New York Nightmare:
Arthur Robins Expressionist Paintings
By Donald Kuspit, Copyright 1996

Who that has had experience of our social reality will doubt its alienated condition?
Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity

In [the nightmare] dread reaches the maximum intensity known, in either waking or sleeping state, so that we should not be surprised if the source of it lies in the region of maximum ‘repression’, ie of maximum conflict. Ernest Jones, On the Nightmare

“Living is keener,” said Jackson Pollock, “more demanding, more intense and expansive than in the west,”1 and presumably the rest of the United States. But also, as Arthur Robins’s paintings of New York’s lower depths — its subway underworld — indicate, more nightmarish. They are a remarkable development in the history of Expressionism, and the imaging of modern life in New York, bringing both to a kind of ironic conclusion. For where the old German Expressionism began on a utopian note of optimism — it was a revolutionary “attempt to create a dynamic transcendence which projects …an unalienated relationship between human beings”2 — Robins’s new American Expressionism is profoundly pessimistic: it is a startling revelation of “alienated social reality.”3 And where the imaging of modern New York began above ground, with the work of the Eight, who regarded New York as “an innocent overgrown village, governed by natural law,”4 however much it was also, in Lewis Mumford’s words, a “multi-form non-segregated environment,”5 where very different people from different worlds rubbed shoulders in lively crowds, Robins’s New York is a demented, depressing city ruled by a demonic unconscious. In short, a kind of hell.

Robins’ New York has been emptied of “cliff dwellers,” to allude to George Bellows’s famous 1913 painting of the city, and has none of the quaintness of John Sloan’s 1922 view of it from Greenwich Village. Instead, it is a sinister, underground dungeon — a morbid, murky place, as dramatic as the city itself but now the epitome of the alienation that prevails in it, that is, the alienated relationships between human beings inescapable in the megalopolis. By mid-century the subway had become a symbol of alienation, as in Mark Rothko’s images of it from the early 1940s, and now, at the end of the century, in Robins’s paintings, it has become an abyss and labyrinth of alienation. There is no escape from it: it is not the “bursting container” that Mumford thought New York was, but rather a hermetically confining tomb. Indeed it is a medieval, Boschian place for the emotionally tortured: it symbolizes the depressing truth underlying the bustling life of the city. Robins’s Piranesian subway embodies all the suffering hidden beneath its surface — all the painful depth hidden behind its charismatic superficiality: all New Yorkers experience, however unconsciously, a Dantesque feeling of hopelessness when they enter the subway, and Robins’s visionary paintings of it remind them that they do not lose the feeling when they exit from it. Robins is a fin de siecle Expressionist, showing New York in all its fin de siecle decadence, suggesting that the idealism with which the city began the century — the idealism with which the century itself began — has come to nothing. He tears the scab from the scarred city, and fearlessly peers into the lower depths of its wound.

He does more: he restores Expressionism to the intimate scale and human purpose it lost with the mural-sized Abstract Expressionism — the scale and purpose it had in German Expressionism. In his hands an expressionist painting is no longer a grandiose signature, but addresses social reality — the same grim apocalyptic urban reality we see in Kirchner’s “Red Tower in Halle”, 1915, and Ludwig Meidner’s “Street at Night in Berlin”, 1913. Expressionism has always been apocalyptic, and the apocalypse has been a prelude to resurrection, but the apocalyptic space of Robins’s subway is the grand finale of the unlived life.

The Nine Paths of Life
The Nine Paths
of Life

Indeed his subway performs the dance of death: it surges in frenzied, manic movement, charged with the brutal energy of the city’s death wish. The tunnels and staircases of The Nine Paths of Life are as contorted as the limbs of a corpse. Robins’s painterliness is more primitive — harsh, dense, vehement – than Nolde’s in his early paintings, perhaps the most violent and crude in German Expressionism, just as Robins’s subways are more deserted — horrifically empty — than any street in Halle and Berlin. Thus, Robins does not offer a reprise of Expressionism, but carries its apocalyptic gesture and space to a new extreme, which is appropriate to a rendering of New York, a city of exttremes — the apocalyptic center of world captialism, a place of instant gratification and perennial frustration, a world that is always on the verge of disaster and delirious wish fulfillment. In other words, New York is a place of unresolvable contradictions, which makes it permanently confusing and precarious. All its confusion and precariousness seems concentrated in its subways: they are ecstatically conspicuous in Robins’s subways. It is in them that the conflict between New York’s wildly impulsive libido and death defying risk-taking plays itself out.

