WALTER ROBINSON with Phong Bui
Of all the art journals and magazines I have read and collected, I have perhaps the most affection for Art-Rite, the newsprint magazine that was given away through galleries in SoHo back in the 1970s. Free-spirited but friendly, restless and unpredictable, Art-Rite tried to operate in close dialogue with the community that nurtured it. As was observed by the artist, writer, and editor Brian O’Doherty, who mentored the upstart magazine, “Artforum had the inside track, it was the hot center, which Art in America was trying to nudge into. But Art-Rite was on the inside of the inside track of the young generation.” Artforum contributor David Frankel wrote in “The Rite Stuff: Art-Rite” in 2003, “the magazine had a different purpose, sociable, sharp, in touch: its strengths were collective and magpie, not the magisterial grand recit but the agglomerative ground-level view.” I should also add that if it had not been for Art-Rite’s remarkable apparition, the Art section in the pages of the Rail wouldn’t exist the way it does. It was therefore my deep pleasure to welcome Walter Robinson (co-editor and publisher of Art-Rite, among other things) to the Rail headquarters to talk about his life and work, especially on the occasion of his first museum survey at the University Galleries of Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. (October 17 – December 22, 2014).
Phong Bui (Rail): The first issue of Art-Rite I bought at Printed Matter was Issue #13 (January 1977) edited by the New York No Wave rock performer Alan Suicide, which featured on its cover a photo of the famous jockey Jorge Velásquez posing in his racing colors on a thoroughbred. Inside is a cryptic selection of images, ranging from a comic book drawing of Ghost Rider to photos of Elvis Presley, Iggy Pop, Willy Deville, and his wife Suzie Berle.
Walter Robinson: I remember we were going to do a European issue and we never got around to it. We’d have these ideas for theme issues—artists’ books, performance, video—that would take us forever to put together. So to fill in the gap for our subscribers, we started publishing artists’ issues, essentially artworks rather than art writing, like the one that Alan designed. We did another that was a complete musical score of an opera (“Pearl Girl,” Issue #20) composed and illustrated by an eccentric New York character named Demi. Rosemary Mayer, an important feminist artist of the ’70s, did an issue inspired by the diary of the Mannerist painter Pontormo (Issue #15). Still others are by the California Imagist Kim MacConnel and a pair of Vancouver artists who worked under the moniker Western Front. Artists’ books really came into their own in the ’70s, and were all about images in much the way Instagram is now. The leader in this regard was File magazine, which General Idea published out of Toronto, which was a nonpareil of image style. Decades later Maurizio Cattelan picked up the idea for his annual magazine Charlie.
Rail: I also like the statement in the back of Issue #13:
We dedicate this issue to the average American in search of excitement. These images, distilled from the ambient culture, are the touchstones of a new sensibility, icons of the dissipations and strengths of the modern spirit. Let the way of life idealized in these pages by the To Lose lo Track of the punk scene bring into your home the romance of the underculture—horse racing, white-trash smut, greasy rock ‘n’ roll, muscles, motorcycles and the end of civilization.
Before your arrival I was looking at the images and thought they were related to the different subjects of your paintings.
Robinson: Well, I suppose it suggests I took my own hype to heart.
Rail: Which we can talk more about later. Now we know you, Edit DeAk and Josh Cohn took Brian O’Doherty’s seminar on art criticism at Barnard College in your senior year in 1972. Given the fact that the initial attempt failed in creating a newsprint insert in Art in America, where Brian was the editor at the time, how did that translate into the impulse of wanting to publish a magazine?
