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Robert Pincus-Witten (1935-2018)

Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism

He studied my painting, briefly. Turning on his heels, two fingers to his lips, he took my arm, looked up towards me with great earnestness and whispered: 'If you had painted this in 1970 you would be in all the history books. Let's have lunch.'  It was 1976. I was then a graduate student and Robert a visiting critic. We went for lunch, and then he went back to New York. I went on to complete my MFA and a PhD. Nine years later, I had my first solo exhibition at Metro Pictures in New York and there was Bobby at the opening, arms open, broadcasting his approving smile. As we hugged, without missing a beat, he whispered: 'And now you are in the history books.'  'We'll see,' I whispered back. 

Robert Pincus-Witten by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, New York, 1981. Courtesy: the photographer and Wetterling Gallery, Stockholm

Robert Pincus-Witten by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, New York, 1981. Courtesy: the photographer and Wetterling Gallery, Stockholm

Robert Pincus-Witten by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, New York, 1981. Courtesy: the photographer and Wetterling Gallery, Stockholm

In both the art world and the university, he changed the conversation, from the form of the language to what was being said. 

Robert Pincus-Witten was a rare quantity. With his writing and teaching, he nimbly made momentous and rare contributions within the fickle practice of art criticism and the even more capricious universe of university teaching. In both spheres, the art world and the university, he changed the conversation, from the form of the language to what was being said.  He did this, just as did Roger Fry, in 1906. Both Fry and Robert recognized that while one could not say what it was that Van Gogh or Eva Hesse were about - neither critic yet possess the full-throated language - they could certainly say what they were not. Fry's tactical approach to Post-Impressionism, like Robert's towards Post-Minimalism, was indeed the same for naming the 'horseless carriage,' an invention recognized immediately for what it wasn't.

'The taste for the successful and celebrated is fickle, what waxes, wanes.' 
Robert Pincus-Witten

. . .  from the form of the language to what was being said.  We are only beginning to weigh up the influence of what was being said as Robert wrote his diaries, essays, delivered his seminars and lectures and navigated his way through art world society. In this, he was our Magellan. Some worried that his relationship with the art world was flirtatious, and at times it seemed to be. In Toronto, appearing on a panel together, we wanted to take-in what the Toronto art scene had to offer but had no real bearings. We went to the first gallery we could find, and Bobby whisked through. Suddenly he was standing at the desk, signing the guest book, and telling the gallerist how memorable this exhibition was. Then, loaded with charm, and leaning in towards the gallerist, he inquired: 'If you don't mind me asking, if there were a gallery in Toronto, just a little bit better than yours, what is that gallery?' It was in that same year that he wrote in the pages of Artforum: 'The taste for the successful and celebrated is fickle, what waxes, wanes.'  He was above all sincere in life and in profession. It is hardly an exaggeration to stake the claim that Bobby was the Giorgio Vasari of our era, for what he knew most of all was Le Vite.

Main image: Robert Pincus-Witten by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, New York, 1981. Courtesy: the photographer and Wetterling Gallery, Stockholm

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine. 

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