I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Betsy Sussler Remember when we were talking about auras?
Robin Winters You mean whether or not works of art have an aura.
BS Yes. I believe that art objects have a power, perhaps atavistic, but I don’t know how to describe it.
RW Well if you leave something on the street and someone else picks it up and wants to take it home, with them it means that it carries at least a power of attraction but if it’s out in the desert and it’s buried and lasts for 2000 years …
BS Bob E. was a character you played and developed. Didn’t he have an assembly line where he made objects that he later used as surfaces for paint assemblages?
RW He made monuments for everybody in the world. He made them on an assembly line and he punched in on a time clock.
BS What size monuments?
RW He’s a failure, the continual failure.
BS They were little, right?
RW They were monumental works of art but on a human scale.
BS You mean humans could pick up these monuments and take them with them like souvenirs?
RW They were meant for everybody in the world except he couldn’t keep up and he quit because he was really only making … it’s like any novelist … you read one page at a time and if you stayed on that page forever and kept it going in real life it would be pretty weird, right. The scene where Madame Bovary’s crying in the garden, she’d have to keep crying all the time. So you walk in on Bob E. and then you’re supposed to walk out, even though those things he made remain. He is always being viewed by others through a membrane. And by himself in the mirror.
BS Is that what made him a failure, the repetition, while the audience was free to walk away and get on with their lives?
RW All of my characters were carrying out absurd actions. Bob E. was making art for everyone in the world. W. B. Bearman-Bags-a-Job was a shaman who wanted to be paid for his job which was healing the sick and helping the unhappy.
BS Is that a metaphor for art?
RW No, he was an artist. He worked.
BS You have images that keep reappearing in your work, for instance the sailboats. What were some of the titles you used for those drawings?
RW I’M NOT WAITING FOR MY SHIP TO COME IN, I’M OUT SAILING. THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE AT THE END OF THE FINISH LINE, THE ONE THING THEY HAVE IN COMMON IS THE CARROT AT THE END OF THE STICK.
BS What about that painting with the skeleton-like man in the center …
RW That little guy with the boat on his head and little faces on his chest? He’s kind of an Egyptian to me, not so much a skeleton. I mean, a little, because of the armor of the costume, but he’s more like a mummy. I think of him as an Egyptian brakeman who holds the red flag and says, “Don’t cross the tracks because there is a train coming.” The brakeman keeps his ear to the rail and listens when the train comes, he stands up and waves the flag.
BS You have a lot of traveling in your paintings.
RW A lot of sleeping, traveling, solitary figures. I did a painting called Life of the Party that had a lampshade sailboat hat on top of his head and he was really fat with a little pimple on his nose. I didn’t want him to be too cartoony, it’s not a cartoon but in some way it’s about ghosts.
BS Memory …
RW Memory, I’ll walk down the street and I’ll see faces that I’ve drawn … the drawing will match up later with people I see on the subway, the same cornflower noses.
BS Do you develop your characters from one painting to the next?
RW Like a narrative?
BS No, character development but not necessarily narrative, just personality.
RW Well there’s this archetypal stupid little human in a lot of the images I make.
RW Well, no more stupid than we are; yeah, they are stupid and helpless and vulnerable and at the same time there is this radiance of power around them too because they’re the thing that makes it all happen.
BS Many of your paintings are so aphoristic, others allegorical in nature. In any case you’ve created stories to go with your paintings. Is this implicit in the art of painting for you?
RW Titles have always been very important.
BS What are some more of them?