Robinson: We applied to the Whitney ISP as art critics, not as artists or curators. We challenged the program to make a space for art critics. The ISP accepted us but put us in the curatorial section, though we got to go to the weekly seminars that they held in the artists’ studios. All the top artists would come in and talk. I remember Lawrence Weiner used what you might call the Socratic Method to challenge all the young artists, pushing them to account for their artistic and political presumptions. I also remember Brian telling us, almost conspiratorially, that we could start a magazine in a few years, then sell it. He was wrong on that advice [laughs]. But when you’re young, it’s so easy to do things. You have an idea and then you just do it. It’s really like the old musicals with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney where they say, “Let’s put on a show!” and they launch an incredible production in their backyard. At the time I worked to earn some money doing paste-up and typesetting for a newspaper called the Jewish Week, and so I knew a bit about the production side of things. Edith was the fearless one who could solicit advertisements from the art galleries and also contact famous artists such as Joseph Beuys, Bob Ryman, Richard Tuttle, and Dorothea Rockburne, and ask them to design the covers. The impulse to launch our own magazine was just that, an impulse, but the Whitney ISP gave us a context, and the magazine gave us an identity. Doesn’t something similar underlie the Rail?
Rail: Absolutely. What I like about Art-Rite, which I try to do with the Rail, is in spite of the fact that there are aspects of editorial unpredictability—or one may say it’s unstructured—every issue has its own structure. In other words, the fact that each issue changes its shape, size, and content, I deeply feel is an inherent quality that artists can relate to.
Robinson: Yes, but it looks to me that you have a much more professional operation here than I remember us having back then.
Rail: Well it took me 14 years to learn to be more organized in order to gain more freedom and chances for experimentation.
Robinson: We were very much seat-of-the-pants. And we were never able to manage to stay on a regular publishing schedule, to put out an issue of the magazine every month, or every two months. We were pretty good at getting grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council for the Arts. The ’70s were a good time for artists to get grant money. That, along with our focus on the growth of video, performance, and other disciplines, makes the magazine as a whole a pretty good representation of SoHo art in the 1970s.
Rail: Who says, “If it’s free, it can’t be that good”? Or “When you pay for something, you appreciate it more”? Anyway, I love Issue #8 with the cover by Pat Steir, which featured a kind of index of the various kinds of art marks, with three drawings of roses along the bottom hand-printed in red, yellow, and blue. You colored the covers with potato stamps, and there were 2,000 copies.
Robinson: Turned out good, didn’t it? Even though it nearly killed us.
Rail: I consider it a work of art. I am sure Sisyphus would agree. [Laughs.]
Robinson: Do you have the issue with Dorothea Rockburne’s cover?
Rail: Yes, I do. It’s Issue #6 in which she used up three pages, and asked that the lower right corner of the blank cover be folded back to align with the magazine spine, forming a square and a triangle at once.
Robinson: It was a little bit labor intensive, but we were just 20-somethings sitting around drinking and going out to party. We still had plenty of energy to do things. So we didn’t think twice about carving potatoes into rose shapes and stamping 6,000 roses onto Pat’s covers.
Rail: Wow! That’s impressive. I want to go back further to your early years. We know that you were born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1950. At some point the family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then you went to Columbia University in New York to study art history and psychology in 1968. Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing?
Robinson: I’m the oldest of four kids. My father was a civil engineer. My mother was trained as a psychologist and social worker, but she spent most of her time raising the kids. Once we got older she went back to work again. My father sold explosives for DuPont in Oklahoma. That was his territory, which was why the family moved there. He worked for the state and the Army Corps of Engineers to make highways and dams. I had a typical middle-class upbringing. For me Tulsa was like Suburbia, U.S.A. I didn’t know Larry Clark, I didn’t know Joe Brainard, I didn’t meet Ed Ruscha or David Salle—all Oklahoma natives. I feel like I went to high school in a daze, which only lifted after I came to New York. The milieu was very much as described in Rumble Fish and The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, which were made into movies by Francis Ford Coppola. It was the magic of I.Q. testing that sent me to New York. Somehow I scored high on the test [laughs], and, my parents having an ambition to send their eldest to an Ivy League school, off I went to Columbia University. I didn’t study publishing or writing, but those were the fields where I found employment, and I learned on the job.
Rail: Starting in junior high school?
