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.”
“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.
In June 1980, the group organized a show at a massage parlor in Times Square. “The Times Square Show” was a hit. Jeffrey Deitch–now the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art but then a young critic–wrote that the art was “just as raw, raucous, trashy and perhaps even as exciting as some of the more notorious attractions of the tenderloin.”
“I must have gone four or five times,” Mr. Alexander recalled. With the art market picking up after the ’70s doldrums, some Colab artists were offered gallery shows.
Mr. Alexander held an exhibition to raise money for the group, and recalled, “I bought a beautiful painting by Walter of a head of a blonde girl. It seemed kind of strange then, but I think it was incredibly prescient of what was coming”—the first hints of art that mined commercial imagery for material.
Richard Prince “rephotographed” advertisements for watches and suits; Cindy Sherman shot her famous “Untitled Film Stills,” appearing in each photograph as a different character. They showed at the Metro Pictures gallery in Soho. (Full disclosure: this writer worked at Metro Pictures briefly in 2010-11, after Mr. Robinson’s relationship with the gallery ended.)
Mr. Robinson experimented with film for a time. In 1978, before MTV, he, Ms. deAk and filmmaker Paul Dougherty shot a Super 8 film for the song “Frankie Teardrop,” by the abrasive electronic group Suicide. It’s now on view at the Museum of Modern Art. “I remember thinking, this would probably be a good thing to do, make rock videos,” he said in his studio, sardonically. “But I didn’t really want to do that.”
Instead, he painted, picking up technique from a how-to book, and using as sources film posters and the covers of pulp novels: a femme fatale in a yellow bra, a couple embracing.
“He’s this guy that’s got this devious sense of irony done with incredible sincerity,” Mr. McCormick said.
Ms. Winer, one of the owners of Metro Pictures, thought his work would fit at the young gallery. His first show there, in Feb. 1982, sold well, with paintings going for a few thousand dollars each. In 1984, he had three major shows—at Metro and two long-lost galleries, Semaphore in Soho (with painter Duncan Hannah) and Piezo Electric, an East Village gallery run by Lisa McDonald and Doug Milford.
Seemingly overnight, galleries began popping up in East Village storefronts. It was the anti-Soho: at its best, wildly pluralistic, unpretentious; at its worst, proudly tacky. “The scene was kind of infantile, and it was highly democratic,” Mr. McCormick said. “It wasn’t always the best artists, but we weren’t about making those distinctions.” The parties were wild. “I was chasing girls and being a drunk,” Mr. Robinson recalled. “Having romances. It’s all sort of a fog.”
A rising star, Mr. Robinson was writing for Art in America and serving as art editor of the East Village Eye, an alternative paper. “He morphs from one identity to another,” said a friend, Paul Hasegawa-Overacker, known as Paul H-O.
“All of that drinking and hanging out,” said dealer Frank Bernarducci, “let’s just say that it’s distracting.” Nevertheless, three more major Walter Robinson shows came in 1985, one of them in Los Angeles.
As the ’80s progressed, Mr. Robinson expanded his repertoire: greeting-card kittens, still lifes of beer bottles and Vaseline containers. “He did just about the most self-sabotaging work you could do,” Mr. McCormick said.
“And then, of course, the last straw was his spin paintings,” Mr. McCormick continued. Like the spin paintings that British star Damien Hirst has become known for—Mr. Hirst made his first spin in 1995; the top price for one at auction is $2.27 million—Mr. Robinson’s were enlarged examples of the works that one makes at carnivals, by pouring paint onto a spinning sheet of paper.
“I made these as a kid on the boardwalk in Ocean City, N.J.,” Mr. Robinson told us. There were six hanging on one wall when we visited his studio in December, each about three feet square. One looked like a cartoon sun exploding. They are radically different from Mr. Hirst’s: more varied and grittier.
“You want to make abstract paintings, but it’s so difficult because you can’t think of anything that seems original,” Mr. Robinson told us. “Suddenly the idea of using this machine, which everyone knows about, frees you totally. It’s like this postmodern epiphany. You don’t have to worry about being original.”
