Q&A with Walter Robinson, Neo-Pop Painter



Before Richard Prince copied pulpy images and before Damien Hirst made spin paintings, Walter Robinson’s similar body of work nearly brought him to the brink of superstardom on the 1980s art scene in New York. Instead, he focused on being an art critic, best known as the founding editor of Artnet. Now Robinson is back, creating paintings that explore consumer lust and exhibiting again in New York.

You’re working on a piece for ARTnews about how to ‘fix the art world’ – why do some think it’s broken, and why do you think it isn’t?

The art world is booming, with more artists, galleries, museums, art critics and auctions (and higher prices) than ever before. And yet, all this good fortune is shrouded with pessimism. Is it the fear that we’re racing towards a cliff? That’s certainly a very contemporary anxiety. Plus, the avant-garde is wracked by guilt. After all, it cannot be denied that art today is as much a bauble for the wealthy as it is a succor for humanity. Besides, most art sucks. No wonder people want change.

In your talk at Roger Smith, you said you think it’s OK to view women (or men) as sex objects, as long as that’s now the only way you view them. Why do you think that artists will have flexibility to express cultural criticism in direct and unambiguous ways, even if it might be offensive to some in today’s politically correct society?

Avant-garde art is expected to challenge mainstream sensitivities, and it regularly does so. A more difficult task is to spark meaningful change, not just symbolic outrage.

Last year, the New York Times ran a piece titled ‘Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?’ The fiscal crisis of the ‘70s created violence and danger, but also cheap rents and a city that was ‘more democratic’ in that creativity was limitless for downtown artists who had nothing to lose. Do you think the climate of the city during this time impacted your work or led you in a certain direction artistically?

That’s a hard question to answer in a meaningful way! Life is a path, all you can do is follow it wherever it leads.

Roger Smith has been around since 1929, so we like to tell guests where they can find ‘old New York’ experiences. As an artist who arrived in the city in 1968, what are some of your favorite experiences from decades past that are still around today?

I have a fondness for postmodern New York, a city characterized by surreal ruptures. Walk up Broadway to 112th Street, turn right, and go toward Amsterdam to see the glorious architecture of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. As you approach, you can look up through the trees and see…nothing! The Gothic steeples were never completed. It’s a dramatically truncated monument.

Here’s another: across from Madison Square Garden on Seventh Avenue at 33rd Street is a Sbarro’s Pizza. After you get your slice, go downstairs to the lower dining room and get a table in front of the big plate glass windows that look out to the underground platform of the Seventh Avenue IRT subway line. You can eat your pizza watching the commuters on the cars like human animals in an urban zoo.

Are there any NYC artists, exhibits or galleries you’re excited to check out in the coming months that we should recommend to guests at Roger Smith? And more importantly, where can they see your work after your exhibit at 18 Wooster ends on October 22?

Two really big shows are Kerry James Marshall opening at the Met Breuer on October 25 and Pipilotti Rist opening at the New Museum on October 26.

As for my work, it’s included in two group exhibitions, both opening on October 29: Zombie Formalism at Mitchell Algus Gallery on the Lower East Side, and Infotainment at Elizabeth Dee Gallery in Harlem.

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