Art

Art Net: The Life and Times of Walter Robinson

A story of outré journals, East Village parties, reality television, painting
timothy greenfield sanders 1985 e1327448989120 Art Net: The Life and Times of Walter Robinson

Walter Robinson in 1985, photographed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. (Courtesy the artist)

Ask anyone about Walter Robinson, and they mention three things. The first is his art: the skill in his figurative work; the audacity of his spin paintings; his quasi-disappearance from the art world. “He is one of the most underrated, unknown, undervalued artists of the late 20th century,” Barry Blinderman, director of Illinois State University’s galleries and one of his former dealers, said.

The second thing that comes up is his wife, Lisa Rosen, a tall, slim brunette. In the ’70s, she met Edit deAk, a onetime friend and collaborator of Mr. Robinson’s, at the rock club CBGB and visited the loft Ms. deAk shared with Mr. Robinson—“We used to roller skate in it, it was so enormous; it was fabulous,” Ms. Rosen recalled. She left for Europe, worked as a model and learned art restoration. After returning to New York in 1999, she ran into Mr. Robinson at a Julian Schnabel opening. They married in 2009.

The third thing people mention is Mr. Robinson’s omnipresence as a journalist. “I wouldn’t say he’s a gossip but he always knows what’s going on,” writer Glenn O’Brien said. “He’s so likable that people like to talk to him, and he’s pretty discreet.”

“He has one of the most munificent, open-minded, sharp-eyed takes on the art world,” New York magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz said. “He’s got an amazing bullshit detector.”

> Click to see images from Walter Robinson’s career.

“In the late ’80s, I met him at an opening at White Columns,” Time Out editor at large Howard Halle recalled. “He’s sitting there, and he goes, ‘You know, I see you as being a little bit like me. A behind-the scenes-guy.’” Mr. Halle paused. “Well, thanks, I guess. You can last a long time when you’re behind the scenes. Maybe now he’s trying to get in front a bit.”

In early December, on the Wednesday morning after Art Basel Miami Beach, the weeklong art fair that brings much of the international art world to Florida to party, politick and ogle more than $2 billion worth of art, Mr. Robinson, who has been editor in chief of the online Artnet magazine for 16 years, was back in his studio in Long Island City. He was sitting next to the nose cone from a fighter plane, discussing his career.

“When the art world wants you, it will come and get you,” he said. It was pouring rain outside, and he had just finished popping off the rubbers shielding his leather shoes. He continued in his nasally voice, “Serendipity, that is the only way I can function.”

On the nose cone, which was standing upright, he’d painted images of men and women—classic cinematic types—for a show that his old friend, the curator and critic Carlo McCormick, was organizing at the Pima Art and Space Museum, in Tucson, Ariz.

Three years ago, Helene Winer and Janelle Reiring, the owners of the Chelsea gallery Metro Pictures, presented a retrospective of paintings that he had made in the 1980s. It was only his second New York solo show in two decades, but a fair number of the pieces sold, and he used the proceeds to rent a studio for the first time in a few years.

“Helene really had to drag me out,” Mr. Robinson said. The Observer must have looked skeptical. “Yes, because I’m such a—what is it?” He paused and smiled. “A wilting flower.”

In larger cultural circles, Mr. Robinson may not be a household name but in New York’s art circles there is, in a way, no one who is more ubiquitous or whose life better reflects the exigencies of the New York art world over the past 40 years.

“He’s an old-fashioned hipster of a noble and vanishing sort,” New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl said.

Two years ago, when Mr. Saltz accepted his award for critic of the year at artist Rob Pruitt’s Academy Awards-style Art Awards, he opened his speech by saying that Mr. Robinson, a rival nominee, should get a MacArthur Award. We asked him about that. “Are you taping this?” Mr. Saltz asked. We turned on the recorder. “Walter Robinson,” he said, “should get a MacArthur Award.”

