Walter Robinson, 'Self-Portrait', 1984
As the early creations of a pre-eminent critical figure in today's American art scene, the paintings that originally earned Artnet Editor Walter Robinson's place in the Manhattan art world of the 1980s are guaranteed to be of great interest. Robinson served as Contributing Editor of Art in America from 1978-1997, cofounded Art-Rite Magazine with Edit Deak in the 1970s, was Art Editor of The East Village Eye in the 1980s and began his still-running tenure as Editor of Artnet's daily magazine in 1997. His "80's paintings" show at Chelsea's Metro Pictures (which also represents Cindy Sherman, Tony Oursler and Mike Kelley) is the first time that his "Romance Paintings" have been on view since the series was shown at Metro Pictures in the 1980s.
Robinson's "Romance Series" copies the trashy and flashy covers of cheap drug-story pulp fiction. Their punchy palette and frenzied brush strokes mimic the over-heated aesthetic popularized by the artists who created covers for lurid novels with titles such as "Pit Stop Nympho," "Like Crazy, Man," "Fast Loose and Lovely," "Plaything of Passion" and "The Virgin Barfly." In the absence of those tantalizing titles to moderate the drama through their corny context, the images of smoldering, smutty passion which Robinson repainted at various scales are compelled to stand on their own. And unlike the "Nurse" series of paintings which Richard Prince later appropriated from similar source material that share an ominous sense of femme fatale foreboding, the campy covers Robinson copies pop with naked, raw fantasy allure. The covers themselves are like chemically processed meat splattered in artificial hot-sauce, but there is no mistaking Robinson's affection for them as lovingly painted stereotyped images of toxic love.
This paradoxical mix of cynicism and sincerity put Robinson's work right in step with the sensibility of his East Village environment in the eighties. Robinson received his BA from Columbia University, began showing with Metro Pictures in 1982, and exhibited with other galleries in the East Village throughout the eighties. He was a member of "Collaborative Projects," commonly known as the CoLab, an artists-run group which pioneered hip-hop, no-wave/ punk cinema and art, curated exhibitions in former erotic massage parlors, and included widely influential eighties artists such as Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, Tom Otterness and G.H. Hoovagimyan, one of the first artists to create Internet art.
As a member of the CoLab group of self-professed "bohemians of downtown Manhattan," Robinson presented illustrative paintings depicting the commonplace contents of an ordinary medicine cabinet, the delights of diner dinning, rows of Budweiser bottles, and large-scale Spin-paintings.
The Spin-paintings are part of Robinson's mythology as a critic. The first incarnation of these were abstract small-scale enamel-on-cardboard paintings made by a child's "Spin Art" machine. These machines were novelty play-things that robotically created exciting, energizing, joyful abstract paintings by allowing kids to load color into the machine and have the machine splash paint on canvases, Frisbees or anything, without much mess. In the late eighties, Robinson took the basic Spin-Art technology and enlarged it by using a motor-fan, a pulley, and a base to secure his canvases, which he then mechanically covered in swirls of strong color, straight from the tins of sign-painters' enamel paint. Using this system, he would generate Spin paintings which he showed at Metro Pictures in 1976 and 1987.
In a 2005 interview on the "ARTlist" website, Robinson explained that, "The idea of the Spin paintings was to have a machine that would take all the subjective, arbitrary decisions out of making abstractions - decisions that always seemed so trivial." Though the actual composition was out of Robinson's hands, the paintings - some of which measured 4'x4'- were very labor intensive, and the best of them convey the sheer disorienting impact of going into warp-speed on Star Trek or being hypnotized. Robinson gave his paintings maudlin or poetic titles such as "the Keen Edge of Despair" (1986), "The Void, Death and the Infinite" (1986) and "An Ugly Trap" (1986). But despite their visual impact and cool cynical concept, Robinson's Spin paintings initially received a moderate critical and commercial reception.
But the significance of the Spin paintings, and by extension Robinson's standing in the art ranks of the eighties, was clarified in the mid-90s when Damien Hirst began exhibiting his own series of Spin-Art canvases. Hirst's paintings were circular and used high-end household gloss and a lighter palette, which produced sleeker and shinier surfaces than Robinson's matte enamel versions, but the actual effect was strikingly similar. The dark, witty titles Hirst gave to his works were much wordier than the titles Robinson gave to his, but they often had the same acid sensibility. Apart from the titles' word count, the paint's gloss and the cut of the canvases, the biggest difference between the Spin paintings Robsinson made in the '80s and the ones that Hirst rolled out ten years later was the eventual economics of their reception.
