Walter Robinson: The Esthetic Commodification of Everyday Life

The Esthetic Commodification of Everyday Life

Text by Moenen Erbuer
July 18, 2014
If you’ve been roaming around the New York art scene over the past 40 years, chances are that you’ve run into Walter Robinson. He is the ultimate New York City art world scenester, though most people will know him for being the founding editor of artnet Magazine, where he labored for 16 years, from 1996 to 2012, writing about things like the mysterious contemporary art scene in super-Stalinist North Korea, to the macho truth about the perverse correlations between art, golf and sex.

Talking to him is a bit like reading a tabloid, in the sense that most of what he says is for obvious reasons not fit for publication, despite his remarkable respectfulness towards his subjects. Luckily he’s just as eager to talk about his work. “I have a painting of a plate of waffles that looks sort of like a Claes Oldenburg Mickey Mouse.”

As a painter, Robinson had his first show at Metro Pictures in 1980, and showed a lot in the East Village during that scene's brief heyday. In the mid-1980s, he exhibited his series of "spin paintings," a style that Damien Hirst took up a decade later with great success. "The art world wasn't quite ready for them in 1986," he says.

Despite being an art "critic", he has always preferred to write about the stuff he liked. Not without irony, he notes “I’m like Pope Francis, I would rather achieve understanding than spread ill will. It’s all happening in between your ears anyhow, you might as well have fun. Can you imagine you had to sit through a 6 hour Matthew Barney movie and not like it at the end? That would be like a real waste.”

In 2012, artnet decided to shut down the magazine. “Hans called me up on a Saturday and asked me, Walter, how’s your work in the studio going, and I said good, and he said well I’m glad to hear that because you’re gonna have more time to work in the studio.” So that’s exactly what he did. And for the better.

He’s having two solo shows coming up in New York and Memphis, and is in a number of group shows later in the year. He seems happier than ever. “I like to make paintings. Paintings have a primal intimacy. That’s enough, but I want my paintings to do more than just hang on the wall. I want my paintings to insinuate the viewer into an economy of desire. The dynamic is like a feedback loop, with biological and social dimensions. You have imagery that is designed to sell, both by nature and culture, and you have objects – paintings – that are about the hungers they represent. There are fictions that make up the world that we live in. There is love and shopping, high and low – the esthetic commodification of everyday life. That’s my project. That’s what I’m trying to do with my work.”

The idea of going back to a desk job horrifies him. “I read something the other day, about a company called upwards or something, some kind of big new web thing. It was supposed to be the newest greatest biggest coolest thing, and those guys were sitting around a table with their shoes off, in their socks, and that was supposed to be their glamour picture. When I saw this all I could think was: what a non-fun thing to do, to sit in a room with a computer. There's no glamour in that.”

Walter Robinson is represented by Lynch Tham in New York.