Robinson: Yes. When I was a kid, my best friend and I published a mimeographed magazine called the 46th Street Trumpet, because we lived on 46th Street in Tulsa. It was overseen by his father, and very square, but it was a sort of comic neighborhood gossip sheet, about lost cats and cookie recipes. I think we sold it door-to-door for 10 cents. So, I should have the typical, romantic story of a young man heading to New York in search of his artistic destiny, but that’s not what happened to me. I didn’t come to New York thinking, “Oh, I want to be a publisher.” Or “Oh, I want to be an art critic.” I just came here as a confused person, not really knowing what I wanted to do.
Rail: Did you do well at Columbia as a student?
Robinson: I did okay in that I graduated. Actually, during that period, if you graduated from college, you were kind of a failure. You were supposed to be adventurous enough to drop out, turn on. Or get drafted to go to Vietnam, and so on.
Rail: Your psychology classes must have been interesting because the so-called trans-personal psychology was very popular in the ’60s and ’70s. The appeal was its synthesis of Western psychology, Eastern philosophy, and psychedelic counterculture.
Robinson: Yes. Alan Watts’s The Spirit of Zen and Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road sent us all out hitchhiking for other kinds of experiences. Columbia had a great program, a very broad-based educational program. In your first couple of years you would be taking all these readings in humanities, philosophy, and political science—CC, as they called it. Then you could take electives and I split them between art history and psychology. And you know what it means when you take a double major—you don’t actually learn anything about either subject. I squandered my educational opportunity by taking all the studio courses I could as electives. My teachers included Adja Yunkers, a third-generation Ab-Ex painter, and Victoria Barr, daughter of MoMA founder Alfred Barr.
I also took a seminar in art criticism, where I met this crazy Hungarian girl named Edit DeAk, who had sneaked over from Hungary across the border via Yugoslavia in the trunk of a car as a teenager with her husband, Peter Grass, who is Jewish. They had been resettled in Baltimore by a Jewish refugee agency but had made their way to N.Y.C. They had a 4,500-square-foot loft on the eighth floor of 149 Wooster, right next door to Paula Cooper in SoHo. Peter had sectioned off a huge area of the back for a studio. There was a ping-pong table and we’d roller skate, show slides, live in the front, and work on the magazine. I had to work in different jobs the whole time.
Rail: And you began to write for Art in America as soon as Art-Rite ended its amazing five-year run in 1978!
Robinson: Yes, I started writing reviews for Art in America when Brian O’Doherty briefly served as the magazine’s editor. Very infrequently. On a very modest scale. If you look at the file cards for the writers at Art in America you’ll see, say, Rob Storr, card after card, writing review after review on important shows. Whereas it would take me like six months to write one 500-word text [laughs]. I remember I wrote on Nam June [Paik] and first I started with a history of video art. Then I threw all that out and wrote his biography. Then I threw all that out and actually focused on the show, which by then had been closed for two months. And since I hadn’t paid any attention to what was in the show, I had to call up the gallery and ask them for information, and write it all second-hand. It was an exercise in postmodernism! By the time I had started working at Artnet, after decades of practice, I was much better at it. Now I feel like I can always think of something interesting to say. When you’re just starting out, you look at the art and you know you’re intrigued, but you don’t really know what to say.
Rail: Not to mention the required reading of previous literature on the artist so you won’t repeat things that have already been written so well about them.
Robinson: That’s always a good idea anyway, which you don’t see that much in today’s digital discourse, which is not very historically oriented. For one thing, writing for a daily Internet deadline doesn’t give you any time to do the research. It was interesting in his last article (“When It Pours”) inthe New Yorker (September 22, 2014), Peter Schjeldahl wrote about the Color Field painters of the ’70s, Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis. You can just feel in the text that he lived through it. He’s able to actually draw on his own experience and memories of being around in the ’60s and ’70s when those guys were riding high.
Rail: Peter can also make just about anything come alive, partly because of his prose. Who else were your editorial colleagues at Art in America at the time?
