On one level, Walter Robinson’s paintings of glamorous models, sexy couples based on 1950s pulp-fiction covers, adorable kittens, fast food items, and other media subjects are part of a long Pop art tradition that began in the mid-1960s. Artists from Tom Wesselmann to Richard Prince have employed similar imagery with tongue-in-cheek humor and irony. But unlike many Pop images, which can be coolly detached, Robinson’s lushly painted compositions are blatantly romantic in temperament. His work as a whole, though based on media images, encompasses a specific and rather personal exploration of love, passion, and objects of desire.
The seventy-some paintings spanning more than four decades in “Walter Robinson: A Retrospective” at Jeffrey Deitch were arranged thematically. (The show was a slightly pared-down version of a museum survey organized by curator Barry Blinderman for the University Galleries of Illinois State University, Normal.) The first works one saw were a group of medium-size still lifes from the mid-1980s based on photos of drug-store items, such as a jar of Vicks VapoRub and a bottle of Vaseline Intensive Care. Robinson’s paintings often harbor a subtly acerbic view of commercial advertising, his portrayals of brand-name goods underscoring the way desire can be packaged and sold. Other “quick fix” imagery included scotch bottles (Johnny, 1984) and burgers (Big Mac, 2008, and Turkey Cheeseburger, 2012). Robinson seems to parody the seductive allure of ads by putting these mundane items on canvases and painting them with exaggeratedly sumptuous brushwork.
A central figure in the New York art scene since the 1970s, the Delaware-born, Oklahoma-raised artist showed his work in various East Village galleries in the 1980s and was a member of the collective Colab. He is also known as an editor and writer. He put out the magazine Art-Rite, with Edit deAk, from 1973 to ’78, and was an Art in America contributing editor for many years. In 1996, he became the founding editor of Artnet’s online magazine, where he remained for sixteen years.
Portraits of friends painted in the mid-1980s, including artists Mike Bidlo and Martin Wong and critics Carlo McCormick and Joe Masheck, were grouped together in a mezzanine space. During the ’80s, Robinson also experimented with abstraction, taking a typically Pop approach by making “spin art,” using an enlarged version of the children’s toy. The spin paintings on view here, made between 1985 and 1987, predate similar works by Damien Hirst by nearly a decade. More recent series present images from mail-order catalogues, depicting items like folded men’s shirts. Lavender Shadow Plaid (2014), and Long Sleeve Plaid (2015) isolate their garments in the center of the canvases against monochrome grounds. The gridded patterning of the plaid fabrics brings to mind Minimalist art, particularly some of Agnes Martin’s early abstractions.
Robinson’s most complex—and in some ways most accomplished—works are his figural paintings, which often feature stock scenes of passion between heterosexual couples. Capturing emotions ranging from ardor, as in Something of Value (1986), showing lovers embracing, to alienation, as in My Love is Violent (2011), where a pensive woman in a robe turns her back to the painter just as he unveils an unfinished nude study of her propped up on his easel, these paintings show the quirky expressiveness that can be found in archetypal figures and mass-produced source material.
Throughout his storied career, Walter Robinson has been classified under different categories yet contained by none of them. A partial list includes: 1980s-era Pictures Generation painter (represented by Metro Pictures alongside Robert Longo and Louise Lawler and, prior to that, exhibiting with the legendary Colab collective), art critic (he was an editor on A.i.A.‘s staff from 1978 to 2009), and founding editor-in-chief (from 1996 to 2012) of Artnet Magazine, a pioneer of online art reporting. At Lynch Tham we saw Robinson in full form as a painter, demonstrating his ability to fully invest himself in his subject matter while keeping a light touch on the wheel. Viewing these bright and breezy renderings of fashion catalogue advertisements (all but three from 2014), we see just how in thrall we are to a culture that values us solely for our compulsion to consume.
Cleanly arranged on the walls were 12 works in acrylic on canvas, linen or paper in sizes ranging from 9 by 12 inches to 6 feet high. All contained imagery appropriated from Lands’ End and Target circulars, mostly for the winter and summer seasons, featuring models in their teens and 20s cavorting in cotton and woolen clothing on simple, or largely unmodulated, backgrounds. (Think of the white paper backdrops that professional photographers typically employ.) Robinson’s approach to figure rendering is appealing and unfussy, as he reduces large areas of light and dark to confident strokes of color. Lands’ End Friends and Family depicts five adults as a mass of roiling texture and bright color. Both revealed and obscured in an impossibly chummy post-ski portrait, the figures are slathered in the “easy separates” of nubby, woolen fingerless gloves, winter sweatshirts and parkas, and knit caps. One figure is almost unrecognizable as a female, smothered under the arms and shoulders of her smiling, overly protective companions. Long Sleeve Plaid is the straight-on view of a plaid shirt folded neatly, as if ready to be packed into a suitcase. The shirt becomes a marvelous painterly opportunity, its pleasing pattern a lush crisscrossing abstraction of linear daubs of white overlapping loose geometries of red, yellow, blue and green. Robinson’s enjoyment of paint is apparent everywhere, making up for how downright disturbing it is to look for so long into such anodyne faces and things. Who doesn’t like plaid? And who doesn’t like to be fooled?
While I prefer Robinson’s still lifes (the shirt; a single pair of galoshes), he wreaks his best havoc in the scenes with figures, perfectly capturing in his economical brushstrokes the specious mix of false shyness and sexy innocence that is the semaphore code of middlebrow model shoots: the uneasy shifting of weight to one side; the raised hand that barely covers the repressed giggle; the one bare, tanned knee turned demurely in toward the other. Just what private joke do models, paid to display themselves, always seem to be giggling about, anyway? Most likely, it is one manufactured for our gaze, the better to convince us that in purchasing these products, we, too, will share the mood. Robinson reveals such logical contradictions with no pretense, no secrets.