RW IF YOU LIVE WITH THE LAME YOU LEARN TO LIMP. HUMOR WAS SERIOUS TO THE MAN WHO DIED LAUGHING. OSMOSIS?. THE MAGIC PITCHER. BORN EMPTY, DIED FULL. RANDOM CLEARINGS LIKE MISSING TEETH. I CHANGED MY MIND. METROPOLITAN ACQUAINTANCES. DROPPED OFF TO SLEEP. DESPERATION FUELS HIS FOOLISH FIRE. PAY THE RENT (HA HA HA). I LIVE IN A ROOM WHERE THE LIGHTS FLASH. THE HIGHER THE FLYER, THE FASTER, THE SOONER. A BODY OF WORK. BEDROOM SURPRISE. PAINTING WITH HIS PANTS DOWN. THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE AT THE END OF THE FINISH LINE, ALL THEY HAVE IN COMMON IS THE CARROT AT THE END OF THE STICK. BILLY BRYSON’S TWO-HEADED BABY …
BS Who was Billy Bryson’s Two-Headed Baby?
RW It was the title of my last one man show in New York. The poster for the show had a circus tent with a painting of a baby with two heads on it and me standing next to it holding a box of popcorn. In my mind, I was Billy Bryson and that was my two headed baby which had to do with the compromise one makes with … in a situation where the true value of one’s production is not … its significance as a commodity fetish. It had to do with avoiding being an alienated worker. If you’re making valentines, and they’re meant very personally and then somebody says “Oh, but you’re such a good valentine maker! Make more valentines just like this!” There are two sides. One generates money. One generates meaning. Sometimes they merge perfectly.
BS Do you have a purpose or image in mind when you put the paint onto the canvas?
RW No not really, it is intuitive. I put on layers and layers in order to achieve a surface. I may kind of know the inevitable outcome or about what I want, but in order to get there I have to go through a lot.
BS You once said that you don’t want to be seduced by the materials. Your paintings seem to be a love dance between you and the paint.
RW I am seduced by the materials. I get excited just by mixing colors and seeing them change in front of my eyes.
BS But it’s not your raison d’être.
RW No, not at all. It’s not my idée fixe either.
BS What is your raison d’être?
RW The outcome. I mean I may not even know what the work is when I start. I start on a very intuitive basis. I don’t have an a priori approach. My paintings teach me things. You can replace the word paintings with the word experiences I think.
BS Do you make up your titles before or after?
RW Usually afterwards, sometimes before. But even if I do make up the titles beforehand I still have to work through what … I’ve used the same title on several different paintings.
BS You have to work out what the titles mean?
RW Yes, the meaning. What I mean by critical distance is, rather than it just being a masturbatory act of painting and putting a little green in the upper right hand corner until it looks right, it’s not just about composition but the meaning of the thing, the content. I start out with simple ideas like I want to make a painting for a kid’s room, so I think about what things I used to like as a kid and what things I used to fixate on in my room, and try to put those into the object—that’s the starting motive for thinking about the content in the work—or I want to make a painting for a kitchen that reminds people of living and eating and starving all at the same time. I don’t want it to be just about starving because then it would be no fun to be in the kitchen, but I don’t want it to be about obesity either—I want a balance so in order for it to work it has to cover all kinds of bases at once. It’s simulation, not representation.
BS Do you want your paintings to teach people lessons or are you being paradoxical?
BS De Quincey said that there is no truth without paradox.
RW That’s a loaded question. It’s almost like asking me if I’d stopped beating my wife.
BS (laughter) Have you?
RW I’m not married.
BS Are you trying to teach people a lesson?
RW Well, yeah, probably. I kind of hate to admit that because obviously I don’t want them to be explicitly didactic.
BS They are jocular and funny.
RW There is this sense of humor going on that is lesson-oriented in a way, but …
BS What I mean is, you have a social conflict, a moral conflict within you.
RW Of sorts, yeah.
BS When I say moral, I’m talking about that step in the civilizing process when society made laws to protect itself from the individual … and that’s where your paradox lies, between your sense of social responsibility and that voluptuousness in the individual which encompasses everything from martyrdom to bestiality.
RW I suppose, if I’m teaching anyone a lesson I’m teaching myself a lesson first because I’m the one going through the thing and figuring out the meaning as I’m going through it, so I’m my first audience. I’m working out ideas that I’m thinking about so if I’m thinking about sexuality and I make a painting whose title is Don’t Use Other People as Mirrors, and I have a man behind a curtain masturbating and a woman across the room looking at him, also masturbating, and they are separated with a big mirror in between, yeah there is meaning for everyone in that, but it’s really about my own personal experience.