Robinson: Deborah Drier, Hal Foster, Craig Owens, Christopher Phillips, Brian Wallis. They all had a lot of influence on me. Roberta Smith and Scott Burton in the early days. The editor-in-chief, Betsy Baker, taught me how to write. Everyone was in awe of her. You’d bring in your carefully crafted, brilliant text, and she’d read it and proceed to ask you a string of questions about it that you couldn’t answer, because you hadn’t thought about it enough or you didn’t look hard enough or you didn’t ask anybody. I found her ability to do that totally mystifying. She had the editorial skills. When I became an editor, I would never do that. I would just rewrite the text so it suited me, because it was simply much too hard to actually work personally with all the writers. That’s why, as the art journalist Phoebe Hoban once told me: E = A. Editor equals Asshole.
Rail: What would happen when they saw all the changes, would they be mad?
Robinson: Well you try to maintain their voices. It’s only when it doesn’t make sense to you, then you need to talk to them.
Rail: So it’d be fair to say that your editorial authority didn’t come until your involvement with Artnet!
Robinson: Yes. It was in 1996 when I started editing Artnet Magazine, which meant I went from a monthly to a daily schedule. I enjoyed doing a daily much more, because there was more energy. In the digital realm, you can be very fast and you can have things to say every day which was much more exciting for me. You make endless typos but that just gives your readers something to do—they can email you corrections.
Rail: [Laughing.] What?!
Robinson: Typos no doubt are one of the plagues of your existence, right?
Rail: My name has been misspelled and mispronounced constantly [laughs]. Yikes! Before we move forward again, in the midst of making Art-Rite were you able to keep up your work as an artist?
Robinson: Well, I spent the 1970s, when I was in my 20s, trying to figure out a way to make something new. When I moved to SoHo in 1973, Frank Stella was my favorite, he and Color Field painters like Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. I wanted to make abstract paintings like those, but it was hard to do something new. Everyone was aware that painting had come to an end point, that artists like Pollock, Bob Ryman, and Agnes Martin had taken abstract painting as far as it would go. It took me another five years to come to a solution, and that was to make spin paintings. The idea was to let the machine make the paintings.
Rail: Way before Damien Hirst!
Robinson: The art world wasn’t quite ready for them. And I wasn’t pals with an advertising genius like Charles Saatchi. The strategy magically freed me from the necessity of coming up with something new. It was new and yet not that new at the same time. Perfect postmodernist abstractions. Like Craig Owens said, postmodernism takes something that belongs to mass culture and turns it into private property. That’s what America is founded on right? Taking land and declaring it yours?
Rail: If you’re still making those spin paintings, Walter, you will fit right in with—
Robinson: Zombie Formalism! [Laughter.] In the 1970s, like a lot of young artists, I made some Super 8 movies. The high point of my film career was a rock video I made in 1978 for Alan Suicide’s song Frankie Teardrop, collaborating with Alan and Edit DeAk as well as the video producer Paul Dougherty, which was acquired by Barbara London for the film collection of MoMA. The video was a montage of images, some random and some related to the lyrics, in the style of Stan Brakhage and such filmmakers. That kind of aesthetic seemed custom-made for music videos, which were just taking off as a format at that time. As it turned out, though, rock videos didn’t really embrace abstract montage, but rather featured the star singing. I remember thinking, “Hey, rock videos, that could be a real good thing to pursue.” And then laughing at myself for not wanting to do it. So I made the one rock video, and that was it. Anyway, the first breakthrough for me in painting wasn’t spin art, but pulp figuration, which came in 1979. I really liked the illustrations that were on the covers of pulp paperbacks from the ’50s and ’60s. And I thought: “It would be great to be able to paint like that.” So I started making copies of them on pieces of Masonite, supposedly in order to train myself. I wasn’t explicitly into “appropriation.” I remember Willoughby Sharp, who was an artist and publisher of Avalanche magazine and an all-around B.M.O.C., dropped by the loft and he thought they were good. Then, Helene Winer, who had been curator of Artists Space and had just started a new gallery called Metro Pictures, and who I knew from when she had worked at Artists Space, called me up out of the blue and asked if I had anything for a group show. I took something over, a picture of a seductive glamour girl painted on a sheet of red construction paper, and that was that. They gave me a show in 1980, and several more throughout the ’80s. So I’m spoiled—the art world has always come to me, I’ve never had to shop myself around. Which is probably how it happens to everyone, don’t you think?
