“Those are from Backpage, do you know what that is,” Walter Robinson points to a painting of a young woman in her underwear hamming toward the viewer. It is an undeniable “selfie”—almost surreal to see rendered in opaque brushstrokes rather than pixelated washed-out photography from a smartphone. In his studio, the man who is still revered as a commentator on the art world, long time editor at the former Artnet, is explaining to me in his studio in Long Island City, where he gets material for his paintings. The ear buds from his iPod on which he listens to audio books are dangling from his pocket and he is sucking on a caramel candy. The studio is decked in hamburgers and more women from Backpage as well as women in pajamas from a Macy’s catalogue. At the other end of the room there are paintings of people kissing—the same love story playing out between a small-waisted woman in a dress and a broad shouldered man on canvas after canvas. Fast food, sex,—even romantic love—these are the depictions of desire that we, as Americans, are hit with over and over, day in and day out, so often that we forget we’re seeing them, and for some reason, there is something consoling about these images in paint, something both reassuring and petrifying about their emptiness.
Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
Were you always an artist, or was it a chosen path?
Oh, everything was ass backwards for me. I became an artist sort of by default. I remember being popular in kindergarten because I could draw high noon showdowns. That’s probably where it started, but it’s been a long apprenticeship for me. I’m a slow learner.
I was always interested in art. In college instead of studying I took art classes as “electives.” I did reviews for Art in America when I got out of college and began writing the magazine’s newsletter. I moved to Tribeca in 1973 and later moved to SoHo. With a couple of friends I published my own art magazine. By 1979 I was working with Collaborative Projects, an artist’s group, and I became part of the East Village scene in 1982.
I showed my paintings regularly from 1980 to 1986, and then I pretty much stopped exhibiting. I became a single father, and focused on the writing career. I worked as news editor at Art in America, and founded Artnet Magazine in 1996. I worked there for 16 years and we built up something that people liked and was pretty valuable.
In 2008, Helene Winer, my dealer from the ‘80s, suggested that I do a show of the ‘80s paintings that I still had. It was fairly successful and suddenly I had this nest egg. So I rented a studio. Before then I’d been working in my apartment, but to be a professional artist, you really have to stay focused and work at it. You have to be some sort of a player, be part of the community, part of the scene. Social connections are an important part of success in the art world. So in 2008 I rented a studio in Long Island City and picked up where I left off. When Artnet magazine was shut down in June 2012, I was able to become a full-time painter.
It’s fun being a critic. You get to talk about a whole lot of things, and you try to be out in front of everything important. You’re like an explorer in a new world, everything you write about you claim for yourself. As an editor, you are the center of the art world. Is New York the center of the art world? Berlin? London? No, it’s my consciousness that’s the center, as I processed all the information and put it out there for my readers. As a writer you have a soapbox, and if you do a daily magazine like I did, you get to say something every day. That’s exciting, and very energizing. Working for a monthly magazine was more like moving through molasses.
For an artist, it’s completely different. You talk about a single thing, yourself, and you get to care about one thing, yourself. As an artist, you don’t get to present yourself every day. You present yourself when you have an exhibition or when you show a work. Typically that happens much less frequently. Plus, the process is more private.
Now that I’m an artist, I don’t have to care about anything. I’m much freer. I can consume art world news at my leisure or ignore it. I sympathize with all my friends who write art news, because they all compete—and don’t seem to realize how little their readers care. I was the same way!
Do you think that art press matters in any capacity?
Well, yes art press matters, it matters a lot. Artists want two things. They want to sell, and they want to be called great—and that’s where the press comes in. Jack Goldstein, who died in 2003 but is having a show this month at the Jewish Museum, made me realize that back in the ‘80s. I had expressed admiration at his success, but he button-holed me and said something like, “Write that I’m the greatest artist.” Even an artist who has great success still wants more.
What do you think of the spectators of the art world?
You mean the audience? It’s interesting to think about the audience. There are the collectors, who are a part of the audience, who have authority because they have money. It’s a mixed blessing, and an old story—are you loved for yourself, or for your cash? I used to say that dealers exist so that artists don’t have to talk to collectors.
When I was a critic, the audience was my readership and one of my primary concerns. At the same time, the notion of spectatorship is amorphous, and hard to define. Museums are packed with people who come to participate in the spectacle of art and culture. They go to be enlightened and to delve the mysteries and to see if they can get culture. We still love it, even if it seems so . . . old fashioned.
What do you read of contemporary fiction?
I don’t do that much reading. I get audio books and listen to them and go to the gym.
I’m a fan of genre fiction, it sort of fits in with my painting. Writers like Elmore Leonard and Chester Himes—fantastic. Martin Amis’ Money, I couldn’t even listen to. The Pregnant Widow, that was one I thought was pretty good. Jane Austen Northanger Abbey, loved that—that was great. John Banville The Infinities, couldn’t listen to that—that was horrible. Donald Barthelme The Dead Father was a bore.
Oh, I loved The Dead Father when I read it.
