I’m not accepted as a blue-chip artist, and there’s every indication I never will be. ~ Robert Williams.
The best thing about Robert Willams is his paintings, but he’s also a likable fellow if you aren’t predisposed to dislike his type as much as the blue-chip art world turns its nose up at his art. Sure, he’s popular; able to sell his work; some of his sculptures were in the 2010 Whitney Biennial (which he brilliantly did not attend); his magazine, Juxtapoz, is probably the most popular art magazine around; and there’s a comprehensive new book of his art weighing in at around ten pounds… however, when this movie was shot, he lived in a tract house. He felt, and I agree, that the official art world wanted nothing to do with him. He is the antithesis of what contemporary art is supposed to be. I have a Master’s in art, and in my education, he is persona non grata. But this is not his crippling limitation, it’s the official art world’s.
Sometimes an artist is in the wrong place at the wrong time, at least for critical affirmation. Robert Williams is in the bulls-eye of wong place wrong time. The Abstract Expressionists erupted on the scene when America was jockeying for the new center-stage for the art world. Jackson Pollock was seen as embodying an American spirit. But decades later, the art world hated the West, and America in particular. And Williams? He reeks of Americana as much as Norman Rockwell (who every art student was taught to despise), with a side of Andrew Wyeth, and a dollop of Edward Hopper on top. Williams portrays a different side of America — a much more contemporary and West coast variety — but his paintings are home-brewed, even regional art.
Williams was influenced by comics, psychedelic posters, pulp art illustrations, tattoo art, hot rods, and sideshow art, all of which represent the current American culture he immersed himself in (oh, and he really likes the ladies. Really, really!). Had he come from just about anywhere else, his works might be lauded for the same quality of capturing a time, place, and culture. As irreverent and rebellious as his art is, he got lumped in with the West, the patriarchy, the status quo, the white male oppressor, and stodgy paint daubers as the thing the fashionable art cognoscenti were rebelling against. In a word, he was and largely still is the enemy.
All the things that the blue-chip art world doesn’t like about Williams are all the same things that make him one of the greatest painters of the last 50 years, for those of us who still love painting and fully understand that painting is a language unto itself, with a rich history, and not a sub-category of conceptual art. Using consumate skill and tantalizing aesthetics, Williams managed to encapsulate the zeitgeist of a West Coast subculture. He is to visual art what The Doors, The Beech Boys, or The Mamas and the Papas were to the California music scene of decades prior. He’s a popular artist who borrowed from comics and other genres, infused his personal visions and flavor, and elevated his style into fine art.
Lowbrow My Ass
“There’s a large facet of human beings who have no capacity for anything like oblique or abstract thought, and there’s a good reason for this, and it’s because anything anomalous means you have a problem.” ~ Robert Williams
Williams is only “lowbrow” if you take his work at face value, which is not a terribly, or even modestly highbrow thing to do. I don’t even have to care what the paintings are about — like ’em or not — because even on a purely abstract level of color and form and composition, they are outsdtanding. There’s a difference between being “lowbrow” and just not being a condescending, pretentious ass. I know what people mean when they use “lowbrow”, derisively or proudly, but great art always transcends what might seem simple about it. There’s a kind of alchemy that happens, which is necessarily rich and complex.
One of the biggest criticisms of Williams, other than that he’s a sexist pig-man, is that his paintings are merely illustration, and worse, cartoonish and comic art. Note that this sort of criticism comes from the types of people who love the living crap out of Any Warhol’s blanket appropriation of dreary commercial art, and Roy Lichtenstein’s repainting of cartoon strips. The difference is that Warhol was cyinical, his work fashionably boring, and Liechtenstein recontextualized comic art, making only small changes, without creating his own. These artists have a wry relation to the presumed lower forms of art, and a dry execution.
Williams does something much more spectacular, incorporating underground, popular, and even sub-adult styles, and weaving them into his own unique fabric. He’s not shitting on comics, or saying that if you look at them in just the right ironic light, they are as legitimately ART as is a urinal, a snow shovel, or a bottle rack. He’s exulting in them. His paintings aren’t dry comments about art and culture, they are exuberant manifestations of them.
In “Snuff Fink” (above), we see a man driving like a maniac in a hot rod he likely assembled from parts garnered from the “Auto Salvage” shop in the background. The bug-eyed monster in the bauble is on a suicidal mission, and is an obvious reference to the cartoons of Big Daddy Roth.
Williams doesn’t just copy Roth’s art, or hire someone else to do it (a la Koons, and Hirst), he re-imagines, embellishes, and integrates it. The image in the balloon may be both the man’s fantasy (but not literally) and the woman’s projected fear. Only one thing breaks through the jagged border of the balloon, and that’s the stop sign that’s been blasted past. [Note that both Williams and his wife were obsessed with art AND hot rods when they met.] This painting expresses a love of hot rods, comic art, monsters, driving, auto shops, and even fine art, all rolled into one. It’s just too positive, fun, interesting, cool, and impressive for the official art world.
But none of this means that Williams is less aware than the likes of Warhol that he borrows from popular culture, or that there’s less ironic remove than we see in Lichtenstein or Koons. There’s parody in Williams’s paintings, but it’s self-parody. The speed barrier the Monster’s hot rod has broken is just a rickety stop sign, and the only pedestrian he hit had a crutch. The monster, as hero or villain, is palpably ridiculous, with a tube of glue stuffed in each nostril. Or I could be misinterpreting it, and they are being chased by the monster. However you slice it, it’s so ludicrous on a literal level that we must take it as art.
There’s a little something the art world got wrong and hasn’t corrected yet. You can’t compare painting to conceptual art in the same way you can’t compare music or literature to it. You can only compare paintings to other paintings. Once you have unburdened yourself of the false comparison, than it’s not so easy to dismiss Williams’s work. Now that it can’t be categorically dismissed with a desultory flick of the wrist, one has to take into account what went into the painting. An art critic who could paint a paper bag would have to register on some level how hard it would be to do this sort of painting oneself, and that’s when it might dawn on them how brilliant it is.
In the future Willams will be recognized as a great painter because he not only intimately reflects the culture of his time, he participated in it, registered it, distilled it, and contributed to inventing it. That, and his paintings are beautiful.
Watch The Film Online
The documentary gives a good intro to his art, and we get to know him and about his life. I held out for a while trying to fined a better quality version, but this one had to do:
Stay tuned for another article I’m planning featuring some of Williams’s most norotious (and awesome) work.
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16 replies on “Robert Williams and the Art Documentary, “Mr. Bitchin'””
My oh my…as a former West Coaster (is that correct English–who knows?) Williams’ work looks oh-so-familiar even though I have never seen it before. Big Daddy on steroids. And yes, that type of painting has to be most difficult to create. And then, Ed Ruscha says “The best movie about an artist I’ve ever seen!”. Wow. Will have to find time to watch that documentary now.
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Me, too. I’m from Los Angeles, so the are is all very familiar. I don’t know about the best art documentary, though. It’s good, but the one on Szukalski was better. It’s good, though, and helps one access his art. I also like seeing his relationship with his wife. People try to make him out as a sexist, but, that’s not how he talks about his wife at all.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
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OK, here we are approx 1 and 1/2 hours later, and I did watch the documentary. Fascinating! I didn’t know there was a real guy named Von Dutch, but I do remember the kid across the street calling pin stripe patterns “von dutch”. His older brothers were also into hot rods. Amazing seeing the works of Williams close up, and the dialog at times is simply hilarious in the midst of being detailed and informative.
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Glad you watched it and enjoyed it. I like that he fell of his new bike AND the unicycle. That just kinda’ shows that the hot rod driver in the painting I included is a sort of boy’s fantasy, not the reality of the man.
What also really comes through is how much time and hard work he has dedicated to his paintings.
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Crazy amount of time and hard work!
He is such a badass, I’m a huge fan!
Nice bit of writing once again. Great job as usual. I just finished watching the documentary of Robert Williams and that “West Coast” California style of art is truly one of a kind. He has already “made it” but he doesn’t realize it because they aren’t super wealthy. What he doesn’t realize is the generations of influences he’s had on the younger generations.
Illustration and fine art will always be at odds for now. I think eventually those barriers will break as the generations pass on by. To think, artists like Norman Rockwell don’t deserve the “title” of fine artists because they illustrated magazines & ads, and such is ridiculous. But it uniquely sets him apart. On his own. In recent times, this is changing in the minds of art admirers.
