Art Net: The Life and Times of Walter Robinson

A story of outré journals, East Village parties, reality television, painting

Art in America, with all of its prestige, pays like shit,” Mr. H-O said. “You can’t raise a family on that salary.” Mr. Robinson signed on. “He was the first art writer to realize that if you do not exist online, you may not exist at all,” Mr. Saltz said. At the time, Artnet magazine was the only Internet publication devoted to art.

“From the outset, the magazine was a loss leader, and it still is,” Mr. Neuendorf said, adding that today the editorial properties—there are also French and German publications—lose $1.5 million a year.

People talk about dysfunction at Artnet back then, and Mr. Milford left after about a year. “Walter is a very charming man,” Mr. Milford said, adding vaguely, “He has other capacities as well.” Mr. Robinson steered the website through the Internet boom and bust—when cash dried up and writers went unpaid for months.

He has occasionally courted controversy at Artnet, for example by publishing the work of the acid-tongued critic Charlie Finch, a friend, for the past 15 years.

Mr. Robinson remarried in the mid-1990s, to the art historian and curator Anastasia Aukeman. They split in 2000. Moving out of their East Village loft, Mr. Robinson sold a bunch of his artworks at bargain prices: spin paintings for $100 each. “There were stacks and stacks of work,” Mr. Finch recalled. “It was kind of dirge-like.”

When The Observer returned to Mr. Robinson’s studio this past weekend, snow was packed on the sidewalk outside. The nose cone painting had been shipped off to Tucson, and he was just finishing work on a new small painting on paper of a young woman in a bikini, its top polka dotted, its bottom striped.

He has been painting regularly again, and has been in a few recent group shows. Among the new works are nude women on beaches and bright-faced women’s heads on cardboard, some titled Shemale and others named for porn stars. And there are the still lifes, including a new one of scrambled eggs, caviar and buttered bread, based on a photo Martha Stewart took of her breakfast.

What comes next?

“Collectors were happy to buy a picture to fill out their ’80s portfolio,” Mr. Robinson had told us in December, talking about his 2008 show. Then he channeled a buyer. “‘Oh, Robinson was in there as part of that Pictures business. They’re pretty, they’re sexy.’ You know, things get better as they get older, sometimes. They bought them, but that doesn’t mean that they want to come back now and see more work.”

Mr. Robinson said that some people have a simple answer for why he isn’t showing: “I didn’t become a successful artist because I didn’t want it enough,” he said. He thought for a moment. “Sometimes it seems like you have to really want something to get it,” he said. “Other times it seems like it’s handed to you on a silver platter.”

That reminded us of something he wrote a while back, in the 10th issue of Art-Rite, in 1975. “Good art is accidental the way daydreams are,” he argued. “Prone to manipulation, but no guarantees.”