Why isn’t Mr. Robinson better known for his art? Some of his early artist colleagues—members of the so-called Pictures Generation—are in the news this year. Next month, Cindy Sherman will have her second retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and Mr. Prince, who had his own retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2008, and who is currently embroiled in a multimillion-dollar copyright lawsuit over a recent series of paintings, will be the subject of an exhibition at the Museo Picasso in Málaga, Spain.

In 1986, the last year he showed new work in New York, Mr. Robinson wrote an essay called “The Quest for Failure,” in which he made a cogent, if half-serious, case for it. “With success becoming so common,” he wrote, “the only way to remain unique is to fail.”

In the fall of 1968, Mr. Robinson, who was born in Wilmington, Del., and raised in Tulsa, Okla., moved to New York to attend Columbia University. He had vague ambitions to be an artist or writer. “I say that I majored in smoking pot and chasing girls,” he said. “But actually I majored in art history and psychology.”

Back then, Mr. Robinson—Mike Robinson at the time, a childhood nickname—was rail thin and had wavy blond hair, which he sometimes grew out. “I understand that he was a devastatingly handsome young man,” said Mr. Halle, who met him in the 1980s. He’s filled out a bit now, and his hair is gray, but he’s still handsome.

At Columbia, Art in America magazine editor Brian O’Doherty recruited Mr. Robinson and two fellow students—a striking Hungarian woman named Edit deAk and an American, Joshua Cohn—to write reviews. “It was very difficult for me,” Mr. Robinson said. “I remember I was in great agony.” Ms. deAk was baffled by the offer. “I thought, aestheticism must be in trouble if they want baby blood,” she told critic David Frankel in 2005.

After graduating, in 1972, the three moved downtown, Mr. Robinson to a $220-a-month loft in Tribeca, and they enrolled in the Whitney Independent Study Program, a year-long course that was becoming a proving ground for future art world cognoscenti. Later, Mr. Robinson moved to a huge loft on Wooster Street, where Ms. deAk was living.

It was a fertile time for art writing and publishing, and the deAk-Robinson-Cohn trio began putting out a journal, Art-Rite, on cheap newsprint. “We wanted people to throw it away,” Ms. deAk once told an art historian. “We didn’t want to contribute to raising the value of art.”

“Magazines like Artforum were so adult,” Mr. Robinson said. “If you look back at those Art-Rites, we were so immature.” The tone was irreverent; the content varied. One issue might have a poem by painter Sylvia Sleigh, photographs of recent performances and an interview with a critic like Irving Sandler or Lucy Lippard.

“They were wild,” Ms. Lippard said of Mr. Robinson and Ms. deAk. “Art-Rite was populist, political and cutting edge.”

Artists designed the covers. Ed Ruscha photographed a wax candle shaped like a devil for the front, an angel for the back. Pat Steir’s had three roses, each a different color. “They hand-printed all of them on the floor of the loft,” Ms. Steir told us. To make the print, they used a potato. “It was cheap,” she said. “No one had any money.”

Production costs were minimized by surreptitiously using the equipment of the Jewish Week newspaper, where Mr. Robinson had a day job as a production manager. “I was the office goy,” he recalled. “It was very cute.” The trio laid out the magazine on weekends until, one day, another employee happened to visit the office. Mr. Robinson was fired.

“When you’re young, you do all of these things without thinking about the consequences,” Mr. Robinson said.

While producing the magazine, artist Sol LeWitt, Mr. Robinson and Ms. deAk, along with a handful of other artists, founded Printed Matter, the now-nonprofit bookstore located in Chelsea. He bartended and made the social rounds. “He fucked every girl in the art world in the ’70s,” said Mr. McCormick.

Eventually a love triangle developed among the editors. “It wasn’t really a fistfight,” Mr. Robinson said. “He hit me. It was like in a movie, where you get hit, and you just get up and there’s no damage. I was like, ‘I don’t want to fight you.’”