BS What was the first image that you painted or made that suggested that painting?
RW I actually made a big stick figure out of plaster and fiberglass rods that was like a talisman or madonna or some kind of sexual doll that I stuck in the middle of of the painting.
BS That suggested the other figures to you?
RW Yes it did. This doll was like a little sexual demon that came out if you used each other as mirrors. It was male and female—the atom bomb that arose between people who used each other in that way. You haven’t asked me about my other jobs.
BS Oh Robin! That’s right. You’ve had quite a few jobs in your time, why don’t you name a few.
RW Chief cook and bottle washer. Let’s see I’m in the American Machinist and Aerospace Workers Union. I’m in the Painters Union, the Butchers Union, I’m proud of my union cards. I’ve also had non-union jobs, screen printing, market research, emotionally disturbed children.
BS You’ve kept them up?
RW When you quit your union job you get a withdrawal card. When I first came to New York I worked at the Spring Street Bar, dishwashing, busboy, waited on tables, a little bit of bartending on Sundays. I worked for Don Judd. Robert Ryman worked as a bartender for openings at Castelli. I helped do installations at Sonnabend. I was in Joan Jonas’s performances; her loft, Marcia Tucker, Kenneth Seeker, and Barbara Rose. I painted all of their places … Paula Cooper’s space. I did a lot of construction in SoHo when SoHo was the gold rush.
BS Is that how you made all your connections?
RW My tribal connections? The A train to the Times Square shuttle. No, Gorden Matta was helpful to me in terms of connections. I helped him move his house from John Gibson’s Gallery and then to Horace Solomon’s hairpin factory in New Jersey. Other artists helped me, a long list of friends I grew up with. I got an NEA in 1980 that Bill Wegman and Vito Acconci and Alexis Smith gave me … thanks. I was a professor of Art at California Institute of the Arts thanks to John Baldessari who called me on the phone one day in Europe and said, “Hey Bob do you want a job?” and I said, “Sure enough.” And then all my friends here told me it was ruining my art career to go away to California right in the middle of such a macho painting race but I didn’t care.
BS Do you care now?
RW No, I’m not waiting for my ship to come in. I’m not sailing.
BS I remember a story you told me about working in the Spring Street Bar, and you put a quarter in the piss pot in the Men’s Room. And when you went back there it was gone.
RW Yeah, I still do that once in a while. I’m sure I’ve had other jobs.
BS What are you up to now, besides being a painter.
RW Now I’m living hand to mouth as usual. There is no security in being an American artist. Oh, by the way, let’s get this straight: I’ve never thought of myself as a painter.
BS Oh? How do you refer to yourself?
RW An artist.
BS Why not a painter?
RW “Dumb like a painter,” as Duchamp says: there’s always been a kind of proletariat painter mentality of people who don’t do anything else but paint, don’t read books, they stick to a style and produce it with blinders on. They don’t do performances, videotapes, they don’t write … they just concentrate on the act of painting, they call themselves painters, they think of themselves as painters, and that is their product. It’s just too limiting. It’s only a vehicle, it’s a nice vehicle, it works for a lot of different things but by itself it’s not enough. It’s only one form of transportation to another place.
BS Did you do a show called the Dog Show?
RW Yes. I was the curator of the Dog Show, and The Doctors and Dentists Show.
BS What was the Dog Show?
RW We had an historical survey of artists’ dogs pictures, Dennis Oppenheimer has his Dead Dog piece. Joan Jonas had a great drawing of Sappho. Becky Howland had a dog that she’d made for JoAnne Akalaitis’s Colette play. Christie Rupp had dogs you could step on …
BS Why did you choose to do a dog show?
RW Around this time all these people were being holier-than-thou radical chic and people were being alienated, and it had to do with hipness, so I wanted to have the most unhip, grassroots—I mean I think my work has always been grassroots …
BS You do? Then why aren’t you a representational painter?
