Artist: Richard Prince

Top, Prince's Debutante Nurse, 2004; above, Untitled (cowboy), 1980-84.Photo: Gladstone Gallery

In the early eighties, Richard Prince started to re-photograph magazine ads featuring the Marlboro Man; since then, he’s given biker chicks, Borscht Belt jokes, celebrity autographs, and pulp-fiction nurses the legitimizing stamp of “appropriation art.” Karen Rosenberg spoke to the 55-year-old artist and obsessive book collector.

You started working with ads when you worked at Time-Life?
I was in the tear-sheets department. At the end of the day, all I was left with was the advertising images, and it became my subject. Pens, watches, models—it wasn’t your typical subject matter for art. Then, in 1980, I started taking pictures of the cowboys. You don’t see them out in public anymore—you can’t ride down a highway and see them on a billboard. But at Time-Life, I was working with seven or eight magazines, and Marlboro had ads in almost all of them. Every week, I’d see one and be like, “Oh, that’s mine. Thank you.” It’s sort of like beachcombing.

Is there a current-day equivalent to the Marlboro Man?
I would have to say probably certain designers—Ralph Lauren, who shows up week after week in the same section of the Times Magazine. Abercrombie & Fitch—their catalogues have an art look. I could actually see Man Ray or George Platt Lynes or Robert Mapplethorpe photographing them. I kind of like Marc Jacobs’s campaign; it almost doesn’t look like advertising. Actually, I’ve started to look at a new cigarette ad, for Camel. It’s an illustration of a woman, and the mouth is the focus. I think back to what de Kooning would have thought of it; he used to cut out the “T” smiles from the Camels and paste them on his women.

What got you from there to painting?
I found the subject matter, which was the jokes. Before that, I wanted to paint but I didn’t know what to paint. The subject comes first, the medium second. In this show, there are some new paintings done on canceled checks. I collect other people’s canceled checks—celebrity checks. I remember buying a canceled Jack Kerouac check once.

What do you think of younger artists under your influence, people like Kelley Walker and Wade Guyton?
It would be strange for me to think I’m being ripped off, because that’s what I do! In those days, it was called “pirating.” Now they call it “sampling.” There’s a guy on the street who paints copies of my “Nurse” paintings, along with Elizabeth Peytons and Eric Fischls. I think it’s funny. I actually bought one; I thought it was pretty close.

What’s the difference between Richard Prince the artist and Richard Prince the collector?
I don’t see any difference now between what I collect and what I make. It’s become the same. What I’m collecting will, a lot of times, end up in my work. There’s an Elizabeth Peyton piece in the show, one of her canceled checks with a Sid Vicious drawing. And a Sonic Youth check with a signed drumhead.

How about your own collectors—do you agree with their taste in your work?
I’m surprised at the reaction to the “Nurse” paintings. I’ve never felt that I had to put out work that I actually liked—just because it’s out there doesn’t mean that I have to stand behind it. A lot of it’s experimental, spontaneous. It’s about knocking about in the studio and bumping into things.

The joke paintings are especially popular—one sold last year for more than $700,000.
When they first came out, you couldn’t give them away. They’ve become pretty serious to people, which is funny. During an auction last year, behind the podium, they had a monochromatic joke painting next to a Rothko next to a Barnett Newman. They’re just paint, stretchers, and canvas; it’s the subject that’s radical.

At Gladstone Gallery
Opening April 30

Artist: Richard Prince