Mr. Robinson grew more animated, “Instead of using it to say that I don’t give a fuck about the art world—like Damien Hirst is doing—I ended up using it as a tool.”
Few of them sold. “There were also artistic failings on my part,” he said. “A, no one wanted them. B, it was absurd to make bigger ones”—he had planned to make them a foot larger on each side each year. “So I gave up.”
“If an artist is rejected, they should do more,” he continued. “That was the great artistic failure. I remember when I first saw a Damien Hirst painting my heart sank. But you kind of get used to it.”
There were other problems at the time. In 1983, Mr. Robinson had begun dating Beatrice Smith, one of three daughters of sculptor Tony Smith. “They were the sirens and the beauties of that scene,” said Mr. McCormick. “Kiki, Seton and Bebe, and Bebe was the most beautiful and interesting.” Soon after they started dating, they learned she had AIDS.
Before Ms. Smith died, in 1988, she and Mr. Robinson married, and he adopted her daughter, Antonia. (“It definitely changed my life for the better,” he said.) He began painting both of them. “I thought that Walter liked the idea of my sister, but also of having a family,” Kiki Smith said. “It was very much her wish that he take responsibility for raising her, and it was something that he did in a very profound way, with a great deal of seriousness and dedication.”
He worked on new series—of photos from his honeymoon in Mexico with Bebe and still lifes of medicine containers. “I see artists painting still lifes and it’s the same fucking thing,” Mr. Robinson declared. “Paint something you really want!” (He’s been painting burgers and nonalcoholic beer recently.)
“I used to tell people it’s the kind of painting Manet would do, capturing something in one or two brushstrokes,” said Mr. Blinderman, who showed Mr. Robinson’s work at Semaphore. “Those paintings are all about desire and pain. They’re about stuff that’s not really romantic, and is actually pretty damn sad.” They can recall Morandi, simple subjects rendered with spellbinding, sometimes uncanny ease. They didn’t fit with the times.
In 1986, there were four solo shows, one at Wessel O’Connor, an East Village gallery that had opened in Rome. (He painted on huge patterned bed sheets, which made shipping easy.) And then the East Village scene vanished, wiped away by the gentrification it helped spur on, and his relationship with Metro Pictures grew strained.
Sitting at the Tribeca restaurant the Odeon in mid-January, Ms. Winer recalled that by the late ’80s, Mr. Robinson’s work was no longer selling regularly. Photography and mechanical-looking work had supplanted painting, and he was working more at AiA, raising his daughter, painting less. “I think the girls wanted me to show some commitment,” he said, speaking of Ms. Winer and Ms. Reiring. He also became more apprehensive about exhibiting. “I like making the art, but putting it out there I’m not so comfortable,” he said.
“‘Walter choked!’” Mr. Halle recalled another major artist declaring, one night in the 1980s. “Like he was playing a basketball game.”
“There was that certain ‘bad’ painting aesthetic that he did, but a lot of his work was touching, sweet paintings, that had subtlety,” said Cathy Lebowitz, who joined Art in America in the late ’80s. Mr. Robinson was something of a mentor for her, and after they had known each other for a few years, she joined him and Mr. H-O on their public-access television show, GalleryBeat.
The show started in 1993. The two men regularly visited galleries during the week and one day Mr. H-O decided that it would be worth bringing along a camera. The tone of the show is about as far from the realm of academic discourse as one can imagine. “It came from about the third grade, I think,” Mr. H-O said.
A sample episode, from 1995: The Robinson-Lebowitz-H-O trifecta saunters into Gagosian Gallery, then in Soho, to see a show by sculptor Mark di Suvero. “This one here is the predator!” Mr. Robinson says, pointing to an angular sculpture. Mr. H-O appears in front of the camera: “As you have seen in a previous show of ours, Mark di Suvero is somewhat of a predator.” Cut to a video of Mr. di Suvero on all fours, barking like a dog, apparently attempting to impress an attractive young woman.
“They would be in the office conspiring,” Betsy Baker, then editor in chief of Art in America, said. Every once in a while dealers would throw them out, as was known to happen at Andrea Rosen, PaceWildenstein and the Dia Center for the Arts, which prohibited filming. After Dia ejected them on camera, Mr. Robinson becomes as incensed as he seems capable of being.