I don’t even know what it’s about. There’s a character that is called “the dead father”—and you know, speaking as a father, I object to that right away. The thing is, to me, that sort of artifice seems stupid. You know, I was born in 1950. I’m old, I’m cranky, I’m not impressed with this kind of literary high jinks. The art world has its own nonsense, of course, but that stuff I like! I’m a 19th-century painter—Manet is a favorite— but I also love Duchampian gestures. My favorite work in the New Museum’s “Younger than Jesus” was the banana peel that the South American artist Adriana Lara had a guard toss of the floor each day. And when Dan Colen had his show at Gagosian Gallery in 2010, he took a plywood skateboard half-pipe and flipped it upside-down, making a kind of sculpture that didn’t really seem to be very sculptural. Then I thought, that’s just what skaters do, flip upside-down in the air, so the thing suddenly had a sort of sense. Is that the same as having a book with a “dead father” as a character?
The poet Robert Cunningham reviewed your show at Dorian Grey, “Indulgences,” for zingmagazine, and he commented on the strange materiality of the subjects of the paintings, so it’s interesting to hear you talk about literature because Robert brought Virginia Woolf into his analysis of your work.
Really? Because I listened to To The Lighthouse and I liked that very much. It’s got this auditory space where time collapses and you’re not sure where the narrator is. I tried to listen to Mrs. Dalloway and couldn’t do it. Some books are not suitable for listening. You have to focus too much on following the narrative, and I find my thoughts drifting off, and suddenly I have no idea what I’ve been listening to. I have the same problem with reading books. I’m reading and I’m reading and then before I know it I’m doing something else.
Basically, in his review of your show, Robert brought up Woolf’s interest in every day objects and how these items can become a whole experience for Woolf, and compared your work to Woolf in the sense that in your paintings a hamburger isn’t just a hamburger, it’s a whole complicated experience and an object of aesthetic consideration, and this way that when viewing the paintings, these representation of hamburgers, you become very aesthetically aware of a hamburger and you notice other things that you don’t necessarily notice when you simply consume a hamburger.
Far out. Like what? Factory farming? That’s a good observation actually and very nice. What I noticed is that if you have something like a painting of a cheeseburger, a viewer can dismiss it, because everybody knows all about cheeseburgers, or a viewer can love it, because they have their own personal feelings and attachments to the idea of a cheeseburger. I gives a glimpse of something about the esthetic reaction, about looking and judging.
Somehow this idea of the familiar dovetails with my feelings about imagination—sometimes I feel like I don’t have any. Making it my goal as an artist to going out in search of something new feels forced and phony. So I like to take what’s there, what’s a cliché. It feels more honest. It’s like saying you can’t fire me, I quit. I suppose there’s a sadness in the retreat to the familiar. But it’s also like a comedy, and I’m more interested in that. At least I think I am. I’ve just always hated the radical masquerade, pretending to be somehow radical, pretending to find some new way of doing things because. The art world loves that, but I know I’m not radical. That’s one reason why I paint the way I do. It’s supposed to be an illustrative style that is straightforward. It’s a denial of magic. Of course art does have real magic, some of it. A lot of artists are able to create that magic naturally, create that magic out of their subjectivity. Think of some of the great painters like Lisa Yuskavage and Dana Schutz—their individual styles seem to just come forth naturally. It doesn’t seem to be about artifice or effort. It’s about authenticity and the only way I can be authentic is to have no imagination.
I’m interested in what you mean when you say ‘magic.’ Can you elaborate?
I was thinking about this just the other day when I was looking at this Ashley Bickerton work—it was a great kind of image of an island welcome with Ashley and three wahines, made with astonishing technique, and surrounded by an elaborate custom-made frame—and it just seemed so wonderful, it just seemed literally incredible. My impulse was to try to drain the magic out of it and make it sensible and one way to do that was to imagine that he didn’t make it himself and had craftsmen do the ornate frames, which may or may not be true. I asked the dealer and she didn’t know. But I had this slightly twisted wish to drain the magic out of it and make it all seem rational and instrumental. Other people see the thing and they hate it, it seems vulgar and garish and they just don’t like it. Ashley is of course our very own contemporary version of Gauguin.
The two guys who run Dorian Grey Gallery, Christopher Pusey and Luis Accorsi, they came and visited my studio two months before the show and we talked a little bit and Luis wanted to call it “Cheeseburgers and Chicks” because I have a lot of paintings of women and I have a lot of paintings of cheeseburgers. I was uncomfortable as coming out about “chicks.” So I suggested “Cheeseburgers and Charms” and Luis, who is a real joker, came back with “Chickburgers.” Christopher then says that nobody buys erotica—the “chicks” were these paintings of “giantesses,” images of naked women from below, as if they’re standing over and dominating the viewer—and came back with the idea of “Indulgences.”
