Conceptual Realism

October 31, 2009 - January 23, 2010

Artist Bio
Press Release
Selected Press

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Suicide Girls interview with Robert Williams
April 8, 2010

Robert Williams has had careers that would fulfill many lesser artists. He worked for Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, and was involved in the hot rod movement. He created psychedelic posters and was part of Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix collective. He’s a painter and sculptor whose work has been exhibited around the world. Guns N Roses took their debut album title from Williams’ painting “Appetite for Destruction” which was also the album cover. He’s one of the founders of Juxtapoz, the biggest art magazine in the world, and it was the title of his first book of paintings that gave the lowbrow art movement its name. He’s written extensively about art including the Rubberneck Manifesto in which he famously argued that “something dead in the street commands more measured units of visual investigation than 100 Mona Lisas.”

Last year Williams had his first solo show in years at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York, “Conceptual Realism: In the Service of the Hypothetical” and this year it opened at Cal State Northridge. Williams was also asked to contribute to this year’s Whitney Biennial. Much of his popular success comes from his skill and precision at depicting the realistic details in his work in a way which make the flights of fancy seem natural. His oil paintings, shows the influence of twentieth century pop culture but his craftsmanship and skill are worthy of the old masters. Imagine if Salvador Dali was raised on EC Comics, pop culture and dropped acid, and you have a hint of what Williams’ work is like.

What was most striking about talking with Williams was that an artist who has had such long and influential career was so clearly touched and appreciative of my own observations towards his work. He believes he’s currently working at the top of his game, which for those who attended his recent show is hard to argue with, but he believes with passion that he has the skill and the talent to create work so powerful and affecting to convert the critics of his approach and subject matter. The following is an edited version of a far-reaching conversation about art, comics, Los Angeles and what Williams likes about watercolors.

ALEX DUEBEN: You’ve mentioned that underground cartoonists were your first peer group. You were part of the Zap Comix collective, which included Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson and Spain Rodriguez and others. What were you trying to do?ROBERT

WILLIAMS: Underground comics is closer to art than it is to comics, because you could do as you please. It started in the early fifties when the Kefauver subcommittee cracked down on comics. There was a book called Seduction of the Innocent by a Dr. Wertham that later created an investigation into comics and how they were causing juvenile delinquency and all the really good comics got run out of business. I’m old enough, and my peer group was old enough, to remember the really great comics. Then all of a sudden the spigot was turned off and from that point on it was Disney comics and happy animal comics and whatnot.

It started with the psychedelic poster movement. The fine arts world never acknowledged the psychedelic poster movement even though the psychedelic poster movement was far far larger than the poster movement in the late 1890s with Toulousse-Letrec and other artists. All of the artists that were involved in poster movement were, much like myself, disenfranchised artists. The thing slowly started creeping towards comics. Some of the psychedelic posters started breaking down into panels. Underground comics, the first one that I can remember is Jack Jackson’s God Nose from ’64, so there’s a heritage in this thing. Crumb came out with Zap in 1967. I was working for Ed “Big Daddy” Roth doing illustration, cartoons. They were very irreverent and I was in trouble for it. The seeds were there. Even if Crumb wasn’t born and I wasn’t born this thing was going to surface.

When we started doing underground comics, they were very subversive, very pornographic, very antisocial. Every social more we could find, we would violate. Our attitude was, you think those comicbooks were bad back in the fifties? You ain’t seen fucking nothing yet.

AD:So all that was very conscious and very intentionally dealing with these subjects and in that manner?

RW:You have to understand, we’re in a period of history now where artists think they have to placate everybody in the world. They have to get the largest audience possible. The underground artists and underground world were very happy just to deal with themselves. None of those underground comics were ever made for a general audience. The attitude was, fuck the general audience. It was just like the psychedelic rock posters that had that lettering that you couldn’t fucking read until you knew how to read it. It wasn’t for every idiot. It was for an intelligent arcane audience that was in the know. Now the attitude is we’ve got to make everybody fucking happy, but that time there was a big cultural separation between the underground and the overground. The Vietnam war was the ignition point. That was when the country split right in half.

AD:I’ve read a decent amount of underground comics from that period and I have to admit I’m sometimes unsure how much I get, not just in terms of the references, but because it was for a different audience at a different time.

RW:It wasn’t something to hunt you down and appease you. It was something if it interested you, you go and investigate. It wasn’t something for everyone to get hip to. It was a very closed world. And there’s another factor, Alex. There were two philosophies. There was the graphic abstract world of the comics which I belonged to, that Rick Griffin belonged to, that S. Clay Wilson belonged to, that Victor Moscosco belonged to. And then there was the literary graphic story side of the underground comics that Crumb belonged to and Gilbert Shelton belonged to. They were interested in telling stories. My side of the thing, the abstract world, was more into the abstract illusionary art world to take you through a mind expanding trip. Now eventually as underground comics got more popular and had a larger audience, the literary side took over because people weren’t interested in the abstract side anymore they were more interested in reading the story and throwing the comic book away.

AD:Which is something that continues to do to this day in comics where abstract work is really a largely obscure and ignored corner of comics.

RW:That’s what happened to the underground comics. They got so popular and so big that they started to have to cater to a much larger audience and they had to start making much more sense. The earlier comics weren’t responsible for making any fucking sense. So after about 1970 or ‘71, the psychedelic nonsense really tapered off.

