Since the 1970s, Walter Robinson has bounced back and forth between careers as an artist and an art critic, exhibiting at galleries such as Metro Pictures and working as an editor for magazines Art in America and Artnet. Robinson returned to painting full time in 2012, and last year, his work became the subject of a traveling retrospective that’s on view at Deitch Projects. Time Out New York sat down with the artist at his Long Island City studio to discuss the prevalence of paperback covers, porn stars and cheeseburgers in his work.
You originally studied art history and psychology at Columbia. What made you become an artist?
I always drew as a kid, even in kindergarten. I’d draw shoot-outs with cowboys. The good guy wore a star, and the bad guy had a bandana over his face.
Is it true that you learned to paint from a how-to book?
Oh, yes. I’m an autodidact. Back when I was starting out, the idea that you needed an MFA was a joke. In fact, you’d be embarrassed to admit it.
You’re best known for depicting covers from racy pulp-fiction paperbacks. You’ve also done still lifes of food and medicine. What attracts you to such subjects?
They’re all about passion and desire. In the ’80s, the prevailing aesthetic was postmodernism, where nothing was authentic. Being contrary, I was interested in stuff that was natural, that was part of our hardwired impulses and desires. Whether it’s sex or cake or taking aspirin when you have a headache, there’s a biological imperative.
Are you making a social statement?
I never thought of it that way. My work is just about things you want. When I was young, I did paintings of people kissing and K-Y jelly. When I got older, I painted cheeseburgers. What can I say? It seemed obvious.
What about your paintings of porn stars and cute girls taking selfies?
The selfies were taken for magazine ads by sex workers selling their services as massage therapists—as I like to think of them. When I saw them I thought, They deserve to be art. The amazing thing is that it was right on the cusp of the selfie movement, just before the big craze. Most people don’t know where these pictures come from, though a small group of people do. I imagine one day that somebody looking at these paintings might recognize someone they know.
The art critic Jerry Saltz has declared that you should get a MacArthur Award, yet he’s never written about or championed your work, except on Facebook. How do you feel about that?
I think he said that in the spirit of something I’m very much into—a certain sense of comedy where clowns are always the most serious underneath. But I have to say that I agree with him. I agree with everything Jerry says.
“Walter Robinson: A Retrospective” is at Deitch Projects through Oct 22