Uli Rimkus, Mr. Robinson’s first wife, is the proprietor of the bar Max Fish on Ludlow Street, just below Houston. She started it in 1989, long after their marriage ended, but a small painting on wood by Mr. Robinson rests on a shelf behind the counter. There’s a kitten on one side and colored dots on the other.

A German artist with pale blond hair, Ms. Rimkus first visited New York in 1977, and flopped at the Wooster Street loft, eventually falling in with artists organized under the name Collaborative Projects Inc. “All our friends were doing Colab, and so I did too,” she said.

Among the group were future stars like Kiki Smith and Tom Otterness. Mr. Robinson joined too, and sometimes played in “cardboard bands” with his colleagues, brandishing a handmade guitar or saxophone, air-playing to a record player.

“They weren’t savvy about the art world at all, and in fact they were highly suspicious of it,” said Soho dealer Brooke Alexander, whose gallery was on West 57th Street at the time. Colab worked outside the official art world, taking over public space for shows.

“Colab was basically a scam to get federal funding,” Mr. McCormick said over coffee at the Pink Pony, next door to Max Fish. Government groups had cash, and Colab used grants to fund artists’ projects. Mr. Robinson became part of the core of Colab and served as president in 1981.

Follow Andrew Russeth on Twitter or via RSS. arusseth@observer.com

Comments

  1. Super guy, Super art, Super friend, Superman!

  2. Robert Reitzfeld says:

    Walter, I’m happy you’re painting again.

  3. [...] of Walter Robinson by Andrew Russeth, The NY Observer January 25th, 2012 • Paul H-O New feature on the wily and wooly star of GalleryBeat Television, the artist, critic, editor of artnet.com magazine. Walter has been a good friend since 1988 and [...]

  4. [...] Robinson, artist Posted on January 25, 2012 by John Robinson This is my brother, Walter, from a longish profile in the New York [...]

  5. I would never trade my Robinson Spin Painting for any Hirst–love ya Walter!

  6. Marc H. Miller says:

    Nice reading all this history. And he still sold “Kitty Prints” for $30 at the recent Colab Show at Printed Matter. Obviously an art bargain!

  7. Marc H. Miller says:

    Nice reading all this history. And he still sold “Kitty Prints” for $30 at the recent Colab Show at Printed Matter. Obviously an art bargain!

  8. Celia and Steve says:

    “When the art world wants you, it will come and get you”

    Walter: Congratulations! Looks like the Art World wants You.

  9. Marilyn Church says:

    what a fantastic article about you in the Observer…loved your observations on success& failure. It’s all relative but I’m afraid you won’t be able to fend off mega success any longer.

  10. Marilyn Church says:

    what a fantastic article about you in the Observer…loved your observations on success& failure. It’s all relative but I’m afraid you won’t be able to fend off mega success any longer.

  11. Svieille says:

    Oh my Mother! Real life and then the legend or whatever people can make out of it… Wishing you a McArthur award very soon sweet heart…

  12. Theresa says:

    I just saw Mr. Robinson in a very cool, funny doc called “Guest of Cindy Sherman”. Walter is brilliant in it!

  13. Theresa says:

    I just saw Mr. Robinson in a very cool, funny doc called “Guest of Cindy Sherman”. Walter is brilliant in it!

  14. zwack says:

    Good for you man!

  15. Regarding Walter Robinson — recall many times in the 90’s while doing my own James Kalm type of art opening video coverage for my decade ArtSeen Cable show — when in moments of convergence, there would be the Art Beat team of Walter, Paul Ho & Kathi Liebowitz on the streets of SoHo or galleries with our cameras eying each other on Saturday afternoons. We had quite different agendas about what we were doing, so I never thought of them as competition & they a jolly team.

