Walter Robinson is a painter who has exhibited his work at Metro Pictures, Haunch of Venison and other galleries. He is an art critic who was founding editor of Artnet Magazine (1996-2012), and who also served as a contributor to Art in America (1980-1996). During 1973-77 he co-published and co-edited Art-Rite magazine. Shop Robinson’s print on Exhibition A here.
You are known first and foremost as a painter, as well as the former editor-in-chief of the online platform Artnet for 16 years. Can you describe your experience of having a role on ‘both sides’ of the art world?
For years my stock answer to this question was that critics get to talk about everything, while artists talk about one thing only — themselves. Now that I have the privilege to go to my studio every day, I wonder why I spent so many hours in front of a computer. Being an artist is simply more fun. It’s true that writing IS thinking — the ideas come into being as a part of the process of producing a text. Art-making is also thinking, but of a more amorphous kind. I’m not sure how to define it — is it more meditative, or less structured, or somehow unhinged from language?
How has your style of painting evolved throughout your life? What influences may have contributed to your style?
Origin stories should be simple, and mine begins with pulp paperback covers from the ’40s and ’50s. I wanted to be able to paint like that. So the style was sexy, commercial, no longer fashionable, illustrative — anything but “avant-garde.”
Theoretically, the style should simply be denotative; it shouldn’t really matter too much how the thing is done. I think David Salle has a very good denotative style; so do Alex Katz and Elizabeth Peyton. But really, all I’m trying to do is make a picture that looks good. My dream finesse starts with Sargent and Manet, and stretches to David Park and Julian Opie.
You attended the Whitney Independent Study Program with your peers Edit deAk and Joshua Cohn in the early ’70s. Did your journal Art-Rite grow from your theoretical and critical study there? How do you think programs like this have evolved since then?
In 1973, the three of us dared the Whitney ISP to admit art critics (instead of artists and museum interns exclusively) and we launched the magazine there as our project. If it was about theory in those days, I didn’t notice it, though Lawrence Weiner did come in once as a visiting artist and school us thoroughly on the Socratic method. Now, a scant 42 years later, among the three founders of Art-Rite magazine, I’m the only one still in the art world. Is that a good survival rate?
I don’t teach, but it seems to me that contemporary art education is more rationalized, institutionalized and instrumentalized than ever before — “avant-garde” is a degree you get in graduate school. The ultimate goal is to make a place for your self; in that regard, school works like it always did.
I joke that art school should be banned, but I’m biased: I took some studio art classes as electives in college, but didn’t attend art school. I taught myself to paint from a “how-to” book by Jan de Ruth, and just started hanging out and doing stuff.
Like all non-professional readers in the digital era, I click on links from Facebook, Twitter and all the email art newsletters I’ve signed up for. As for literary and genre fiction, I listen to audiobooks almost exclusively. When I want to write something, I like to go to the Watson Library at the Met to study up. Last week I was all over their Yoko Ono catalogues working up a review of the MoMA show.
As for Colab and Printed Matter, those were slightly different artists’ initiatives that were part of the art world’s 1970′s growth spurt. Printed Matter was launched after Sol LeWitt began selling enough art to find use for a tax write off, and has become an institution.
It began when Sol, Lucy Lippard and Pat Steir had this idea to publish artists’ books, which were all the rage back then. My 2 cents was to suggest that what the business really needed was a distributor, not just another press. Then I had a stupid argument with Sol and quit Printed Matter just as it was getting going. Sol was the nicest guy; everyone loved him. So I had a fight with him.
Collaborative Projects turned out to be more transitory. It was a high-minded scheme hatched by a gang of artists– including some veterans of the ISP– to band together and go after some of the government funding that had been earmarked for institutions like PS1 and the New Museum. We did pretty well –we organized “The Real Estate Show” and The Times Square Show in 1980, founded ABC No Rio and helped fund Fashion Moda in the Bronx, ran a long-running public-access cable TV show and opened the New Cinema on St. Mark’s Place, among many other projects.
My personal accomplishment as president was to take $5,000 of our 1982 funding and rent a five-bedroom house at the beach for three months. We called it the Summer Art Institute. It proved to be a great membership incentive.
On Instagram you sometimes post art prices and auction results. Is this a tendency carrying over from Artnet, commentary on the rising ‘value’ of art, or simply observation?
My old boss at Artnet, Hans Neuendorf, would say, “Everyone wants to know the prices!” He was an art dealer and a digital visionary, the guy who invented the computerized, illustrated auction-price database that all the art-market players use today. I like to include prices because, well, I like to know everything.
Art prices are interesting for a lot of reasons. They’re a measure of value that is separate from esthetics, history and other yardsticks, but somehow tied to them. Prices are arbitrary, but have their own rationale. Most of all, I like the notion that money has no identity until art gives it one. We wouldn’t know what $58.4 million looks like if it weren’t for Jeff Koons’ “Orange Balloon Dog.”
Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
It’s summer, I’ve got a lot of paintings of people in swimwear to make.