Walter Robinson: A Retrospective
September 17 - October 22, 2016
18 Wooster Street
By PHOEBE HOBAN, OCT. 2016
Walter Robinson’s retrospective at Jeffrey Deitch serves up a semi-toxic slice of American pie, perfectly timed for the current national malaise, during this deeply disturbing presidential campaign. And, for those who like their pie a la mode, while Robinson’s peers and fans (some of whom, like artist Mike Bidlo, are also the subjects of his canny portraits) were mobbing his Wooster Street opening on September 17, a home-grown terrorist bomb went off in Chelsea—inadvertently topping off the curdled confection of Robinson’s past-and-prescient vision.
Robinson has been painting for decades. But during the 70s and 80s he was better-known as an art-world insider, critic and chronicler. He and Edit DeAK published Art-Rite magazine from 1973-78. In the mid-80s, Robinson and Carlo McCormick regularly followed the burgeoning downtown art scene for the East Village Eye. In a 1984 piece for Art in America, they summed it all up: “…as for ambience, the East Village has it: a unique blend of poverty, punk rock, drugs, arson, Hell’s Angels, winos, prostitutes and dilapidated housing that adds up to an adventurous avant-garde setting of considerable cachet….and suits the Reaganite zeitgeist remarkably well.”
Robinson’s paintings at Deitch, done between 1979 and 2014, suit our times remarkably well, and cast a jaundiced yet jaunty eye on consumer society, ranging from pulp covers of noir fiction to our penchant for self-medication: Excedrin, Bromo Seltzer--and beer, whether basic Budweiser cans (Three Beers (1987) and Two Six-Packs (1984.)—a not-so-subtle allusion to Jasper Johns’ bronzeAle Cans—sold at Sotheby’s during the famous 1973 auction of Robert Scull’s Pop collection)--or bottles of Guinness (Two Six-Pack Guinness I and II (1983). Or for that matter, a juicy burger (Impression: Cheeseburger, (2012), or a bunch of French fries (Savarin, (2013,) another allusion to a well-known Johns sculpture, Painted Bronze (1960) of a Savarin coffee can.
Johnny Walker gets the painterly treatment too. Although Robinson, like most contemporary artists, works from projected photographs, his hand remains apparent, giving even his most deliberately clichéd images a humanistic spin.
Robinson’s catalog of consumer cravings, include, of course, the lurid and looming babes and bimbos in desire or distress (or both) accompanied by square-jawed heroes, typically armed and dangerous, many painted on large-scale canvases that resemble vintage movie posters. Some cleverly include pictures within pictures, such as the manly artist unveiling a portrait, shown from the back, of the model sitting in the foreground, (My Love is Violent, 2011) Or, as in the aptly named Picture Perfect Kill (2012) the hard-boiled noir detective type, sporting a fedora, his shoes propped on the bed where a bodacious blonde odalisque lounges, as he flips through a stack of black-and-white nudie shots.
But it’s Robinson’s portraits that cut to the quick, whether of his step-daughter, Antonia, and first wife, Bebe, (Bebe And Antonia Smith,) 1984; (Untitled) Antonia with Spoon (1983,) or his fellow critic and crony, Carlo II, (1984) or the late artist Martin Wong, (Martin, 1985) or Richard Hambleton, (Richard, 1986) known for his shadow paintings, way back in the day.
It is here, in his pictures of friends, family and peers, that Robinson’s ironic humor gives way to empathy and even tenderness, and his hand, always evident (except, perhaps, for his series of mid-80s spin paintings) is most compelling. As he has since the early 70’s, Robinson continues to keep his finger not just on the pulp - but on the pulse. WM
Phoebe Hoban is an American journalist perhaps known best for her biographies of the artists Jean Michel Basquiat and Alice Neel. Her most recent book is "Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open," 2014. Her Basquiat biography, "Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art," came out as an e-book in May 2016.
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