In March, a Spin painting by Hirst sold for €220,000 ($437,000), more than five hundred times the amount it had fetched a year ago. Hirst's paintings were popular with collectors, even before such massive amounts were paid at auctions for the canvases Hirst's assistants and his spin machine produced in his studio. In 1998, the Big Issue commissioned a Spin painting from Hirst that he titled, "Beautiful Big Issue What's got a Bottom on the Top Chris Callaghan Surely Pink Swirly Painting (With Smoked Fag)." The Big Issue, a magazine sold by homeless people whose proceeds support homeless causes, raffled off the painting It was won by a support worker in Liverpool who later collected £28,000 from its re-sale. Though Hirst convincingly claims that his Spin paintings were inspired by segments on the BBC kid's show Blue Peter that he watch as a boy in Brighton, since his Spin paintings came onto the scene, conversations about Robinson's painting career have centered around the comment - "You know that he did Spin paintings before Hirst, right?"
In a curiously toned review of Robinson's current Metro Pictures show, Robinson's long-time friend and Artnet's temperamental lead contributor, Charlie Finch, wrote, "You are going to hear a lot of balderdash about Walter Robinson's work as forerunners of John Currin, Karen Kilimnik and others. Don't believe it: they never heard of these paintings and Robinson's oeuvre proudly stands on its own, sui generis."
But skulking around Robinson's current exhibition at Metro Pictures is the question whether an assessment of his work can ignore comparisons to similar but more well-received art that came after him. And also whether responses to his paintings can be divorced from his influence, authority and personality as a critic.
In a 2005 blog post, Martin Bromirski, an artist/ blogger for anaba.blogspot.com writes that he prefers Robinson's Spin paintings to Hirst's, but likes Richard Prince's appropriation of Pulp Fiction covers more than Robinson's "Romance Series." Bromirski then confesses, "You probably think I'm making this huge suck-up move to Walter Robinson, which I partly am, but I'll sabotage it by sharing that Robinson thinks I'm a moron. He sent me this in an e-mail a while back - 'thanks for the stab in the back - I'll try to remember it in the future... tell your readers for me that I think you're a moron'." And while no context for the snit was provided, it is clear that Robinson's standing makes the blogger nervous.
Critics who were or are practitioners of whatever art they publicly criticize are always vulnerable to accusations of sublimated ambition or unworthy jealousy. Writing to his friend Patrick Heron, the poet and critic Herbert Read teased Heron about his attempts to balance his ambitions as a painter with his standing as a prominent critic. "Your tactical mistake was to write so intelligently about painting," Read wrote. "It is not done by the real painters - it does not fit in with the public's conception of the painter as a dumb ox."
But as I previously argued, any period of studio practice can give a critic invaluable insight into the creative artistic process and greater empathy for artists themselves. And Robinson has had a tremendous impact on countless artists', dealers' and writers' careers. Drawing upon his vast substantive experience in the studio and in the New York art world, and his discerning critical intellect and incisive writing style, Robinson has shaped the development and reception of art in New York City and beyond. A review or mention on the Artnet website generates attention and sometimes acclaim or disdain for an artist, and the magazine portion of the site is virtually required reading among members of New York's art community.
For the sake of full disclosure, I will repeat what I tell anyone who asks about my own development as an art writer - which is that I learned more during my one-year tenure as Walter Robinson's assistant editor at Artnet than I have learned anywhere else, doing anything else, before or since.
I began at Artnet after completing a Master of Studies degree in Art History and before starting work on a D.Phil. During my year with Walter as a mentor, my writing and my ideas about what constitutes good art criticism and good writing changed completely. Unfortunately for me, reading or writing most academic art criticism has suffered by comparison. It no longer seems smart to me. Or at least not compared to Walter's sardonic, sarcastic, dry, wry and immensely insightful and illuminating observations about art and other important issues.
Though he might like pulp fiction, Walter mercilessly squeezes self-indulgent purple out of his contributor's prose. And despite the trashy eroticism that he has painted, he strictly forbids intellectual onanism within the Artnet office. My father often quotes the wry slogan of the US Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program that, "Praise is the absence of strong criticism." And in that spirit, frustrated egos and the occasional legitimate dispute aside, Robinson's determination to torture obscure and often obtuse texts into exciting, informative, punchy and prescient writing make him more of a role model than an editor for the young writer lucky enough to have the benefit of his attention.
And now, in a series of email exchanges, Robinson turns his critical focus onto his own "Romance Series."
'Man for Hire', 1985
AFH: Why show this series now?
WR: No reason really - because they're a quarter-century old? Any credit goes really to Helene Winer of Metro Pictures, who initiated the show & kept the project afloat with her enthusiasm. My general reaction, at least up to the opening, was fear.
AFH: More than the first time you showed them?