    Walter & I go back to the Whitney Independent Study program in the Spring of 1973 which for years had it’s studio’s in an honest to God major underground bank vault on Read St just above Chambers where we would pass through the gigantic open vault doors. i believe it was right then & there that the art money thing really had it’s modern origins. In the spring of 1973 I was one of the only painters & attending from SFAI & the minimalist/ conceptualists often the unrelenting top dog speakers for whom painting was a dirty word. I had a pretty tough time & to save my sanity took a very aggressive stance with them becoming quite confrontational. I infuriated the staff & as a result my art was singled out to be excluded from the WISP part of the Whitney Biennial that spring. Several artists protested including Robin Winters also from SFAI & Charlie Ahern, etc, — but it was Walter Robinson in the art history part of the program who arranged for my art to be videoed he then made into a very cool part of WISP’s major installation in the Whitney Biennial so I was shown anyway. After this I met Greenberg & other art writers who liked what I was up to.

    In later years even though I wasn’t part of Walters inner circle — came to know many of them — he continued very supportive. He knew I was a radical underdog & therefore having a very tough time surviving but we liked each other chanciness. One year the two of us together did a panel for the Artist Talk on Art Symposium Series held in a Mercer Street Gallery in SoHo. There was a tough day for me figuring out how to video Walter’s spin paintings opening on the very same day of Damiens first major show with Spin Paintings at Gagosian in SoHo. There was also the time I was being evicted from my then huge SoHo loft on Mercer Street Walter noted on Artnet. As a result I made a crucial small sale to Warhol’s assistant Gerald Malanga. I had somehow earlier hit it off with Andy & survived a full year earlier because of him which played into this. There’s been lots written about the circumstances of it, some of it once again in 2011 making into the major media like the NY Times regarding major changes in the Warhol Foundation.

    In the mid 90’s Walter asked about my background as USAF jet pilot & my involvement with the top astrophysicists in deep space research & encouraged my writing it all up & in a back & forth over months edited to a narrative featured with my paintings on Artnet. It was something of inner salvation for me, as till then no one else knew of my past & it’s still on line.

    I’d often seriously tell Walter he should have been a star in Hollywood & definitely meant it. Anyhow there were many other adventures — what with when his taking on Charlie Finch into Artnet & the surrounding events I documented & how I later even became friends with several of major minimalists like Donald Judd, Carl Andre, etc., who turned out secretly having liked my passion confronting them — but that’s another story…

    Regarding Walter I continue to say this:
    Walter Robinson, Super guy, Super artist, Super friend, Superman!

  16. Walter R says:

    Very nice! I must say, however, that reports of sexual conquests in the ’70s are pure fiction, as I only really learned to do it after I met my current wife in 2000. And, despite any testimony to the contrary, I loved showing at Metro Pictures.

  17. [...] The New York Observer profiles the life and times of artist and ArtNet editor Walter Robinson. [...]

  18. Kruegerdavidg says:

    I would not trade my portrait of Rembrandt for anything on this earth Walter. I still remember the pain and shame of not having $100 when you purged your 14th st studio…
    and that I liked you within 5 minutes of meeting you at Artists Space.
    Had I known that our art world aspirations were of the same general temperature I would have put more effort into bonding! Still, all my sentences begin with “I” so there’s likely a place for me in the art world yet…
    Ok, back to my needlepoint of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld reading the Thermite manual.

  19. Erik Hanson says:

    wow, this was just plain fascinating…walter took my picture the day my front tooth fell out at my opening at Derek Eller in 2003

  20. Marybullockartist says:

    The only true success is to lead an interesting life.

  21. [...] Art Net: The Life and Times of Walter Robinson | Gallerist NYJan 25, 2012 … Walter Robinson in 1985, photographed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. ( Courtesy the artist). Ask anyone about Walter Robinson, and they … [...]

  22. Google says:

    Google…

    [...]The info talked about in the article are some of the most effective out there [...]…

  23. [...] Walter Robinson has helped to create a generation of New York art writers. (He also, as Gallerist reported last year, fucked every girl in the art world in the 70s). Lately, he’s returned to [...]