In June 1980, the group organized a show at a massage parlor in Times Square. “The Times Square Show” was a hit. Jeffrey Deitch–now the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art but then a young critic–wrote that the art was “just as raw, raucous, trashy and perhaps even as exciting as some of the more notorious attractions of the tenderloin.”
“I must have gone four or five times,” Mr. Alexander recalled. With the art market picking up after the ’70s doldrums, some Colab artists were offered gallery shows.
Mr. Alexander held an exhibition to raise money for the group, and recalled, “I bought a beautiful painting by Walter of a head of a blonde girl. It seemed kind of strange then, but I think it was incredibly prescient of what was coming”—the first hints of art that mined commercial imagery for material.
Richard Prince “rephotographed” advertisements for watches and suits; Cindy Sherman shot her famous “Untitled Film Stills,” appearing in each photograph as a different character. They showed at the Metro Pictures gallery in Soho. (Full disclosure: this writer worked at Metro Pictures briefly in 2010-11, after Mr. Robinson’s relationship with the gallery ended.)
Mr. Robinson experimented with film for a time. In 1978, before MTV, he, Ms. deAk and filmmaker Paul Dougherty shot a Super 8 film for the song “Frankie Teardrop,” by the abrasive electronic group Suicide. It’s now on view at the Museum of Modern Art. “I remember thinking, this would probably be a good thing to do, make rock videos,” he said in his studio, sardonically. “But I didn’t really want to do that.”
Instead, he painted, picking up technique from a how-to book, and using as sources film posters and the covers of pulp novels: a femme fatale in a yellow bra, a couple embracing.
“He’s this guy that’s got this devious sense of irony done with incredible sincerity,” Mr. McCormick said.
Ms. Winer, one of the owners of Metro Pictures, thought his work would fit at the young gallery. His first show there, in Feb. 1982, sold well, with paintings going for a few thousand dollars each. In 1984, he had three major shows—at Metro and two long-lost galleries, Semaphore in Soho (with painter Duncan Hannah) and Piezo Electric, an East Village gallery run by Lisa McDonald and Doug Milford.
Seemingly overnight, galleries began popping up in East Village storefronts. It was the anti-Soho: at its best, wildly pluralistic, unpretentious; at its worst, proudly tacky. “The scene was kind of infantile, and it was highly democratic,” Mr. McCormick said. “It wasn’t always the best artists, but we weren’t about making those distinctions.” The parties were wild. “I was chasing girls and being a drunk,” Mr. Robinson recalled. “Having romances. It’s all sort of a fog.”
A rising star, Mr. Robinson was writing for Art in America and serving as art editor of the East Village Eye, an alternative paper. “He morphs from one identity to another,” said a friend, Paul Hasegawa-Overacker, known as Paul H-O.
“All of that drinking and hanging out,” said dealer Frank Bernarducci, “let’s just say that it’s distracting.” Nevertheless, three more major Walter Robinson shows came in 1985, one of them in Los Angeles.
As the ’80s progressed, Mr. Robinson expanded his repertoire: greeting-card kittens, still lifes of beer bottles and Vaseline containers. “He did just about the most self-sabotaging work you could do,” Mr. McCormick said.
“And then, of course, the last straw was his spin paintings,” Mr. McCormick continued. Like the spin paintings that British star Damien Hirst has become known for—Mr. Hirst made his first spin in 1995; the top price for one at auction is $2.27 million—Mr. Robinson’s were enlarged examples of the works that one makes at carnivals, by pouring paint onto a spinning sheet of paper.
“I made these as a kid on the boardwalk in Ocean City, N.J.,” Mr. Robinson told us. There were six hanging on one wall when we visited his studio in December, each about three feet square. One looked like a cartoon sun exploding. They are radically different from Mr. Hirst’s: more varied and grittier.
“You want to make abstract paintings, but it’s so difficult because you can’t think of anything that seems original,” Mr. Robinson told us. “Suddenly the idea of using this machine, which everyone knows about, frees you totally. It’s like this postmodern epiphany. You don’t have to worry about being original.”
Mr. Robinson grew more animated, “Instead of using it to say that I don’t give a fuck about the art world—like Damien Hirst is doing—I ended up using it as a tool.”
Few of them sold. “There were also artistic failings on my part,” he said. “A, no one wanted them. B, it was absurd to make bigger ones”—he had planned to make them a foot larger on each side each year. “So I gave up.”
“If an artist is rejected, they should do more,” he continued. “That was the great artistic failure. I remember when I first saw a Damien Hirst painting my heart sank. But you kind of get used to it.”
There were other problems at the time. In 1983, Mr. Robinson had begun dating Beatrice Smith, one of three daughters of sculptor Tony Smith. “They were the sirens and the beauties of that scene,” said Mr. McCormick. “Kiki, Seton and Bebe, and Bebe was the most beautiful and interesting.” Soon after they started dating, they learned she had AIDS.
