Robert Pincus-Witten (1935–2018)

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Robert Pincus-Witten, 1981, contact print, 11 x 14.”

October 12, 1981, New York, East Village.

ROBERT PINCUS-WITTEN ARRIVED LATE in the afternoon. We had tea. On the phone, I'd briefly explained my new portrait series, “Art Critics.” Robert said that he would “be honored, depending on who else was included.” In the kitchen we reviewed my list. “Edit deAk was yesterday, and Rosalind Krauss and Dore Ashton are scheduled for tomorrow,” I said. “She has a mean mouth,” said Robert. “Dore or Rosalind?” I asked. “You'll see,” he said, with a smile.

We discussed Andy Warhol and then young artists I'd been photographing: Schnabel, Sherman, Simmons, Hammons. Robert was especially interested in them. We talked and laughed until it was time for the portrait.

It was an instant friendship. I was twenty-nine; Robert was forty-six. So with it. So aware.

In the studio, I explained that my large-format camera required him to hold still, more for the framing than for focus or shutter speed. I think to prove that he could bring action to my rigid way of shooting, he effortlessly contrived the above pose, with his leather book bag and winter gloves. “Hold that,” I said quickly. “You're perfect.” And then, just before I clicked the shutter, Robert turned on the charm, the boyish twinkle, the engaged gaze. Pure Pincus-Witten.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, New Irascibles: Critics, 1985, black-and-white print, 14 x 14”.

May 17, 1985, New York, East Village.

DURING THE EARLY EAST VILLAGE DAYS, Robert, Karin, and I often visited the handful of storefront galleries that had popped up around us. But by 1985, it was an explosion. I felt compelled to document the scene and in March called Robert with an idea to photograph groups of East Village artists, dealers, critics, and collectors. For the pose, I would appropriate The Irascibles, Nina Leen's legendary 1950 portrait of the Abstract Expressionists. Robert's reaction? “It's the central document in the history of world culture. Of course we have to do it!”

We made lists, set dates, and phoned over seventy-five subjects. Word spread. Robert mentioned the project to Arts Magazine editor Richard Martin. We ended up with the cover and nine pages.

Unlike the original Irascibles shoot, in which subjects chose their own places in the photo, we carefully predetermined the positioning. Mike Bidlo was easy-the Jackson Pollock spot. And sometimes, based on what the subject wore, we made last-minute changes. For New Irascibles: Art Critics, Robert is seated on the left, on the Theodoros Stamos bench. Carlo McCormick, center, on Barnett Newman's stool. Far right, Walter Robinson has Mark Rothko's chair.

Shoots were scheduled around Robert's City College timetable. He'd arrive a few minutes before our subjects, exhausted from a day of teaching. But as the mostly young, talented, and good-looking sitters walked through the door, Robert was beaming, notebook in hand.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Leon Hecht & Robert Pincus-Witten, 1986, contact print, 11 x 14.”

March 1, 1986, New York.

ROBERT AND LEON HECHT met in kindergarten at PS 4 in the Bronx. They lived on Fulton Avenue, a building apart, facing the Crotona Park outdoor swimming pool. “Robert wanted to be an artist, and I wanted to be a commercial artist,” Leon told me.

In 1960, they were reacquainted at a party hosted by the late actor Anthony Holland. This epic event occurred across from Barneys on Seventeenth Street. For the next six years they dated and finally moved in together. They remained a couple for fifty-two years, until Robert's death this January.

Robert talked about Leon often, and I well remember the first time Karin and I met him. We started the evening with drinks at the Rectory (our East Village home and my studio) and then went to a nearby restaurant. It wasn't right, for some reason, so we went to another . . . and then another, and another. Seven restaurants later, we were back at the first one. It was a great night.

After Robert died, Leon told me, “Everyone tells me to try and think about the good times, not Robert's painful death. But when I do that—think about all we had together—I can only cry.”

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Jean Baudrillard & Robert Pincus-Witten, 1987, black-and-white print, 14 x 14.”

April 2, 1987.

EQUIPPED WITH HIS SERIOUS DEMEANOR and general disdain for the art world, Jean Baudrillard arrived at the studio to find Robert Pincus-Witten sitting at the kitchen table. To my surprise, Robert was genuinely amused by this man-of-the-moment and totally disarmed him by means of his fluent French, coequal professorial status, and insouciant charm. The afternoon was filled with laughter.

It's inarguable that Peter Halley brought Baudrillard to our attention and to the art world. Today, thirty years later, in this age of digital reality, Baudrillard's ideas have proven prescient, and as relevant as ever. I think Robert sensed the gravity of his ideas that day, despite the frivolity of the afternoon.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Robert Pincus-Witten & Castelli, 1989, Polaroid, 20 x 24”.

October 31, 1989, New York.

TIME MAGAZINE commissioned a portrait of Leo Castelli. I booked the Polaroid 20x24 studio and called Robert, who had a long and complicated relationship with Leo and with Leo's ex-wife, the legendary dealer Ileana Sonnabend. It was quite the interconnected threesome. A young Robert had worked for Ileana in her Paris gallery. Leo, after divorcing Ileana, still sought her “advice” often. To me, she had a touch of Madame Defarge but showed and supported remarkable artists.

My one-on-one encounters with Leo were always awkward. Thanks to Robert, he'd exhibited my “New York Artists of the 50's in the 80's” series at Castelli West Broadway. Robert had written the catalogue essay, reminding the world that Leo, liked by all, had installed the historic “9th Street Art Exhibition” of 1951. For me, it was an important front-room exhibition in a major gallery. The honor included Bruce Nauman's screeching clown video, in the back room.

Leo arrived, on time, in an elegant suit, happy to see Robert on the set. I think he was slightly nervous. Time was a big deal back then, and at eighty-two, his relevance was solidified by the good press. At the end of the session, I posed the two of them alongside all that history and baggage.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Robert Pincus-Witten, 2005, contact print, 11 x 14.”

February 16, 2005, New York, East Village.

ROBERT AND LEON joined us for my birthday dinner. “Just family” was what art collector Emily Spiegel used to call Robert, Leon, Karin and me when we'd schlep out to Great Neck for the night. It was true all these years later: Robert and Leon were, very much, part of our family. Our daughters, Isca and Liliana, had grown up knowing and loving them too.

At the end of the night, I invited Robert down to the studio to shoot a single frame from my last box of coveted, expired, 11x14 black-and-white sheet film. Robert presented a serious and unusually intense face that night. A rare side of him for the camera. I sensed health concerns.

I very much regret that this was our last formal studio portrait. I have lots of snapshots taken after this, at galleries or parties. Quick moments. But there is something so very special about the way a photographer sees a subject who is also a dear friend. And those studio moments, just the two of us standing a few feet apart, a giant wooden camera and a single soft light-those moments can be magical. And when lucky, the images become a shorthand for something deeper and more revealing. I always had that with Robert, as a subject and as a friend.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is a photographer, director, and producer.