Curator Barry Blinderman Examines Our Relentless Desire to Possess in “Walter Robinson: A Retrospective”
Artwork: The Eager Ones, 1979, acrylic on masonite, 21 x 18.”
American artist Walter Robinson (b. 1950) moved to Manhattan in 1968 to study art history and psychology at Columbia University, and quickly became a fixture on the art scene. He wrote for Art in America, co-published Art-Rite, was arts editor of The East Village Eye, and editor of artnet, as well as a prolific painter in his own right.
In celebration of his work, curator Barry Blinderman has organized Walter Robinson: A Retrospective, the inaugural exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch, New York, currently on view through October 22, 2016, which is accompanied by a monograph published by the University Galleries at Illinois State University. Featuring 71 paintings made between 1979-2014, Robinson’s work explores the relentless America desire to commodify everything. Blinderman speaks with Crave about Robinson’s work.
What was the inspiration to curate A Retrospective, and how did you organize such a vast body of work into a cohesive visual narrative that recounts Walter Robinson’s development as an artist? What were the key themes you wanted to explore in the exhibition?
Barry Blinderman: I was first attracted to Walter’s work in 1980 or ‘81 when I saw his spray-painted multiple on oak tag of a man wielding a broken bottle at a Colab pop-up “A More Store,” and later, at his first solo show in the front room of Metro Pictures in 1982. I exhibited his “Mexican Vacation” paintings at Semaphore Gallery in Soho in 1984, in a two- person show with Duncan Hannah, and finally, in 1986, in a one- person show of nudes and “Untitled Sculptures” which were representations of arts-and- crafts projects from a “how-to” magazine.
He had three additional exhibitions in the ‘80s at Metro Pictures, all on different themes: over-the- counter pharmaceuticals, portraits of his daughter Antonia, and the spin art paintings. And two shows at Piezo Electric in the East Village, of porn-based paintings, Antonia’s dolls and stuffed animals, and portraits. So I’ve really known and appreciated his work for years, and I think he is one of the very best painters to emerge in the 80s, but one whose career had been overshadowed by his more celebrated peers. Part of the reason was that Walter hardly exhibited from 1987 to 2008, while he was busy raising Antonia and then working full time as editor of artnet magazine.
A lot of my students and fellow faculty were aware only of his writings, and even people who were around in the ‘80s knew about his pulp romance paintings but had little idea he’d done such a wide variety of work.
As a curator at Illinois State University, I’ve tried to correct the historical record in terms of an artist’s visibility, as I did with retrospectives of David Wojnarowicz and Jane Dickson, for example, in the early ‘90s. Over the past 10 years or so, especially since Metro presented a selection of ‘80s romance paintings in 2008, I’ve felt that if I didn’t do a retrospective of Walter’s work, some other curator would surely beat me to it, or even worse, no one would! Walter is shy about this sort of thing though, so it took several asks over a period of many years to get him to commit. And as it turns out, the timing was perfect—he’s been producing more work in the past several years than ever before, with new series like the normcore fashion paintings, and continuations of his earlier themes of pulp novel covers, porn, food, pharmaceuticals, and alcohol.
After we agreed on a show, I went about methodically collecting slides and digital images of his work. Most came from a book of 500 slides that Walter lent to me, and the works after 2008 I found on various sites online. I became even more excited about the breadth and depth of his work, lamenting that a lot of the 80s work was lost or otherwise unaccounted for. He’d done more than 100 spin art paintings between 1985 and 1987! (A lot of critics like to point out that these preceded Damien Hirst’s by a decade.) After reviewing the images collectively, I realized I wanted to approach the work thematically as opposed to strictly chronologically, with categories including consumables (food, liquor, cigarettes, medicines and lotions), pulp-fiction covers, spin art, porn, clothes, and portraits.
All of Walter’s work, including the abstract spin paintings, is about consumerism and desire, whether involving sex, pain relief, or junk food. Unlike other, more celebrated “Pictures” artists whose images are appropriated from popular culture and advertising, Walter hasn’t been afraid to cross the line from the theorists’ proscribed detachment into representations that project authentic emotion. The portraits of Antonia are absolutely disarming, and even a painting of an Excedrin bottle, beyond the humor, projects loneliness or heartbreak. And that’s what has always grabbed me about his art, and what I believe comes across really strong in this exhibition, and also in the book, which contains over 100 reproductions of work not in the show.
I am struck by the fact that, “nearly everything Robinson depicts is either for sale or for hire.” There is an intensely seductive quality to the commodification of life, be it salacious or mundane. It calls to mind the rise of Madison Avenue in the mid-twentieth century, and the culture that is spawned, where everyone today is so quick to declare their very selves as a brand. How does Robinson’s work illustrate, explore, and even subvert the relationship between desire and consumerism, and ultimately reveal its influence on our ideas of the self?
Walter’s strident colors and the loose but precise way the paint is applied really draw you in, no matter what the subject. This craving we have, the need to possess, applies as much to art as to other commodity. Like the back-page “escorts” and the Lands’ End models he paints, artists, if they are lucky, also engage in economic transactions and negotiations. Their work can even be purchased from online catalogs. And in a more general sense, as you’re saying, we all are buying and selling—religion, education, something as ethereal as music, all have been turned into products that are peddled and consumed as heartily as cars and perfume.
The thing is, Walter’s not preaching. He knows we are living in what he terms a “capitalist consumerist utopia,” and he’s fine with it, he’s observing it. These days, though, he’s leading a far more abstemious lifestyle than in the 80s, so when he paints a Jack Daniels bottle or a cheeseburger, he’s painting things he’s denying himself rather than indulging in. And that adds a whole new layer of meaning.
I love the seamlessness with which the paintings flow between high art, genre art, advertising, and pop culture. There seems to be an intuitive understanding that these categories are not necessarily natural so much as they are self-imposed for some external intention, such as ideology or sales. To bring them together in such a fluid manner suggest a mind that sees the world as such. How would you describe Robinson’s philosophy of art?
Oh, Walter just shrugs off that question by claiming “I’m just a stupid painter…idling away in my little private playground.” But yes, he’s very canny, and that fluidity you describe is what makes the work all the more interesting. The paintings’ meanings are multilayered. There’s the art historical reference—a container of French fries refers to Jasper Johns, a checkered shirt to geometric abstraction, an arrangement of body oils and lubricants to Morandi, and a model in a striped shirt to Manet or John Singer Sargent. And on another level, by painting the same subjects over and over again, Walter is doing his own kind of branding. He’s said half-jestingly that if manufacturers’ market research works for them, it would also work for him. And hopefully, with all this attention, it will!
All artwork: ©Walter Robinson.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.