“The thing about the Dia Center for the Arts is that what they do is bullshit,” he says briskly. “The money floods in from the rich people who write it all off on their taxes. They charge you four bucks to go into this place. They hardly ever do any exhibitions, and they won’t let us in to show you a little TV. It’s the worst things about contemporary art—elitist, snobby and stupid.”
“We got a lot of people who were disaffected from the art world,” Mr. H-O said. “People who were bitter about their experiences, who had gone out and gotten their asses kicked.” Was Mr. Robinson was one of those people? Mr. Robinson was not happy with his relationship with Metro Pictures, Mr. H-O said. “But then again, where was his energy going? His energy was going into being an editor. That’s the day job that took over the art career.”
“I would say, ‘You should make more work,’” Mr. O’Brien, who met Mr. Robinson while writing a sports column for the Eye in the ’80s, told us. “And he would say, ‘Shut up.’”
“I must have not felt like an artist,” Mr. Robinson said. “I just sort of stood around.”
At the end of 1995, Mr. Robinson was offered a job at a young company called Artnet, working alongside Mr. Milford, one of Mr. Robinson’s old dealers. The company began in 1989 under the name Centrox, offering auction data via faxes, and a Swiss investor named Hans Neuendorf was transitioning its price and image databases onto the Internet.
“Art in America, with all of its prestige, pays like shit,” Mr. H-O said. “You can’t raise a family on that salary.” Mr. Robinson signed on. “He was the first art writer to realize that if you do not exist online, you may not exist at all,” Mr. Saltz said. At the time, Artnet magazine was the only Internet publication devoted to art.
“From the outset, the magazine was a loss leader, and it still is,” Mr. Neuendorf said, adding that today the editorial properties—there are also French and German publications—lose $1.5 million a year.
People talk about dysfunction at Artnet back then, and Mr. Milford left after about a year. “Walter is a very charming man,” Mr. Milford said, adding vaguely, “He has other capacities as well.” Mr. Robinson steered the website through the Internet boom and bust—when cash dried up and writers went unpaid for months.
He has occasionally courted controversy at Artnet, for example by publishing the work of the acid-tongued critic Charlie Finch, a friend, for the past 15 years.
Mr. Robinson remarried in the mid-1990s, to the art historian and curator Anastasia Aukeman. They split in 2000. Moving out of their East Village loft, Mr. Robinson sold a bunch of his artworks at bargain prices: spin paintings for $100 each. “There were stacks and stacks of work,” Mr. Finch recalled. “It was kind of dirge-like.”
When The Observer returned to Mr. Robinson’s studio this past weekend, snow was packed on the sidewalk outside. The nose cone painting had been shipped off to Tucson, and he was just finishing work on a new small painting on paper of a young woman in a bikini, its top polka dotted, its bottom striped.
He has been painting regularly again, and has been in a few recent group shows. Among the new works are nude women on beaches and bright-faced women’s heads on cardboard, some titled Shemale and others named for porn stars. And there are the still lifes, including a new one of scrambled eggs, caviar and buttered bread, based on a photo Martha Stewart took of her breakfast.
What comes next?
“Collectors were happy to buy a picture to fill out their ’80s portfolio,” Mr. Robinson had told us in December, talking about his 2008 show. Then he channeled a buyer. “‘Oh, Robinson was in there as part of that Pictures business. They’re pretty, they’re sexy.’ You know, things get better as they get older, sometimes. They bought them, but that doesn’t mean that they want to come back now and see more work.”
Mr. Robinson said that some people have a simple answer for why he isn’t showing: “I didn’t become a successful artist because I didn’t want it enough,” he said. He thought for a moment. “Sometimes it seems like you have to really want something to get it,” he said. “Other times it seems like it’s handed to you on a silver platter.”
That reminded us of something he wrote a while back, in the 10th issue of Art-Rite, in 1975. “Good art is accidental the way daydreams are,” he argued. “Prone to manipulation, but no guarantees.”