“The Balthus of Swingers?” Glenn O’Brien on Walter Robinson
Walter Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from the Boston Globe who exposed sexual abuse by priests in the Diocese of Boston. He is also known for his musical compositions, especially his lyrical song “Harriet Tubman.” A noted radiologist, he heads the Department of Atmospheric Studies at the University of Illinois. A legendary cricketer, he is also the front man of the Jimi Hendrix tribute band, Haze of Purple. There is an elementary school named after him in Bayonne, New Jersey.
But THE Walter Robinson is the co-founder of the legendary by-artists- for-artists magazine, Art-Rite, and while avoiding painting he served as editor and chief reporter and critic of the online journal Artnet. He was the dryly hilarious regular correspondent on the pretense-tweaking television show, Gallery Beat, and he remains one of the toughest competitors on The Kostabi Show, Mark Kostabi’s name-the-painting cable-TV program.
Robinson thinks he was a contributing editor to Art in America from 1979 to 1996, but actually he is still on its masthead. As a critic and observer of the world of art, he is a paragon of educated and enlightened drollery. But all of this is window dressing. Despite all his attempts to prove otherwise, Walter Robinson is an artist.
Many of the women in his heroically romantic paintings might have appeared later in Richard Prince’s Nurse paintings, or they could be the daughters of the models seen in Mel Ramos paintings. In any case, perhaps under the influence of gin or pep pills—and Robinson has painted those kinds of intoxicants too—the pulp fiction heroines exemplified vice as virtue and sin as salvation. He also did spin artist, long before Damien Hirst, and Walter’s spin paintings are more centrifugally forceful and more evocative of the rotary LSD experience. They really set the controls for the heart of the sun.
A famous raconteur, Walter is known for his bon mots and so he is a much sought after speaker who will go to great lengths to disappear before reaching the podium. Last December I asked him to be part of a panel discussion on value and the art market and he accepted. When he didn’t appear on the dais I was worried but later I found that he was simply unable to tear himself away from the buffet at the event.
A man noted for sound and resilient appetites, Walter translates his lust for life to the canvas with verve, panache and a wit that ranges from extra dry to demi-sec. His food paintings don’t take a back seat to those of Ramos or Wayne Thiebaud. And when it comes to depictions of sheer concupiscence, his oozies are doozies, his slatterns are comfortingly slatternly, his hussies aren’t fussy and his wantons aren’t frontin’. The guy can paint and, in doing so, conjure a world so gone it never existed. Is he the Elizabeth Peyton of insensitivity? The Francis Picabia of peccadillos? The Balthus of swingers? Some of his titles, like Savage Destiny and Divine Weakness, suggest the lambently lustful nature of his visual lyricism. What does it amount to? I’ve always thought that apotheosis strikes when you least expect it.
The pen (or Sharpie), they still say is mightier than the sword, but with the pen and the brush combined, you’re outclassing both the blade and the bludgeon. It’s a great pleasure to see the full return engagement of an artist who has been too absent from the center of the scene, while documenting it brilliantly from the periphery with a sage and not entirely jaundiced eye. Walter returned to exhibiting when the time was right.
Fifty-six years ago Elaine de Kooning related, “Fairfield [Porter] says: ‘Why is irrelevancy so often taken for profundity?’” Walter Robinson has no truck with irrelevance. Having surveyed the eld he knows what he wants, and all claims to the contrary, he knows how to get it. He understands the humanity of art that ventures beyond the pale of chic and institutional chicanery. Relevance is perhaps the new forbidden fruit. Two decades ago this world was not ready for the full bloom of Robinson’s art, but the world has grown up and lost its prissy faux innocence. Someday soon prurience will return with a vengeance. As I once said, “an erection caused by art is no mean feat.”
In that spirit, rarely has a retrospective seemed so prospective. I declare that now is the time for this sort of unashamedly manly art, and for artists unafraid of riotous condiments, of smegma and sublimity, of Vaseline and gasoline, and of the explosive redolence of drool and sti es. In the bouquet of aestheticism, there are blooms and thorns, pollen and petals, but Walter Robinson, this Bud’s for you.