Walter Robinson

I would preface this by saying that I wasn't able to go to the Times Square Show very much. In the 1970s and 1980s I worked at Art in America, and I guess I wasn't very good at my job, because I had to really work hard at it. I remember being very busy.

Tom Otterness and John Ahearn were really activist about the Times Square Show, and Tom was the most important voice in not wanting the exhibition to be in any of the established art districts. I didn't quite follow him, because I didn't have any strong animus against the art world as a system. But Tom definitely didn't want any part of the art world, and that's one of the reasons why we located the exhibition in Times Square—why we found that building.  I also remember suggesting that we call the show the Times Square Art Spectacular, and they very wisely called it the Times Square Show. That kind of short, declarative, descriptive title ended up being one of our trademarks. Those guys did most of the work, and they did an amazing job. After the show opened, an important critic at the Village Voice wrote a review calling the exhibition "the first avant-garde art show of the 1980s" or something like that. That really kind of made the exhibition blow up. It was a surprise to me. I was like, "Oh, I thought that we were just doing what we always do." I think that happens to a lot of people. You don't realize you're making history, you're not trying to make history, you're just doing your thing. And all of the sudden: BLAM.

The whole event was really messy and rag-tag. In looking back it can seem like a nice package, but I remember the experience as being a real fucking mess. I mean, the place was really seedy, the idea that it used to be a whore house or a strip club was palpable. I remember that there were a certain number of seedy characters hanging around that people had to deal with. Ulli Rimkus, who runs the Max Fish Bar, has become a master at dealing with seedy characters. I was never able to deal with seedy characters. I always try to avoid them. I do remember the story of discovering a street person upstairs, masturbating in a womb-like room installation someone had made.

I actually remember very little except for my pictures, and the article that came out in Art in America, where I worked. It was like a daze. It was this thing, that I was a part of, and that I enjoyed, that I don't really have that much focus about. As usual, I wasn't paying enough attention to what was happening. Internal things were going on. But the Times Square Show was a great model. Before that we had done the Real Estate Show, on Delancey Street. A couple years later we did the Summer Art Institute, which was something that was organized when I was president. We rented a house for three months on the North Shore. It cost $5,000 for three months for a five-bedroom house. You wouldn't believe how all the old members came back! When I was president Colab got invited, via Jenny Holzer, to be in documenta. That's when I quit. And I think that's when I moved from that sphere over to the East Village sphere, which was sort of just getting going. To me, that was the end of Colab. I know it continued on, but I paid no attention to it whatsoever. So for me it was really between late '79 and '82. I guess Jenny did begin to become a big star—that's why she was invited to be in documenta. There were a few stars, there were a bunch of losers, and there were a bunch of people who can't be defined as either. One of my favorite fantasies about Colab is that it provided a kind of social context for all of these basket cases to actually function in the art world.

The most political Colab ever got was when we put out a list of all the members and their phone numbers—a contact list—and Joe Stalin was on it. There was so much humor. Nobody in the group went to Andover and read Marx. Not a single person was into that. Except maybe Lindsey Smith, who was from Australia. What I mean is: I'm almost certain that nobody was into that kind of jargonized, politicized, theoretical approach. They were feet-on-the-ground, DIY, artist-types. We just didn't have that kind of political consciousness. Coming along not long after us, Group Material was more political. Of course they all went into academia, which is interesting. Collaborative Projects was a group of artists that was actually living a political experience. It was like a commune. Our political consciousness was not that directed, or it wasn't outer-oriented. Actually some people did have that attitude. I didn't. I was into romance. But Coleen [Fitzgibbon] and Robin [Winters] were much more into rabble-rousing. There were some rabble-rousers in the group. But Colab as a whole? We didn't have a meeting where we sat down and somebody said, "I'm interested in Human Rights, let's do something about Human Rights." That didn't happen. Although I'm thinking now that Peter Fend's work is completely global. And Bobby G's work was completely rooted in the neighborhood. Stefan Eins was doing that thing in the South Bronx. Mike Glier's work was distinctly socially oriented. So I'm really talking about myself when I make these generalizations.