RW That has nothing to do with it. It has to do with knowing representational painters well enough to say hi to them when I go to a bar.
BS That has nothing to do with painting.
RW Part of my work is tribal, not aesthetic. For some reason I wanted to make a show that wasn’t at all political, that was mundane in content, but I knew that within the art context there had been a long history of play, starting with Duchamp and then there was Dick Nixon and LBJ and their famous dogs … I was organizing artists and the curation was based on content not style.
BS What was your piece in the show?
RW I had a couple of them, one called Surprised Dog in the Woods.
BS Was it pissing?
RW No, surprised. My art is about characters who get murdered or something and it’s just before they get murdered, that you’re taking their picture, or it’s the moment they get five million bucks. It’s the moment where they recognize their fate. They have a look on their face that’s kind of sublime. Maybe that’s the moment where the halo shows up and you know it inside and everyone can see it—it could be lucidity.
BS You were exhibiting very early on in New York and then you seemed to disappear. What happened?
RW What happened to me? I had done six or seven performances, been in several different shows …
BS You were hot stuff you mean, an up-and-coming young artist.
RW Well, not only that. I was working real hard and it was a very productive year for me. I took a look at the solo art career avenue, having an ID fix, becoming an idiot savant and clarifying my raison d’être in on high bona fide ride. All of that …
BS What did you do?
RW I went to North Africa.
BS Oh, I remember. In Morocco you had an affair with a woman who wouldn’t take her blouse off.
RW And had gold teeth and wouldn’t take her top off—a storm in every port. I began to see things in a more proper perspective. In retrospect the energy that went into my work becomes more important rather than less.
BS You stayed with Arab families, what was it like?
RW All these things are initiations, especially stuff you’re afraid of. Basically I’m the biggest coward in the whole world and everything I’ve done from the day I was born was to fight those feelings of being afraid to leave the house in order to go further and force myself to do it.
BS I’ve always loved that image of the Arab woman cleaning the floors.
RW The woman whose whole job revolved around the house work. She looked like a little spider woman. And she did this dance with wet rags on her feet and hands, she’d have a rag under each hand and foot and she’d slide like that across the floor.
BS We’re talking about inspiration. What you’re saying is that you want to be inspired by more than what is in front of your face.
RW My dialogue is not necessarily to make the next addition to the art meta program. I mean I’m a hopeless romantic in that I’m trying to make art out of real feelings, it isn’t just about what I think about Picasso or Duchamp as much as how I feel when I wake up.
BS What’s your idea of an art market?
RW I believe my work will take care of me no matter where I am. So when I said earlier that I was a grassroots artist—the worst thing that could happen to me is that I would be hungry and hitchhiking around the world and sell my drawings for food. You know it works anywhere. In North Africa, the people liked my art. I showed them watercolors that I made and I made watercolors for the house I was staying at. So that beyond the Western marketplace there is still a function for the art which is believable. When I was in Barcelona there were all these drawings that I did on the bed sheets in the Pension that I left for the person cleaning up in the morning. When I was in Rome I made little paper boats that I floated down the Tiber. They weren’t for anybody except whoever happened to be there at the time.
BS After your stay in North Africa you went to Europe. Specifically to show art?
RW No. I did take a portfolio with me that I didn’t show to anyone but the North Africans. Then on the way back I went to Italy and then Germany—at the time of Konrad Fischer’s tunnel space in Dusseldorf; Sol LeWitt had just had a show there and the next show was not planned so he gave me the space.
BS What did you do.
BW I’d learned a trick in Morocco, which was to balance a beer glass on the rim of a Moroccan dirham coin at a 45 degree angle. So I set up all of these balanced glasses on the floor of the tunnel—I painted the floor with 30 coats of blue lacquer and I leveled it and I had the glasses half filled with water in a long shape that looked very tender.