WR: I haven't changed much! At an opening of a show at Metro on Greene Street in the early '80s I set up a bar, so when my friends complimented me on my pictures I could offer them a Martini. At the time I favored Tanqueray gin, and I suppose I had olives, though I don't really remember.
AFH: At least you proved them honest. Aren't the free drinks the real reason people go to openings anyway? Free drinks are the only perks for art world members like the critics. Do you think bad or just stupid behavior is too tolerated, or encouraged, within the art community?
WR: This time around we had no alcohol at all!
AFH: What are you afraid of? Bad reviews?
WR: I remember thinking that the critics understood my paintings too well. That was kind of depressing, not being more of a puzzle.
AFH: Would you want to be picked over by academics and theorists? I thought you hated that sort of writing.
WR: Well, you gotta love smart people who are good writers. I get a sense from a lot of left-wing academics that if they ever gained real-world power, I'd end up in the gulag, much in the way Chagall was cast out of his art school by Malevich after the Bolsheviks took over.
AFH: You've been with Metro Pictures for so long. What do you think is the secret to a symbiotically successful artist/ dealer relationship?
WR: I dunno, love and money? I didn't bother them for 22 years - my last show was in 1986 - so maybe that has something to do with it. That strategy hardly seems recommended, though.
AFH: Have you ever felt there was a conflict of interest between being an artist, being represented by such a big-deal gallery, and being a critic of your stature on the NY scene?
WR: I try to make a point of guiding all my decisions by personal conflicts-of-interest. For instance, I'm much more likely to write about someone who is friendly to me.
AFH: Do you think people might respond differently to your work due to their reactions to your writing, or your standing as a critic?
WR: Well, I don't know - everyone's been very nice - to my face!
'Wait Your Turn', 1979
AFH: Where you ever an avid pulp fiction reader or collector of pulp fiction covers?
WR: Yes, sadly, in my 20s I squandered untold hours in mysteries and science fiction. What's worse, I threw out my trove of old paperbacks when I moved out of my Ludlow Street apartment in 1986.
AFH: Don't you regret moving out of Ludlow even more? I bet whatever you were paying in rent wouldn't even buy a bookcase for those discarded books.
WR: The rent was $150 a month in 1980. Then I moved to a building on Clinton Street, where we eventually were paying no rent - owners of a building with no Certificate of Occupancy had no right to collect rent, under New York City housing rules (you made payments to lawyers instead). Then I got married (for the third time) and moved to a condo on West 14th Street. There I was paying $500 a month for 2,000 square feet. That was in the mid-1990s. After she divorced me, I was paying $2,000 a month for 500 square feet.
AFH: Were these images inspired by that trove?
WR: Inspired? I copied the paintings right off the covers. I always wanted to be able to paint like that.
AFH: Who do you want to write like?
WR: God, I don't know. John Cheever is magical. I liked the article on "Dancing with the Stars" that Joan Acocella wrote for the New Yorker recently. She called the show a "big diamanté cheese ball." When it comes to my writing, which is largely descriptive, it feels inauthentic if it gets too flowery.
AFH: Was this a guilty pleasure or is there more merit to these books than lit. snobs know?
WR: I grew up in the '60s - we don't believe in "guilty pleasure."
AFH: After the '90's hipster interest in appropriating trashy mass media imagery, do you think the pulp fiction reference has a radically different set of meanings for viewers?
WR: For me it was all a big accident. I thought they were about authentic desire, but the time called for an interrogation of representation. Now they have history, both art history and a curious kind of double nostalgia - a nostalgia for an '80s nostalgia for the '50s.
AFH: That was a pretty strong trend then. Why do you think that the fifties appealed so strongly to the '80 tastemakers?
WR: For baby-boomers, the 1950s represent a cultural origin - the signs that surrounded them in their infancy presumably have a kind of magical power.
'Seven Sisters', 1983
AFH: Was there even a hint of irony or cultural criticism involved in your appropriation of these images?
WR: No. Sorry.
AFH: Is your critical taste related to your work as an artist?
WR: I have very broad critical tastes.
AFH: Is there a genre or area of art that just leaves you cold?
WR: I like avant-garde gestures, like Urs Fischer's hole in the ground at GBE, and I like all the anti-art weirdness that is so popular today. I used to like formalist abstraction, like Kenneth Noland's stripe paintings, and of course I like anything sexy, like Tracey Emin's etchings or photos by Terry Richardson. I like great figurative painting, of course, and I'm always impressed by art that shows off its own fabrication methods, like those balloon-dog sculptures by Jeff Koons. Anything wacky is good, whether its a drawing by Steve Gianakos or a film by Mika Rottenberg. I'm not that crazy about art that involves obsessive accumulation, like Phoebe Washburn's or Sarah Sze's sculpture, or extreme vulgarity, like Andres Serrano's photos of his own cum flying through the air. I'm put off, too, if the opening of a show is filled with socialites. There's tons of other stuff - it's all clear enough from my writing, which is all on Artnet Magazine.
AFH: Do you tend to respond strongly to other artists producing work similar in style or content to yours?
WR: Once looking at a painting by Elizabeth Peyton made me nauseous - but just the other day I saw her latest show at Gavin Brown's Enterprise and thought it was astonishing. I look at her paintings and don't know how she does it. I look at my old paintings and feel the same way - except that I can see some kind of intoxicant propelling every stroke.
AFH: Is that a metaphor or were you really intoxicated?
WR: I'm a card-carrying member of AA, for what it's worth.
AFH: Are you allowed to say that? Isn't the point being an anonymous alcoholic?
WR: You can break your own anonymity.
AFH: You just interviewed Peyton for Whitewall magazine. Was that an enlightening experience? Not to get too meta, but do you think interviews can ever really illuminate an artist's work in any way that's interesting, or are artists' insights just background noise?
WR: Elizabeth is charming, radiant even, and getting to talk to her was its own reward. The interview felt awkward to me, though a certain amount of insight flowed from that awkwardness. At one point the gallery wanted to drop the project, and the editor of Whitewall, Jan-Willem Dikkers, did a lot of work to make it go ahead. He dropped my title, which was "Our Elizabeth" - I guess the play on the royal "Elizabeth R" didn't appeal to him, which is okay, since now I can use it myself later. I hear that Whitewall may be falling on hard times, if you know what I mean.
AFH: Regardless, I like the title. Especially because we Americans don't adopt our artists like the English do. They have 'our Tracey' but we only have 'our Britney.' Do you envy English artists for being able to become really and truly famous?
WR: Envy? Who, me?
AFH: How and why did you start writing criticism?
WR: Oi, an old story, and not so interesting. I was taking a 20th-century-art survey class in college (with Barbara Novak, as it happened) and she mentioned "Minimalism" in passing, and I wanted to find out what that was, so I took another class, which was a seminar on "Art Criticism," which to my surprise turned out to be a workshop on writing the stuff rather than understanding it. The guy teaching that class was Brian O'Doherty (curiously, Novak's husband), who was then editor of Art in America magazine. He was trolling for new talent, and I started working for the magazine after that. At the same time, in 1973, I was working for a newspaper (The Jewish Week), so that when I and two friends started our own magazine - as a project for the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program - we could steal the type and get the thing printed.
AFH: But you're not Jewish. Why were you working for The Jewish Week?
WR: I was the office goy. When I finally lost my job - for stealing type - they had to hire three people to replace me.
AFH: What do you think is the real, actual purpose of art writing? And I don't mean just "criticism" but all writing about art?
WR: Somebody has to tell you what to think.
AFH: How would you describe the tone and function of the writing on Artnet?
WR: We like to be clear and smart, with jokes.
AFH; How did the romance series fit with the prescription pills and banal balms series you did?
WR: In my mind, the connection had to do with desire and blood chemistry, the material basis of feelings. Plus there was something about painting plain and simple, and avoiding what I thought of as "the radical masquerade" of the avant-garde. Also, a quest for authenticity?
AFH: You mean that these things are "authentic" because they are low-brow? Isn't pulp fiction formulaic, therefore the opposite of authentic anything?
WR: Well, in a sense cliches are the most authentic of all, that's what makes them cliches. But I was just thinking about passion and sexual desire, the animal impulses that underlie mating rituals and things like that - the life force, one thing that is clearly universal, whatever those idiot postmodernist theorists might say.
'Richard and Peter', 1984
AFH: Since Richard Prince's 'Nurse series' is now the darling of designers and the mass media press, are you concerned that your 'Romance series' will be judged too strongly in comparison even though you got there first?
WR: You know what you say in the art world when two artists make work that looks the same? You say, "They are entirely different!"
AFH: Are you? And what about the differences between your spin paintings and Hirst's?
WR: Everything! His are round, mine are square. His sell for six figures, mine don't sell at all. My big mistake was using the spin machine like a tool, trying to control the results, use it to make different kinds of abstraction (meta-abstraction, as you might say!) when the beauty of the machine is that it makes good pictures without trying, in a perfect example of a Cagean art process - in Hirst's case, the spin paintings represent a saucy rejection of good taste, a familiar avant-garde motif. To me, the spin machine is a metaphor for ideology in an Althusserian sense - it remains the same while turning out an endless variety of different "subjects"- and, as far as I know, Hirst cares nothing for that!