My first reaction was negative, because that’s an advertising campaign for Hershey’s. Then I realized for Catholics the notion of an “indulgence” is a sin you can redeem with good works, and I thought it would fit very well with commodity culture that all these indulgence the media spectacle offers to us that come with their own implicit forgiveness. You are forgiven for indulging in a McDonald’s cheeseburger. There’s sin and forgiveness within this show. A lot of the imagery is taken directly from ads the corporations are using to sell the stuff, so it’s already been designed by an ad agency, photographed by anonymous professional photographers, and generally engineered for maximum appeal to the consumer. Back in 1985 I had the show at Metro Pictures of pharmaceutical products and medicines, the idea being that a painting of a bottle of Excedrine will piggyback on a viewers’ desires to treat their headaches. Also, they target a specific corporate collection market, which is especially amusing. Metro actually managed to sell my big painting of a bottle of Johnson & Johnson baby oil to Johnson & Johnson.
The Dorian Grey show ended up having a lot of paintings of food in it, brownies and cookies and pancakes and stuff like that. Very humble, very common subjects for art, like a hot dog. It’s supposed to be funny, perhaps a little funnier than when Wayne Thiebaud did it. Thiebaud is a “god” and that’s one reason why my painting is called “Hot Dog Goes to Heaven.”
Several of the images come right off the box of the product. I just find it irresistible, and I’ve yet to have anyone actually notice. Strange, the image is impossibly common and yet still unidentifiable. I also love the idea that with pancake mix, it starts out as powder in a box and then somehow magically ends up as pancakes with butter and syrup and raspberries. Gotta love that, the transformation. It’s a throwback to something from my youth, Tang, that powdered orange drink that was made for the astronauts. It’s very space age.
Is the show also about today, as in, what it is that our culture wants now—I mean, these works signal something just by what the constraints of the project point to, right?
I don’t know. I don’t have any strong feelings about commodity culture. I’m certainly not about telling people what to eat, though I don’t eat any of this stuff these days, though I like to say that when I was younger I denied myself nothing, certainly not cheeseburgers. Our culture is certainly obsessed with that kind of thing, if that’s what you mean. It seems like a distraction, doesn’t it.
Are our base desires of any interest as a subject for art? They’re common. Why is that interesting? Why are pancakes interesting? Why is a cheeseburger interesting? For me it’s all about desire, and all about authenticity, but I also realize that art is an empty vessel that we fill with meaning.
Do we want art to be interesting? Is that a function of art?
Sometimes I think art isn’t serious enough. I think it should be more serious. I have an argument I like to make that art should be more polemical, and should specifically strive to participate in partisan politics— notably by attacking the Republicans. Shepard Fairey did a great thing in 2008 with his “Obama Hope” poster, but it seems now almost as if it were an accident, since for his next show he went back to dorm-room poster subjects, like pictures of Jimi Hendrix of Jean-Michel Basquiat. What I’d like to see now from the art world are artworks that target the Republican leadership, people like John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell, who really are criminals.
I’m curious about this difference between depictions of desire in advertising and depictions of desire in fine art.
It’s like I’m a sell out, huh. I always used to say to my dealers, “Tell me what to do to be a success, I’ll do it.” But they don’t tell me because they don’t know.
What were you asking? What’s the difference? I don’t know. There isn’t one.
So why not be someone working in advertising?
You mean be the commercial artist? I don’t know. You can only do what you can do, so obviously, whatever talents it takes to be a commercial artist, I don’t have. I have the talents of a fine artist. If I had the talents of a commercial artist, I’d be a commercial artist. As a painter, the question is always, what is your subject, what are you going to paint, and I don’t know where all these other painters get their ideas from, but this is where I get my ideas.
Early on I was interested in the idea of being straightforward and not pretending you’re some kind of visionary or something. It’s stupid. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
What are you working on now? Another show?
Oh, I have some things in the works. I’ll have a picture or two in this group show that the painter Tom Burckhardt is organizing for Tibor de Nagy this June, it’s about a building at 404 East 14th Street that Larry Rivers owned and that was party central for artists like Kusama and Claes Oldenburg in the 1960s. The show includes stuff by the French neo-Dadaist Jean Dupuy, who organized shows there in the ‘70s, and artists like Fred Wilson and Tom, and his wife Kathy Butterly, who live there now. And me, I lived there in the 1990s.
But I have two series of figure paintings that I’m anxious to work on and show. One is based on Macy’s fashion advertising images, and images from Land’s End and even Bergdorf’s. Fashion ads are a separate language, everyone knows that, but I like especially the very middle-brow ones, where the clothes that the models are selling are very square, and the images have sexuality but it’s fairly low-key. The models smile out at you. It’s amusing I think to have a painting that selling something like, say, pajamas.
The second series is based on ads from Backpage, where young women offer “body rubs” or services as “escorts.” These also have their own language, which has developed indigenously, so to speak. It’s a language of solicitation, and one of uncertain legality. So the images both disclose and hide—the women show their bodies and disguise their identity with sunglasses, for instance, or by cropping, which is fabulous, since that’s a technique that dates back to Degas. Or the pictures are of other people altogether. The imagery is about seeing, showing, selling, and transferring all that to contemporary painting in today’s art-market-driven art world has fascinating results.