Rising stars in the New York art world of the early 1990s, Rob Pruitt and Jack Early forged a joint public persona as insouciant bad boys who actively courted controversy and revelled in questionable taste. Gender, sexuality and race were central to all of Pruitt Early’s work, which reacted to and positioned itself against the then au courant identity politics, hardening at the time into an academic orthodoxy in American cultural discourse. The artists – both gay white men – were determined to enter the fray rather than comment on inequity from the sidelines, and their wilful ambivalence, their insistence on showing rather than telling, was often mistaken for promiscuous endorsement. The duo’s first joint exhibition, Artworks for Teenage Boys, gathered together various emblems of white male adolescence, with stacks of beer cans and images of motorbikes, heavy metal stars and soft porn. Artworks for Teenage Girls swiftly followed.
Leo Castelli – one of the most prestigious galleries in New York – offered to present Pruitt Early’s next show, Red, Black, Green, Red, White and Blue, in which they took on African-American culture. Posters of figures such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Michael Jordan, the Jackson 5 and N.W.A. were mounted on obelisk-shaped canvases, while a soundtrack featured the two artists rapping. The conflation of hip-hop bling, Black Power and the Civil Rights movement was intended to reflect the exploitation of black icons by corporate America. In the ‘politically correct’ climate of the moment, the show was sharply criticised, and the two white artists were even accused of racism. In the end, Pruitt and Early found themselves all but ostracised by the art world.