Rail: Looking at the selection of more than 90 paintings in the show out in Illinois, I realize how wide your choice of subject matter really is. You have a whole series of portraits of your friends, Mike Bidlo, Carlo McCormick, Ellen Berkenblit.
Robinson: I thought it was funny to make the girls look great and the guys look stupid.
Rail: [Laughing.] Then there are the still-lifes of lotions and salves, aspirin and other pharmaceuticals, and beer and alcohol.
Robinson: I had a two-person show in the mid-’80s at Metro Pictures when it was on Greene Street with Thomas Lawson. I showed large-scale paintings of individual items from the drug store, based on photos I took—things like a bottle of Johnson & Johnson baby oil, or a jar of Vaseline. They were all sort of sexual. There was a box of Tampax, which I painted facing away from the camera, to be a little discrete—it was an embarrassed Tampax—and a bottle of vinegar, because vinegar is used to douche. The pictures were partially about painterly fluids, and partially about changing your blood chemistry.
Rail: What about the images that come straight out of a romance novel, or are inspired by movie posters, some of which remind me of Tom Kung, the legendary illustrator who made posters of Gone With the Wind and Doctor Zhivago, for example!
Robinson: Yeah, those romantic images, they were out of date, and seemed destined to be forgotten. With digital technology, of course, they are available, and many of the artists are getting new recognition. For me this imagery was another element of an obsession with desire, whether kissing or embracing. They were designed to be provocative, alluring, libidinous, and the romatic ones actually made me more popular with young women, or so I joked.
Rail: And those paintings were included in your first show at Metro Pictures!
Robinson: Yes, in 1980. Almost all of them were sold for between $2,000 and $3,000 per painting.
Rail: But you didn’t continue to paint the same subject matter!
Robinson: That’s right, because I wanted to branch out, like Gerhard Richter. I had seen a museum show of his in the 1970s that contained abstract paintings, portraits, and other kinds of imagery. I didn’t give a thought to “brand identity,” but rather would approach each show as a special kind of project. In a show at Semaphore Gallery in SoHo, I had landscapes and nude paintings from what was essentially my honeymoon trip to Yucatan. Another show featured what I called “Untitled Sculptures.” They were based on photos from cheap DIY books and hobby how-to’s for things like soap carving or driftwood sculptures or dollhouse furniture. All this stuff reminded me of contemporary sculpture and so it was a painter’s jab at my sculptural colleagues. Still another show was all “L’amour fou,” or head-over-heels in love, a notion that was inspired by a 1985 exhibition of Surrealist photography organized at the Corcoran Gallery. My paintings alternated images of lovers, recuperated from pornography so that only kisses were shown, no coitus, with images of treetops against the sky, as if viewed while lying in a bed of clover (or so I imagined). It was a very relaxed, and sort of open-minded and free attitude, towards what paintings could do and could be.
Rail: It’s your love of pop art in reference to your middle-class upbringing perhaps!
Robinson: I am totally middle class. You know, seeing the Jeff Koons show at the Whitney Museum, which I liked very much, made me realize that the artists of my generation, those ’80s artists, were all embracing commodity culture. Jeff just embraced it more completely. It’s all too clear from the first room of the Koons installation, with all the vacuum cleaners, preserved in their newness, and the advertising banners which say “New, New, New”! Both the avant-garde and consumer capitalism embrace “the new” with equal avidity. That’s what Jeff shows. He makes consumer goods disguised as avant-garde art. I think that impulse is a positive one, that it’s part of the life force. So is sexuality, so is desire. There’s nothing the matter with eating or drinking or loving. It’s what art is all about.
Rail: Transpersonal psychology from the ’60s! It’s still good! [Laughs.]