It was a mix of fifty artists, so there was a lot of variety. We all had our individual paths that we were pursuing. For me, I was thinking: "I have my job, and I'm an artist, and then I need one other project to be interesting." So for a while I did a magazine, and for a while I did Colab, and then for a while I was editor of the East Village Eye, then I had a daughter.

I would say that there is no connection between the Times Square Show and the East Village art scene. Maybe this will illustrate it: my nickname was Mike, and everybody called me Mike. Then I started publishing reviews in Art in America in the late 1970s as Walter Robinson—my real name. Everybody in Colab calls me Mike. When I went over to the East Village and started meeting these artists who were a generation younger, they all called me Walter, because they knew me as somebody who wrote in the magazines they read. They knew about the Times Square Show because they knew about whatever was happening, just like you know about the Whitney Biennial or any other thing. The real link is tenuous. We all lived on the Lower East Side. When the Times Square Show people moved to the East Village, it was still the Lower East Side. Later it became the East Village. So you have people like Kiki [Smith] or Ulli, who still live over there, who were part of the East Village scene but not really. I mean they would take part, why wouldn't they, but they weren't really East Village artists. Sometimes they were included. When Carlo [McCormick] and I wrote that East Village article for Art in America ["Slouching Toward Avenue D"], we included Kiki, because she was still a not-very-famous artist. But she wasn't of the same generation or same group. Jenny Holzer is not an East Village artist, even though she lived on . . . wherever the hell she lived. Keith [Haring] and Jean-Michel [Basquiat], as graffiti artists, had already blown up by the time the East Village started out. Or maybe they blew up at the beginning. The East Village scene was really about artists striving to make a place for themselves. SoHo was full. There was no room on the walls; there were no slots for your show.

The East Village was really one big alternative space disguised as fifty commercial galleries. In my mind there is a division between the East Village and the alternative spaces in the 70s. In the 70s we were applying for grants from the NEA and NYSCA, and it was like a secret conspiracy between us and the bureaucrats. They would be giving us government money and we would be pretending to match it, because you were supposed to match the government money. We would match it with in-kind services. That's how Colab started out. We wanted to get some of that money that Alanna Heiss was getting, that The Kitchen was getting, that Marcia Tucker was getting, and that Artists Space was getting. I remember that during the 70s artists came into this sort of non-profit mindset that was framed at the beginning by Artists Against the War and an explicitly political activism. Later, the attitude changed. Artists were like, "I want to get over and I'm not ashamed of saying it." In the 70s people weren't saying, "I'm hustling to get over." People were interested in grander things. Artists like Carl Andre and Robert Morris were interested in being workers. The whole alternative space ethos kind of ended in 1980, and then the East Village was the manifestation of a new commerciality. One of the reasons Colab dispersed was because it had no art dealers. All of the sudden in the 80s we had like fifty people who wanted to be art dealers and run galleries. In the 70s nobody wanted to be an art dealer. I joke that a group of young artists needs someone who is a photographer, who wants to take pictures of everybody, and somebody who wants to be an art dealer. It would make such a difference. We hooked up early with Brooke Alexander, and I organized an early show at the gallery of Colab people. 

I just can't get into the radical masquerade that the art world is. That's why I paint like I do. I'm not pretending to be some kind of avant-garde. I'm not trying to be inventive. I'm just making images. Like a sign painter. Anyway that's the idea.

As told to Shawna Cooper and Karli Wurzelbacher, April 6, 2012

Walter Robinson (b. 1950, Wilmington, DE)
Walter Robinson moved from Tulsa, OK to New York City in 1968 and earned a BA from Columbia University, New York, NY. In the 1970s he published the magazine Art-Rite with fellow artists Edit deAk and Joshua Cohn. He served as President of Colab from 1981 to 1982. Robinson was Contributing Editor at the magazine Art in America from 1978-1997 and served as Art Editor of the publication East Village Eye. Throughout the 1980s he exhibited his paintings at New York City spaces including Brooke Alexander Gallery, Metro Pictures, the New Museum, and Semaphore Gallery. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Artnet Magazine.

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