RW Temporary. And lit them well so that when people left the bars at night and walked by the gallery … the whole idea was to make an object that would cause people to react. I’d been trying to get away from myself being in the work to making an object that was interactive with the audience. And it functioned. They jumped up and down in front of the place and pounded on the window to make them fall, but they didn’t, they were well-balanced and there was the sound of a whistling tea kettle coming to boil for the duration.
BS So you sort of set up all of this tension with no release.
RW The title was Dedication to the Man Whose Main Job was Testing Whistling Tea Kettles.
BS You worked in Amsterdam as well.
RW With Coleen Fitzgibbon, we did a performance called Take the Money and Run. We robbed an audience of thousands of dollars.
RW We had everyone in the audience sign release forms and we took members of the audience into this small interrogation room, one at time and asked them to give us everything they had, all their possessions and wrote down what they owned and put it all in a manila envelope and after searching all 70 people in the audience—basically the release form said that their property would be returned to them when the performance was over.
BS But a performance could go on indefinitely.
RW Our idea had been to do something fascistic in order to make people take control of their own situation. There had been many performances where people had cut themselves with razor blades, locked people in, threatened people with electricity, guns—sadistic pieces done by artists where the audience had to become willing victims.
BS How was yours different from those others?
RW They had the right of refusal and if they stayed they signed the release form—out of curiosity, they wanted to see what was going on, they were willing to follow it through. And so we stole everything and ended up ransoming it all. They had to negotiate to get it back and finally did, hours later. We took off and insisted that a man and a woman whom we didn’t know come out and negotiate for the rest of the audience. We made the audience a responsible body. They had to vote for two negotiators. They were all stuck in the same boat together because they’d been robbed by these people, us. They were all locked in the room together and one person had to be a hero and figure out how to get out. We’d left a ladder but they had to discover it. So the audience became a family together and we were the opposition. People were so mad at us but they were even more mad at themselves, that they had participated in something that they shouldn’t have. And the next night we did another piece to make up for robbing everyone—the same audience as the night before, and we had to answer to them for why we had done this thing. We had a lottery where three people won our services. The series was called Imported American Artists Take the Money and Run. So the second night we were the imported American artists who were willing, through this lottery, to pay for our crimes.
BS How did you end up paying?
RW We were a wedding present, we gave some art to some people. The most difficult one was being a wedding present in this strange room. We had to go to the reception and pretend we knew the people and entertain them for two hours until the person who gave us as a present showed up.
BS The wedding party played along with you all that time?
RW We came with a story that we had met them four years before at the camp grounds and were there as surprise guests.
BS Which European artists were you drawn to?
RW I saw a lot that I hadn’t been exposed to before. New York in 1975 was barely showing any European art. I met Polke, spent time with him at his house outside Dusseldorf … all the German art that is pretty much in the galleries now—Lupertz, Baselitz, Penck, Immendorf … I didn’t really understand all of what was going on there at the time. Europe in general, was faced with American Imperialism and they had no outlet in America for their work, so no wonder there is a kind of German nationalism that has come out in that work. I mean maybe in about 1980 a few American artists started blowing steam about how much they’d been to Europe and all their European friends but these people have been working for years and before that there was a complete blackout.
BS What sort of work did you do after you and Colleen stopped collaborating?
RW Stopping a collaboration is harder than starting. I had to review my past and make my present. I had a show of 50 paintings in the Westkunst exhibition in Cologne called American Allegory and they were portraits—Martin Luther King, Nelson Rockefeller, factory workers, an historical survey of Americans in the last 50 years. I’ve had more support in Europe than in the US In Europe when I say I’m an artist, they never ask me what I do as a job. You haven’t asked me about politics yet.
BS What about it?
RW I think the United States better wake up and stop profiteering in the arms trade and start paying attention to the health, education, and welfare of its people. I’m sick of our country being responsible either overtly or covertly for the mass murder of artists, poets, children, and grandmothers in Africa, Asia, and South America. It’s bad enough that these racketeers use art as a real estate scam. I think, contrary to popular opinion, that feminism and equal rights are extremely important issues. Basically. I’m tired of hearing the slogan “Let them eat cake.”
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee