you don’t get a free pass here: The pressure is on and we have to perform. I’m sure that includes writing, too – it’s like you cannot go anywhere else in the world and find the same degree of focus and intensity and people bringing it as hard as you possibly can.
GL: As a New York artist, why use California starlets for the films shown at Gagosian?
RP: I was asked to make a painting for the AmFar benefit in Dallas. At the time I had always wanted to make a portrait of Lindsay Lohan but I hadn’t quite figured out what the context would be. I thought this would be perfect so I made a portrait of her that did very well for the auction. And a friend of mine was in Los Angeles had a picture of it on his iPhone, and he showed it to Lindsay because he was working on a shoot with her, and she responded really positively to it and that began the possibility of working together.
I was then contacted by another friend about participating with a film for the Venice Biennale and we reached out to Lindsay and said if we are working long on a photo shoot for painting do you have time to do a day’s worth of shooting? And so that conversation got started.
Parallel to that I had been in contact with a friend of mine who owns a record label who had Sasha on the label with her industrial group aTelecine. And he said, “You should really work with Sasha, she is really great.” So we got in touch, and I had lunch with Sasha when she was traveling to New York with the band. I proposed the idea that we would make some paintings together, and here we are.
A lot of it was just things falling into place out of thin air and a willingness to take chances and see where things could go.
GL: Some people have reacted negatively to the film and the paintings, mostly voicing the normal arguments about it not being capital-A art. What is your take on the more critical reviews?
RP: Yeah, I saw those opinions as well, and I think that they are more of a protectorate thing. There is a sense of legitimate art and illegitimate art, and that has been something that has followed through art history since the very beginning. I think that there is a nervousness or a sense that subjects that aren’t pre-approved in terms of the institutions that are keeping themselves in power, that are living off their opinions, that there is a need to draw a line. I kind of knew going into it having displayed the film in Art Basel where many people weren’t sure whether it was art there, either.
The way I really look at it is that it’s apropos of this year. It’s the 100-year anniversary of the Armory Show where the protests of Matisse and Picasso and Picabia and many of these artists were nearly violent. People were far more racially opposed to the new ideas because they didn’t know what it was.
GL: Is it elitism? Entitlement?
RP: Certainly the work that I showed at the show and the relationships between these large scale paintings and even the image of Adriana Lima I think destabilized the sense of what art is or could be, and I think that any time that happens you feel a need for a certain amount of people to say it’s not legitimate.
But I totally accept that criticism as part of the larger conversation that went on. I do think a lot of younger people were in tune with it immediately. All of the work had been seen literally millions of times before the gallery and the paintings. In a way the paintings were chosen from the stills in the films that were most often viewed by the viewers of the work online. There is a type of appropriation – it was a re-appropriation of my own imagery that I had worked with and collaborated on with these actors.
GL: Would the reception have been different had the subjects been different?
RP: I think that Sasha and Lindsay and Adriana all have very powerful positions in the media surrounding their professions. The dominance that each of them commands can throw people off a bit. That power and influence when it shows up in a gallery – in large scale with film and powerful soundtracks like the one Chelsea Wolfe or Tamarind did – that sound synched with those images creates an overwhelming experience.
GL: Speaking of sound, do you listen to music when you work?
RP: Always. Certainly all of the artists I just mentioned for sure have been super important to me. Even artists that are contemporary like Young Prisms, DIIV, Amen Dunes or even Weekend. I’m just trying to think of the ones I’ve been playing a lot lately. Cult Of Youth for sure. A lot of musicians off the Dias label. It’s very important to have that type of inspiration constantly being listened to. It’s absolutely critical.
GL: So after a long day of working while you rock out, what’s your go-to place to grab a bite?
RP: Having lived in the East Village forever I would say that Café Mogador is a big one. And then having moved to East SoHo I mainly go to Café Gitane, which I have to say I eat at a lot. I go to Omen sometimes, too. Old school stuff like that.
But I recently went to Red Farm in the West Village, and I have to say that I was blown away by how good the food was there. I was really surprised. Friends of mine who are dedicated followers of that restaurant surprised me. I had no idea. I went over there and was really excited by that.
GL: And what about your local watering hole?
RP: I’m a coffee drinker more than anything else, which might lead to the stressed out tone in my voice right now. [laughs] But there is a local spot I like, La Colombe. I love their coffee; I think they’ve done a great job.