Before Ms. Smith died, in 1988, she and Mr. Robinson married, and he adopted her daughter, Antonia. (“It definitely changed my life for the better,” he said.) He began painting both of them. “I thought that Walter liked the idea of my sister, but also of having a family,” Kiki Smith said. “It was very much her wish that he take responsibility for raising her, and it was something that he did in a very profound way, with a great deal of seriousness and dedication.”
He worked on new series—of photos from his honeymoon in Mexico with Bebe and still lifes of medicine containers. “I see artists painting still lifes and it’s the same fucking thing,” Mr. Robinson declared. “Paint something you really want!” (He’s been painting burgers and nonalcoholic beer recently.)
“I used to tell people it’s the kind of painting Manet would do, capturing something in one or two brushstrokes,” said Mr. Blinderman, who showed Mr. Robinson’s work at Semaphore. “Those paintings are all about desire and pain. They’re about stuff that’s not really romantic, and is actually pretty damn sad.” They can recall Morandi, simple subjects rendered with spellbinding, sometimes uncanny ease. They didn’t fit with the times.
In 1986, there were four solo shows, one at Wessel O’Connor, an East Village gallery that had opened in Rome. (He painted on huge patterned bed sheets, which made shipping easy.) And then the East Village scene vanished, wiped away by the gentrification it helped spur on, and his relationship with Metro Pictures grew strained.
Sitting at the Tribeca restaurant the Odeon in mid-January, Ms. Winer recalled that by the late ’80s, Mr. Robinson’s work was no longer selling regularly. Photography and mechanical-looking work had supplanted painting, and he was working more at AiA, raising his daughter, painting less. “I think the girls wanted me to show some commitment,” he said, speaking of Ms. Winer and Ms. Reiring. He also became more apprehensive about exhibiting. “I like making the art, but putting it out there I’m not so comfortable,” he said.
“‘Walter choked!’” Mr. Halle recalled another major artist declaring, one night in the 1980s. “Like he was playing a basketball game.”
“There was that certain ‘bad’ painting aesthetic that he did, but a lot of his work was touching, sweet paintings, that had subtlety,” said Cathy Lebowitz, who joined Art in America in the late ’80s. Mr. Robinson was something of a mentor for her, and after they had known each other for a few years, she joined him and Mr. H-O on their public-access television show, GalleryBeat.
The show started in 1993. The two men regularly visited galleries during the week and one day Mr. H-O decided that it would be worth bringing along a camera. The tone of the show is about as far from the realm of academic discourse as one can imagine. “It came from about the third grade, I think,” Mr. H-O said.
A sample episode, from 1995: The Robinson-Lebowitz-H-O trifecta saunters into Gagosian Gallery, then in Soho, to see a show by sculptor Mark di Suvero. “This one here is the predator!” Mr. Robinson says, pointing to an angular sculpture. Mr. H-O appears in front of the camera: “As you have seen in a previous show of ours, Mark di Suvero is somewhat of a predator.” Cut to a video of Mr. di Suvero on all fours, barking like a dog, apparently attempting to impress an attractive young woman.
“They would be in the office conspiring,” Betsy Baker, then editor in chief of Art in America, said. Every once in a while dealers would throw them out, as was known to happen at Andrea Rosen, PaceWildenstein and the Dia Center for the Arts, which prohibited filming. After Dia ejected them on camera, Mr. Robinson becomes as incensed as he seems capable of being.
“The thing about the Dia Center for the Arts is that what they do is bullshit,” he says briskly. “The money floods in from the rich people who write it all off on their taxes. They charge you four bucks to go into this place. They hardly ever do any exhibitions, and they won’t let us in to show you a little TV. It’s the worst things about contemporary art—elitist, snobby and stupid.”
“We got a lot of people who were disaffected from the art world,” Mr. H-O said. “People who were bitter about their experiences, who had gone out and gotten their asses kicked.” Was Mr. Robinson was one of those people? Mr. Robinson was not happy with his relationship with Metro Pictures, Mr. H-O said. “But then again, where was his energy going? His energy was going into being an editor. That’s the day job that took over the art career.”
“I would say, ‘You should make more work,’” Mr. O’Brien, who met Mr. Robinson while writing a sports column for the Eye in the ’80s, told us. “And he would say, ‘Shut up.’”
“I must have not felt like an artist,” Mr. Robinson said. “I just sort of stood around.”
At the end of 1995, Mr. Robinson was offered a job at a young company called Artnet, working alongside Mr. Milford, one of Mr. Robinson’s old dealers. The company began in 1989 under the name Centrox, offering auction data via faxes, and a Swiss investor named Hans Neuendorf was transitioning its price and image databases onto the Internet.