Robert Pincus-Witten, the perspicacious art historian and art critic whose writing was chatty, even gossipy, and deeply rooted in both history and on-the-ground reporting, and who coined the term Post-Minimalism in 1971, has died, according to Artforum, where his wide-ranging work was published for decades.
Born in 1935 in New York, Pincus-Witten completed his undergraduate studies at Cooper Union in the city before obtaining a master’s, in 1962, and a Ph.D., in 1968, from the University of Chicago. His dissertation was on the occult artist Joséphin Peladan and the Rose-Croix Salons, according to the Dictionary of Art Historians. (Peladan and his circle were the subject of a survey at the Guggenheim last year.)
In 1964, Pincus-Witten took a job at professor at the City University of New York, and two years later began writing for Artforum, holding the titles of associate editor, senior editor, and contributing editor over the years. It was in the November 1971 issue of the magazine, in an article on Eva Hesse, that he first used the term Post-Minimalism, which describes work that pushes beyond the rigid, closed, impersonal nature of Minimalism into the handmade and the process-based, while still retaining some aspects of that movement, such as its focus on seriality.
The term, which has come to define aesthetic production in a panoply of fields, would become the title of Pincus-Witten’s 1977 book, and it would figure in one of his major treatises, Postminimalism into Maximalism: American Art 1966-1986, which was released in 1987. Among his publications was also a compilation of his art criticism, Eye to Eye: Twenty Years of Art Criticism, which was released in 1984 and documented his time surveying the emergence and spread of Minimal, Conceptual, Pop, and Post-Minimal practices.
Even as that moment faded, Pincus-Witten remained a dedicated chronicler of the scene, approaching new art, and also his own opinions, with careful skepticism, as Scott Rothkopf, now the Whitney Museum’s deputy director, wrote in 2003 in Artforum. Pincus-Witten’s series of diary entries about the New York art world, published in Arts magazine between 1976 and 1990 “remain among the most fascinating documents of the period,” Rothkopf wrote.
Pincus-Witten retired from CUNY, where he had been a founding member of the doctoral faculty, in 1990, and embarked on another chapter in his career—organizing shows for Gagosian Gallery and then serving as director of C&M Arts, which is later became L&M and then the Mnuchin Gallery, a rare instance, particularly then, of a writer making the move from the critical and academic realms into the commercial one. In 2013, he was married to Léon Hecht.
In his 2003 essay on Pincus-Witten, Rothkopf quoted one of his predecessor’s comments on Julian Schnabel: “What I like most about Schnabel’s work is not the work so much but his sheer o’er-arching, knock-your eyes-out folly. . . . Schnabel’s protracted-adolescent self-dramatization seems vivifying, ‘wow,’ risk-filled in a way that allows for a shared exuberance we are perhaps only too happy to lend ourselves to, a certain self-deluding collusive participation.”
Of this, Rothkopf wrote, “Some readers might find fault with Pincus-Witten’s equivocation, his having a Dean & Deluca tart and mocking it too. Yet doubt proved a unique and useful tool in his critical arsenal. His willingness to acknowledge an artwork’s seductive powers while questioning aspects of its allure (and even his own judgment) is highly refreshing in the early-’80s critical context, prone as it was to the all-or-nothing modes of jeremiad and encomium.”