Robert Pincus-Witten, Art Critic and Historian, Dies at 82
Posted January 31, 2018 10:32 p.m. EST
Robert Pincus-Witten, an art critic and historian who brought context and insight to the proliferation of styles and artists that began in the 1960s, died Sunday in Manhattan. He was 82.
Leon Hecht, whom Pincus-Witten married in 2013, said the cause was undetermined. He said Pincus-Witten had been ill for some time.
Pincus-Witten, who wrote for Artforum magazine for nearly 50 years, was credited with coining the term post-minimalism to describe a range of ideas and practices that began emerging in the late 1960s in response to the cool, dispassionate minimalism that had prevailed.
But that coinage was only his most frequently cited accomplishment. He spotlighted new artists and their work in diarylike pieces for Arts Magazine from the mid-1970s through the 1980s. He was a professor at the City University of New York for decades. He curated shows. He was a personal adviser to art collectors.
In all those guises, he brought a scholar’s perspective to his assessments of the contemporary.
“He saw everything with a sense of history,” Hecht said. “'Why? Why was he good? Why did he break away? Why was he important?’ It was not the fact that an artwork was so beautiful; it was how did it stimulate history, how did it go forward?”
Robert Alfred Pincus was born on April 5, 1935, in Manhattan and grew up in the Bronx. His father, Samuel, an immigrant from Poland, was a tailor. His mother, the former Charlotte Wittenberg, who had immigrated from Germany, worked at RCA, specializing in Morse code.
At some point Robert adapted his mother’s last name and began going by Pincus-Witten — perhaps, Hecht speculated, to separate himself in the professional sphere. “I think he wanted to be distinctively different,” Hecht said.
Pincus-Witten also had a distinctively different speaking voice with a hard-to-define timbre that suggested erudition. Some who heard him lecture mistook it for an accent or an affectation, but Hecht, who had known him since early childhood, said those impressions were mistaken.
“As a little boy in school, he spoke the same way,” he said. “And, of course, the teachers loved him, he was so witty and bright.”
Pincus-Witten received a degree from the Cooper Union in Manhattan in 1956 and a master of arts from the University of Chicago in 1962, adding a doctorate from that institution in 1968. He joined the CUNY faculty in 1964, retiring in 1990.
Pincus-Witten began writing for Artforum in the mid-1960s. (He also held editing titles at times during his long association with the magazine.) About the same time, various artists began expanding beyond Minimalism; a 1966 show at the Fischbach Gallery in Manhattan called “Eccentric Abstraction” was one important indicator of change.
But it was not until 1971 that Pincus-Witten came up with the label for these efforts that stuck, when he used Post-Minimalism in an Artforum article about the sculptor Eva Hesse, who had died the year before. He was also tangentially involved in one of Artforum’s most incendiary moments from the 1970s: a 1974 issue of the magazine that featured a color photograph of artist Lynda Benglis nude and holding a dildo between her thighs.
The photograph ran as an advertisement — it carried the name of the Paula Cooper Gallery, her dealer — but Benglis had initially hoped that it would appear with an article about her, written by Pincus-Witten, in the same the issue. The magazine’s editor, John Coplans, would not allow that.
Pincus-Witten may have been a vital voice in the post-minimal moment, but he also knew that the art world would move on to new trends and ideas, at it always did.
“The taste for the successful and celebrated is fickle,” he noted in 2008 in Artforum. “What waxes, wanes.”
“Talk to a displaced middle-aged abstractionist today and listen to what is said,” he added. “Walk the display floors of the contemporary day sales — not the uncontested important lots of the evening sale — of the reigning auction houses and have a revelation: What was passionately acquired ten or twenty years earlier forms the bulk of lot upon lot of discredited art.”
He thus remained ever curious.
The curator Scott Rothkopf wrote of him in Artforum in 2003, “After fifteen years on the front lines of new art — an interval that could spawn almost as many generations of artists as fruit flies — Pincus-Witten wasn’t about to desert the new recruits.”
Rothkopf was writing in praise of the diarylike pieces that Pincus-Witten wrote for Arts magazine from 1976 to 1990. A mixture of feature article and critical assessment, they recounted his visits to shows and artists’ lofts.
“His reportage often illuminates the personal and commercial machinations that inevitably inform art’s checkered past and present,” Rothkopf wrote.
Pincus-Witten was the author of several books, including “Postminimalism” (1977), “Eye to Eye: Twenty Years of Art Criticism” (1984) and “Postminimalism Into Maximalism: American Art, 1966-1986” (1987). In 1996 he joined C&M Arts (now the Mnuchin Gallery) as director of exhibitions, a post he held for 11 years.
Hecht is his only immediate survivor.
Pincus-Witten thought that collectors of contemporary art enjoyed a special privilege not shared by those who focus on established artists: the chance to help determine what is ultimately viewed as significant.
“The collector of contemporary art actually participates in the discourse of the day,” he wrote, “adding through acquisition his or her particular inflection to this tumultuous conversation. Hence, the collecting of contemporary art — whatever other benefits it may provide or deficits it may incur — confers a voice upon the collector with regard to the formation of the larger culture.”
And what of the critic’s role? “I see the critical task as being essentially that of pointing to the new,” he wrote.