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. . . the cartoon is ugly, cheap and degrading. Its purpose—to stimulate erotic responses, and does not, as claimed, deal with basic realities of life. It is grossly shocking—demeaning the sexual experience by perverting it . . . it is part of the underworld [sic] press—the growing world of deceit in sex, and it is not reality or honesty, as they often claim it to be. It represents an emotional incapacity to view sex as a basic part of the human condition.

Excerpt from New York Judge Joel Tyler’s written ruling in the 1970 criminal case against Zap Comix


Judge Tyler is the same judge who made Deep Throat famous by ruling it to be obscene. He is now 79 years old. When he retired from the bench in 1991 he said of the twenty-two-page statement he wrote about the Deep Throat case, “If I were to write that appendix today, I would be deemed a fool, given the substantial change in our outlook.”

Often sexually charged content aside, two of the major quests in Robert Williams art and life have been an unrelenting confrontation with notions about reality and an uncompromising pursuit of honesty. These quests have led him to lock horns conceptually with more than a few fools, but along the way he has developed a huge following and come to know some of the most colorful characters of our time.

R Crumb, of course, created Zap, virtually drawing the first two issue (#0 and #1) entirely by himself in 1967. Beginning with issue #2, he began to get help. His original collaborators included Rick Griffin, S. Clay Wilson, Spain Rodriguez, Victor Moscoso, Gilbert Skelton and Robert Williams. Williams’ initial contribution was two untitled offerings and a little ditty he titled, “The Supreme Constellation of Dormasntoria,” for the infamous issue #4 in 1969—the issue that prompted the prosecution and subsequent conviction for obscenity in Tyler’s New York criminal court.

The conviction was upheld upon appeal. But today it hardly seems like a conclusive victory for the rightwing guardians of moral righteousness. Although R. Crumb has retreated to the south of France where he lives and plays mandolin with his band Les Primitifs du Futur (Primatives of the Future), Zap continues. Issue #14 was published in 1998. And the initially underground phenomena has spawned an entire industry of comic books, T-shirts, toys and other ancillary products.

Along with Crumb, Williams has become the most noted figure from the original Zap group. There is a waiting list to buy his paintings, and the list of collectors of his work reads like a Who’s Who in Hollywood and Rock’n’Roll. Six books about him and countless magazine articles have been published—Williams may be the only person ever to have feature articles written about him in both Hustler and Artforum. Juxtapoz, the magazine he founded to champion high energy art that many critics and curators deem not smart enough for museum standards, has become one of the most widely circulated art magazines in America. In an essay written for a recent exhibition at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York art world legend Walter Hopps compared Williams to Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain for his creation of a unique American vernacular.

There is so much adolescent verve busting from the seams of Williams’ paintings that it seems like a contradiction of terms to use the word mature to describe his new work. But he has been exhibiting his paintings for thirty years: In the 1970s he had an ongoing one-person exhibition at the Brucker’s Movie World Cars of the Stars and Planes of Fame Museum—now defunct. Brucker’s museum was in Buena Park, just up the freeway from the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana. Before these exhibitions, Williams worked with legendary car and motorcycle designer and innovator Ed “Big Daddy” Roth doing drawings, design work, and coming up with flashy names for Roth’s creations. Shades of these early experiences are still visible in Williams’ work, but there are complex layers of influences in his paintings.

These influences were most succinctly documented in a widely reproduced cartoon that was used in the catalog for the 1987 group exhibition Bad Influences at Otis Parsons (Los Angeles). Titled, GRAPHIC INFLUENCES, the drawing features a caricature of Williams painting on a tree stump with its root leading to blocked lists of influences with titles that read: ACADEMIC ART (MODERN), ACADEMIC ART (EARLY), ILLUSTRATOR PAINTERS, MOVIES & TV, PULP MAGAZINES, QUESTIONABLE ESTHETICS, CARNIVAL MIDWAY ART, PSYCHEDELIC ART, UNDERGROUND COMICX, COMICBOOK ART and HOTROD & MONSTER T-SHIRT ART. Each heading contains a list of influences: Salvador Dali, George Grosz, Max Beckman, Grant Woods and Hieronymus Bosch are some of the obvious artists listed; but the list includes Pablo Picasso, Delacroix, Gericault, El Greco, Carvaggio, and Titian along with Maxfield Parish, Frederic Remington; and Girly Magazines, Tattoo Art, and Surfer Art.

One artist who is not on the list is Gustave Courbet. Although the stylistic connections are tangential, Williams reminds me of Courbet in several ways. Like Williams, Courbet was dismissed by many critics of his day because his paintings were considered too common and didn’t address the fashionable issues of the prevailing art world. In the mid-nineteen century when Courbet’s paintings were rejected at the official Salon, he simply created his own Salon exhibition adjacent to the sanctioned exhibition. Courbet once said that art had to be “dragged through the gutter” before it could be great art: meaning that there was more truth in the streets of Paris than behind the hallowed walls of the French Academy. It may seem odd to compare Courbet to Williams since Courbet was a realist—according to him the first and only realist—and Williams’ paintings are unmistakably surreal. But Williams’ images and titles are distinctly about our time (which is surreal). And like Courbet he strives to reveal underlying truths about our reality.

One of the primary themes in Williams’ oeuvre is his questioning of the verity of experts and authorities: be it the scientist, politician or art critic. By deconstructing and reconceptualizing fables, folklore, history, myth and beliefs Williams exposes cracks in the truth and gives cause to question conventions. What is perhaps most unsettling about his work is that he does not offer pat rebuttals or solutions. His paintings and titles add up to open-ended conundrums. He reinforces for us one of the most disturbing and uncomfortable truths that we have had to wrestle with at the end of the millennium: absolutes are not always absolute.  

Mike McGee, February, 2001








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