Dan Robbins (top) pictured with his first hire, Adam Grant, who was also a well-respected figure painter (image courtesy Sarah Robbins)A well-respected New York artist can reasonably expect an obituary in The New York Times. But when Dan Robbins died on April 1, 2019, at age 93, there were obituaries not only in The Times, but also in the Washington Post, in the LA Times, on NPR, in The Guardian, and in various other national and regional newspapers. Dan who? The website of the Paint by Number Museum that he almost certainly is exhibited on more walls than any other artists living or dead. Everywhere almost, except on art museum walls.
In the 1950s, when a paint company in Detroit was looking for a way to expand the market for its products, Robbins came up with a wild and brand-new concept: paint-by-numbers, which, as it turned out, became a phenomenal marketing ploy.
Robbins initially claimed to be inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, who sometimes numbered the shapes in his paintings in order to facilitate the their coloring by his assistants. When you bought the kit with canvas board, numbered scenes, and paints, you too could create your own paintings, thereby identifying, not so much with Maestro Leonardo, but with any of his studio assistants: The design was largely already done; all you needed to do was to “execute” it…
Paint-by-numbers became astonishingly popular. And it has remained popular, for at a glance, as Amazon reveals, there are a plethora of kits and books about paint-by-numbers available. Some are designed for adults, others for children. You can paint still lifes, landscapes, animals, old master paintings, or even abstractions. You can make your own Kandinsky, a color portrait of a lion, or an image of a rock star. As one advertisement proclaims “A BEAUTIFUL OIL PAINTING THE FIRST TIME YOU TRY.”
Recently Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum announced the acquisition of his “Do It Yourself (Sailboat)” (1962), Warhol’s version of a paint-by-numbers painting. This much sought-after painting was acquired thanks to a trade exchange of various de-accessioned works, a swap proposed by Larry Gagosian who was long aware of this lacuna in the Pittsburgh Museum.
If Warhol turned a replica of an ordinary Brillo box into “Brillo Box” (1964), a famous and now iconic sculpture (a gesture that signaled “,” as Arthur C. Danto titled his influential 1998 essay), and made paintings based on Campbell’s Soup can imagery, why not transform a paint-by-numbers image into a large and proper work of art?
There lies, however, an essential abiding difference between Robbins’s kits (which surely are not collected as artworks in the art world, although some of them have been presented as examples of design) and “Do It Yourself (Sailboat)” by Warhol. The latter resorts to a huge conceptual conceit that highlights the constitutive divide within the art world, especially in 1962 (when the painting was executed), between Jackson Pollock and hoi polloi — or between the star-clad art world, made out of artists whose art production is unique and coveted, versus the throngs of amateurs who merely enjoy doodling, or doing a painting-by-numbers — doing art that is not “serious.”
Robbins’ works may not have ever been displayed in an art museum, but they were shown at the National Museum of American History. Should we be surprised ? Unlike the unique painting by Warhol, Robbins produced kits that were reproduced in uncountable numbers. Warhol was fascinated by this concept of an image that could be reproduced in millions of versions (and turned his fascination into an icon) while Robbins fabricated this concept. Big difference.
Warhol became a very famous name amid a small group of artists associated with a style known as Pop. Robbins, not all that famous, created a craze for a do-it-yourself art experience that affected tens of millions of homes, and introduced art into the lives of throngs of kids. In a way, Robbins’ departure enables us to understand more fully the significance of Warhol’s gesture: Warhol did iconicize a social phenomenon that was unprecedented, and that was invented by Dan Robbins: enabling anybody, skills or no skills, to become an artist. Fifteen minutes of fame. Fifteen minutes of art. Why not?
Robbins’ kits were designed for amateurs, who wanted to create attractive-looking paintings, while Warhol’s “Do It Yourself (Sailboat)” has sometimes been read as a critique of Abstract Expressionism, whose ethos was predicated on the creation by a sophisticated artist of a unique work, the emanation of a singular and powerful soul.
What, then, accounts for the paradox that paint-by-numbers kits are not part of the art world, while “Do It Yourself (Sailboat)” is a much valued painting? Our answer is that there is no real reason for this distinction. In fact, wouldn’t it be an interesting exercise for the Warhol Museum to launch a competition and select a group of five to ten of the most striking paint-by-number paintings executed from the model selected and depicted by Warhol?
In two recent books, Wild Art (2013) and Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (2018), we have traced the distinction between what we dub “wild art” — art from outside the art world — and art world art. Wild art stands to art world art as wild plants to domesticated plants. Rollins himself was modest about his achievement. “I never claim that painting by number is art,” he wrote in his book, Whatever Happened to Paint-By-Numbers? (1998), quoted in The New York Times obituary. “But it is the experience of art, and it brings that experience to the individual who would normally not pick up a brush, not dip it in paint. That’s what it does.” Who could possibly deny this modest, though meaningful, claim?
But we also understand it in a more ambitious way: art world artists achieve success by bringing new sorts of artifacts into the art world. Robbins, however, proves that any art world artwork can be taken out of the art world by turning it into a paint-by-numbers kit.
(His achievement deserves comparison with that of his two peers who also have died recently: Thomas Kinkade created a large, very popular body of original works, cityscapes and landscapes; LeRoy Neiman painted sports heroes and public figures. Both artists belong to the phenomenon we began to map out as “wild art” — they created important bodies of works that were not accepted in the art world.)
In the end, Robbins did something quite remarkable and radical: he demonstrated that it is not necessary for any given artist to create something unique or deeply original in order to be an artist. Thus, Robbins may legitimately be compared to Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades demonstrated that, within the art world itself, an artist no longer needed to create anything in order to make art.
Will Robbins’ departure signal his renewed importance within the art world itself? It will be very interesting to see what happens.
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The Radical Proposition of Dan Robbins