Eternal Tunnel

What strikes me is for all the brightness of many of Robins’s paintings — “Eternal Tunnel,” 1990, is a conspicuous example – his subways are still rather grim perplexing places. It is not clear whether the eternal tunnel goes to heaven or hell. It seems to be a kind of Jacob’s Ladder between both, but it clearly points to hell rather than heaven, for we peer down into its abysmal space. Both the “Hell Tunnel,” 1991,

Hell Tunnel

and “Eternal Tunnel”–and for all its apparent difference from “Hell Tunnel”, the “Eternal Tunnel” has a similar harsh, fiery aspect, if also lit by what seems like soft yellow sunlight–are unstable dangerous constructions, ripe for catastrophic collapse. The wobbly staircase of the “Hell Tunnel” and eccentric framework of the “Eternal Tunnel” offer

Subway Culture Club

Under the Platform

poor support. The coiling space of “The Nine Paths of Life,” 1996, look like viscera, and indeed there is an eviscerated feel to the empty space of “Culture Club Tunnel,” 1996, and “Under the Subway Platform,” 1996 — a particularly brilliant example of the Manichean, subliminally gnostic tension between dark and light, angle and curve, that characteristically inform Expressionist painting. In the remarkable “Lover’s Rejection“, 1991, the tension becomes turbulent, the space a sea of chaotic impulses, the conflict palpable, and in “The Tribulation“, 1989, it, and the guts of the subway — which are the guts of the city spill out at us.

Lover’s Rejection II


I am suggesting that Robins’s paradoxical subway offers a glimpse of the internal life of the psychosoma: the viscerality of the paintings is a refraction, as it were, of the guts of the body — the site of our gut feeling. All of Robins’s paintings convey gut feelings — our innermost, most sincere and authentic feelings, often hard to grasp, however strongly felt, but in Robins’s paintings explosively self-evident. And their characteristic gut feeling is that of being lost — in the subway, in New York, in life. Perhaps nowhere is the feeling of being lost so

Crossed Tracks

sensationally and clearly conveyed as in “Crossed Tracks”, 1996, where it is not clear what direction we should take. It is a contemporary version of the age-old dilemma of Hercules at the crossroads: one tunnel is dark the, the other enters a brightly lit station, but there is no stopping the train whichever tunnel one takes, and whatever choice one takes leads nowhere, that is, into the unknown. Just as Dante found himself lost in the dark forest, Robins finds himself lost in the dark subway, made all the more grotesque by being artificially lit. The subway is the objective correlative of the existential feeling of being lost in life, no matter which path one takes, indeed, the dreadful, sinking hollow feeling of being thrown toward death however much one tries to “catch” oneself. That is Robins’s subway articulates the annihilation anxiety that comes from recognizing the basic existential truth of life: it is a perpetual falling toward nothingness, and there is no safety net to stop the “free” fall. The subway’s steps lead downward into inhuman nothingness, just as Dante’s forest led him into the hell of perpetual human suffering — the lower depths of the unconscious, where people lose their humanity. And thus there are no people in Robins’s pictures, or no more than ciphers of people, only unconscious, instinctive forces — only the elemental struggle between life and death, with the conclusion of the battle foreordained.

But it seems to me that the most telling, suggestive contrast — the most subtle incongruity — in Robins’s paintings of his Rimbaudian season in subway hell is between their densely packed painterly gesture and their looming empty space, a truly ominous void. I think the ingenious combination of congested, claustrophobic gestures and agoraphobic space conveys the primal wish to be securely contained in a good, warm, safe space — in effect a loving womb in which we can feel omnipotent — but the ugly hateful reality of finding ourselves traumatically expelled from it by the uncontainable pressures or our own tense self-contrdictory existence. Like all determined expressionist painters, Robins acknowledges that we are fated to be traumatized by ourselves — by our underworld — however much the external world seems to make us its victim. And his “guttural” painterliness reminds us that Expressionism is the only way of making such basic, dangerous emotional truth explicit, if we feel compelled to. If the task of art is “through expression [to] help raise into the consciousness diffuse and forgotten experiences without ‘rationalizing’ them,”6, then Robins’s urgent hyper-expression overwhelms consciousness by flooding it with the dread New York evokes, if only in the underworld of the unconscious.


  1. Quoted in Maurice Tuchman, ed., The New School (London, 1969), p.38
  2. Stephen Eric Bonner and D. Emily Hicks, “Expressionist Painting and the Aesthetic Dimension,” Passion and Rebellion: The Expressionist Heritage, eds. Stephen Eric Bonner and Douglas Kellner (New York, 1983), p. 239.
  3. Lionel Trilling, Sincereity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA 1972), p. 171.
  4. Amy Goldin, “The Eight’s Laissez Faire Revolution,” Art in America, July-Aug. 1973, p. 45.
  5. Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York, 1961), p. 451.
  6. T.W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London, 1984), p. 82.

    ARTnews ©1998 Sarah Schmerler

    This review of Arthur’s 1997 show at the New World Art Center appeared in ARTnews in February 1998.

    Arthur Robins

    The 60-some paintings in Arthur Robins’s recent show were full of tenacity, a touch of psychosis, and a lot of promise. Robins’s efforts reange from souvenir-style views of New York gently laced with foreboding (a couple courting on a blanket in Central Park amid strongly colored shafts of failing light) to disturbing urban-fever dreams (phantasmagoric visions of the subway, where subterranean tracks lurch into the distance and stairways melt into snake-like spirals). Robins uses warped perspectives to powerful psychological effect in these tunnel scenes and in a series of images he made of all-night billiard halls. In one, a shiny black eight ball dwarfs the surrounding players; in another, a corner pocket looms in the foreground like a yawning abyss. The artist paints confidently, as though determined to get his thoughts out quickly in a kind of colorful automatic writing.

Website visits since March 2011: