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.