Robinson: At the same time, the Koons show felt like an end point. Perhaps it’s time to move art a little further. I would like to see more artists get involved in the political arena, in the way that Shepard Fairey embodied Obama’s Hope in 2008, or the way that Andres Serrano captured everybody’s imagination with “Piss Christ.” I would like to see more art attacking Republicans who love to censor anything artists do. Of course, I haven’t actually made much of that kind of art myself.
Rail: Not yet! [Laughs.] What about those paintings that are based on advertisements for clothing?
Robinson: I’m interested in that stuff as a peculiar idiom, a language of the human figure with its own modest syntax, that may be everywhere but is easily dismissed. For instance, fashion is seasonal, and divided into different genders, ages. Often the model is overtly selling, that is, they look out at the imagined audience with a smile. They are making a public address, like Barbara Kruger supergraphics. But they’re not making a civic address, unless it’s an invitation to be a consumer. They’re saying, “We’re here to sell pajamas, pants, sweaters, etc. Please buy them.” It’s the happy world of consumer capitalism.
Rail: True. In one interview I read you confessed that if you could paint like John Singer Sargent you would be very happy indeed. Why Sargent?
Robinson: Oh, I guess I’m just an old-fashioned, 19th-century kind of guy. The thing that I admire about Sargent, or a painter like Winslow Homer, is his virtuoso technique. Also the fact that these were really compulsive artists. They wanted to be working all the time, and I admire that. My friend Duncan Hannah told me this story about Sargent: he’d go to some social event and after a little while he’d get bored, and he’d say, “Does anybody have some paints?” And he’d go, and he’d whip out a picture. That kind of model of art making is something I find very appealing.
Rail: Don’t a lot of artists work just that way?
Robinson: What’s funny is the way that the art world moves so blithely from one thing to another. Ten years ago, Bruce Nauman was the most exciting contemporary artist on the scene. He was the one everybody was obsessed with. This summer it was Kara Walker then Jeff Koons, the year before it was Richard Prince. Who will be the next? We’re very fickle in the art business. What is it? Is it a sign of the wealth of pop culture? Are we like magpies, in that anything shiny catches our eye? Our business is so rich, and yet everybody complains about it constantly. It’s got problems, it’s sick, it’s not fair, and it’s not good! But there’s so much of it, and everybody wants a part of it. It’s odd, right?
Rail: Is there a place for the artists who make hermetic work that demands a much slower reading and isn’t always about constant excitement from the outside world?
Robinson: There are a lot of ways to get by in the art world. Success in the art world seems so strange and so arbitrary, and yet it seems kind of obvious and explainable at the same time. The thing that I think is most interesting in the context of the art world as a creative world is how artificial it is. It’s not like all the other disciplines, which seem to relate directly to daily life. Like newspapering spreads information or selling consumer products, or any other kind of enterprise. The visual arts world is so strangely artificial. Museums are good because it’s good to have places where we keep all these great objects that people have made over the years. But then you extend it a little bit and you have all these wacky people going to art schools and making these wacky, odd things that they show in these places. The galleries don’t really have any reason to be there. People don’t have any reason to buy artworks to hang on their walls, but they do. Of course there must be anthropological or sociological explanations for this dynamic. As a society, you have an aristocracy that wants to be exclusive. Everybody wants to look up to the people that are the best. You take any pyramid, there always has to be a rock that’s on the top and so many more down below. I’m sure the social scientists can explain why this happened. If you think of the super rich art collectors who spend all this money on art works, they want to feel exclusive. They want to feel special. They all want the number one piece, because that’s where the status comes from. It’s just the way the art market seems to function. It seems stupid to complain about it. It’s like playing the lotto. I bought a $10 Powerball. The prize is, I think, $200 million. If I win, it would be so great. Right? Otherwise, I just lost $10. [Laughter.] That’s how I plan for the future, by lotto. I’m really into “normcore.” I’m into being normal. Everybody else can be avant-garde. I will be normal. That way I will stand out.