Acquisitions: Robert Pincus-Witten Papers

By Annette Leddy
February 28, 2020
Detail of front cover of Robert Pincus-Witten journal, 1992-1994

This entry is part of an ongoing series highlighting new acquisitions. The Archives of American Art collects primary source materials—original letters, writings, preliminary sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, financial records, and the like—that have significant research value for the study of art in the United States. The following essay was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue (vol. 58, no. 2) of the Archives of American Art Journal. More information about the journal can be found at

Pincus-Witten journal with envelope and clipping
Front cover of Robert Pincus-Witten journal, 1993-94. Robert Pincus-Witten papers 1950-2017. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Robert Pincus-Witten (1935–2018), professor, art historian, art critic, gallery director, and art advisor, kept careful notes about the people and places he encountered throughout his life. In forty-three journals dating from 1957 through 2015, he described in thoughtful detail occasions such as editorial meetings at Artforum, lunches with art historian and critic Donald Kuspit, weekends in country houses with artists Mel Bochner and David Salle, and yearly visits to Paris. Along with dated entries written in an almost indecipherable cursive, he saved artifacts including business cards, cocktail party invitations, newspaper clippings, snapshots, postcards, and letters. He often inserted such evidence into the pages they pertained to; other times he gathered them just inside the front and back covers.

To read these journal entries and examine the ancillary documents is to grasp the intellectual life of a major American art critic. We learn about the authors he read, including Charles Dickens and Henry James; the cultural events that moved him, such as film critic Annette Michelson’s “astounding” lecture on Dziga Vertov; and the professors and fellow critics he tangled with, notably Lawrence Alloway. We infer the struggles involved in accumulating the knowledge that would allow him, among other accomplishments, to coin the term “postminimalism” in 1971 to describe the work of artists such as Eva Hesse and Richard Serra. More centrally, however, the journals divulge the personal virtues and foibles of numerous art-world figures, including Mary Boone, Rosalind Krauss, Robert Mnuchin, Dorothea Rockburne, and Ileana Sonnabend. Pincus-Witten’s psychological profiles of people evolved over time, gathering nuance. He often commemorated the death of a friend or enemy by taping the newspaper obituary into his journal and reviewing, in an adjacent entry, his admiration of—and complaints about—the deceased. Researchers will find in these ruminations the inner story of art-world developments, while benefiting from Pincus-Witten’s insights into art of the second half of the twentieth century.

Picus-Witten journal with clipping and envelope
Clipping and envelope in Robert Pincus-Witten journal, 1988-90. Robert Pincus-Witten papers, 1950-2017. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

When I first met with Pincus-Witten in 2014 about donating his papers to the Archives of American Art, he drew my attention to letters and manuscripts sandwiched between books in his library. These were, in effect, his artist files, and he had placed, for example, photocopied selections from Hesse’s diaries next to books about the sculptor by various authors. After his death, I extracted these items and added them to the archive. In addition to artist files, and the journals that form the collection’s core, the papers contain correspondence, writings, photographs, printed material, and teaching files. There are also audio recordings, including seventeen cassettes and two reel-to-reel tapes that preserve Pincus-Witten’s voice as he presented his ideas on a panel or interviewed the individuals who intrigued him throughout his long career at the center of the New York art world.


Annette Leddy is the Gilbert and Ann Kinney New York Collector at the Archives of American Art.

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