AD:Which is the point when underground comics became a genre essentially.


AD:You guys were making comics, but were those old comics hugely influential?

RW:Absolutely. You have to remember that the only artists who could draw and paint were comics book artists and artists who did B-movie posters and stuff like that. Illustrators. The art world had turned its back on it. Almost every one of us in the underground comics had a fine arts background and faced the same pressures the same bigotry.

AD:You guys liked EC comics and Wally Wood and--

RW:Wally Wood was my hero. I talked to him a couple of times. I’m sorry I didn’t get to know him better. Unfortunately every time I talked to him both of us were drunk.

AD:And if we go back to Pop Art and Roy Lichtenstein, who took a comics panel and played with it in a way that was disdainful of the panel.RW:Not only would he take a comic book panel and would denigrate it so it even looked funkier, he would take a comic book panel verbatim and then find stylizations in there and alter them so it looked as if it was even more retarded. He was showing his indifference, because in pop art you show a cold indifference.

AD:He wrecked what art there was in the panel and I think that indifference and coldness you mention is why pop art leaves many people cold.

RW:The buying public in art are not into it that much. They’re interested in the value and how it looks as decoration in a large modern home.

AD:Do you feel art scene at large remains indifferent to you and your style even now?RW:The art scene now is more open than I’ve ever seen it in my life. But there’s a problem with the art. I knew this a long long time ago. If you get a lot of people that want to be artists, you have to adjust down the capability requirements so that all these people can be artists. You can’t expect to take young people and force them into a rigorous discipline of learning how to draw and paint. That’s what they did one hundred years ago in the old European art academies and in the United States in the early Twentieth century. They had really tough schools. It was hell to get through an art school a long time ago. Now they’ve eased that so you just have to be sensitive and be able to pay the tuition and attend and flop around some colors. The discipline has gone out of it completely.

The arts have to be open for everybody with every kind of style. I’m for making the thing open and free. I don’t think an artist has to learn to paint and draw. I prefer to do that, but I want the ability to have as much right to be in a museum as someone else. I respect their right to put anything in there. If they want to have a pile of sand in the middle of the museum, that’s okay with me. As long as I have room in there.

AD:Your show in Los Angeles which was in New York last year is the first show you’ve had for a number of years. How prolific are you?

RW:I’m slow. I plod along. I used to be a lot more prolific in my thirties and forties and my twenties, but I’m sixty-seven years old and I just work at it continually. I’m just as happy to do a real big tight oil painting and plot every little detail out and crawl across it like a snail. That’s the way it gets done. I’m not the most prolific artist, never really have been.

In the eighties I was turning out two and a half paintings a month. Now I turn out a painting every two and a half months. But they’re a lot better paintings. More detail.AD:So you’re in the Whitney Biennial this year.RW:I am in the Whitney Biennial.AD:Was this a big deal?RW:It was a very very big deal. I didn’t realize how big it was at the time. I’ve been showing in New York for about twenty, twenty-five years now and it’s just been a slow process of eroding away these obstacles. Eighteen years ago I got into Tony Shafrazi’s gallery and then I proved myself there having a number of sold out shows. I’m sure Tony got me in the Whitney. Tony’s probably the second or third biggest gallery in the world. He’s quite a character.AD:You’re showing six watercolors at the Whitney.

AD:What do you like about watercolors?

RW:I don’t like anything about watercolors.

AD:Um, let me rephrase then. Why did you feel six watercolors would be appropriate for the show?

RW:That way I could have my name in the show six times. And have six different ideas instead one big painting. They said they would accept six small watercolors. They saw my watercolors at the Shazfrazi show. You saw the four. They said they would accept six of those so I sat down and did six.AD:So you don’t enjoy watercolors?RW:I enjoy watercolors immensely, but I love those tight ass oil paintings. That’s the real test and that’s the real form of expression. Those are ass busting to do. They’re difficult and if you spend a lot of time on them and they don’t work out, man, it’s really a gamble. I’m at the top of my form and I’m busting my ass on those big oil paintings. Later, when I get old, I’ll be doing a lot of watercolors. Don’t worry about that.

AD:I know you grew up in California and you’ve lived in Los Angeles for a long time. What keeps you there? The city keeps changing so much.

RW:I love the weather. I’ve got hot rods. I’ve got room -- a house on a big lot with room. I love going to New York, but I can only handle New York for about a week and then it starts closing in on me. New York has an energy that maybe you can see it in Tokyo and Berlin and Rome, but New York is the capital of the world when it comes to cultural energy. But I’ve got to get out of there after awhile.

AD:From your perspective, does Los Angeles have a good art scene?

RW:LA is going to take over New York eventually. New York got all its culture from Europe. The old Victorian principle of sophistication. To be sophisticated you have to be inhibited. That doesn’t exist on the West Coast or the Pacific Rim. LA knows to be sophisticated, copy New York, but they fail at it miserably. I don’t mean to run New York down but you come out here and get involved in the art world out here and there is so much energy going in all directions it can’t be contained. It’s like trying to herd kangaroos or something. They try to be sophisticated, but they fail, and in that failure they come up with their own dynamic.

Not only do you have the motion picture industry out here, you have the hot rod culture, the biker culture, the surfer culture, the tattoo culture. On and on and on all started out here. Psychedelic posters. Underground comics. It all started out here. It happened spontaneously. It can’t stop itself.

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