Now, take an illustrators approach and blend it with comic book style, hotrods, motorcycles, monsters, nudes, etc. and the art world will of course turn its nose highly into the air. To be expected right? Kind of the point of it all is it not?
We’ve talked previously about the issues with becoming part of the “art world” but one of the things Mr. Williams doesn’t realize is how famous his art & his art style actually are.
Yesterday’s counterculture is now today’s mainstream. But it could never become part of the art world so many artists long after (including Mr. Williams) because it would lose its flare. It’ll lose its whole purpose in the first place.
I think he fails to realize that, yet he longs to be side by side with the Master’s (many of whom in my opinion don’t deserve this title). Standing shoulder to shoulder with other artists who snubbed the art world of their time, is what I believe he wants.
And after a life long career, I can see why he longs for that recognition. It will come to him after he is gone, as is the case with most artists. But once you set yourself within that fake counterculture (the current art world) … against real counterculture (California style)… his fame and notoriety come from more humbling roots.
He simply has to wait for it to grow. The seeds were planted, generations have seen it, and this art style has gripped the country and it’ll spread throughout the world all on it’s own. It already has.
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You have a good point there. To make it as far as he has without the help, support, or praise of the art world is to really make it.
If feel about the same about Alex Grey, though he has a very different subject and style.
Good post. Robert Williams has a place in my museum of the mind; Warhol and Lichtenstein do not—but real illustrators and cartoonists do. Dali doesn’t make the cut either, Williams is a better surrealist. Also one can make art about sexism w/out being a sexist, yes? The movie is great. Watch “Crumb” next.
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I’ve seen “Crumb” twice already, or was it “American Splendor” I saw twice, which also has Crumb. I think I’ve seen both. Worth watching again!
Well, I’ll definitely take Williams over Warhol and Lichtenstein, too. Dali is another cup of tea. You can’t beat Dali at what he does, it’s just a matter of whether or not you like what he does. He’s amazing, but not for everyone, IMO.
I don’t even think Williams made work about sexism without being a sexist, exactly, though I do see what you mean. Rather, I think he made work about the sexual appetite, especially the more adolescent variety (his own, that is).
I’m planning a post about his ladies and food paintings, which are among his most outlandish, controversial, and F’ing amazing. I’ll elaborate my analysis there, but, he’s just making images of what he finds erotic, to a large degree. And if he weren’t a straight white male, the art world would think that was great, empowering, and snubbing their noses at the puritanical religious right. Well, there’s nothing wrong with a boy liking a girl, or a boy being hopelessly drawn to a girl’s body. So, it’s more about what people extrapolate from his paintings, and they insist on taking it seriously when a girl is posing erotically on enchiladas, and male’s eyeballs are literally popping out of their heads. You have to be a bit dumb to take something that dumb-on-the-face-of-it, and funny, as something serious and worthy of moral condemnation.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
Great piece! I too am a huge Williams fan. Not to be a stickler, but he did not submit sculptures to the Whitney, he had to paint new works and so sent them several oil washes. Not as detailed as his usual stuff but still very cool. If you haven’t seen the new show, here’s a video I made of the opening weekend:
Looking forward to your next piece!
Thanks. Huh, I thought he showed those sculptures. I saw him in another video preparing them for some big show, though that was a while ago and I can’t exactly trust my memory, but I thought it was more of an art world legit venue.
I’ve seen the oil washes, and didn’t understand what those were about. That sort of explains it. Somehow, it seems he sent off his weakest work to the most highbrow venue.
Nice video. I like the sundtrack and how you’ve tried to pan the images (though that was a little dizzying at times), get close ups, and combine that with still shots.
in your video description, I like this quote: “Williams has engaged in a passionate dialogue on the meaning and utility of art-making, placing his work in opposition to what he sees as the sterile misanthropy of abstract and conceptual art.” I’d really enjoy reading or hearing more of his take on contemporary art.
I know what the problem is, and it’s very simple. Painting has been re-categorized as a sub-category of “art”, but under a conceptual art umbrella in which everything is art, and painting is the redundant, vestigial branch. In reality, drawing/painting is it’s own genre and has nothing to do with conceptual art, video, installation, performance, and so on (or no more than music or literature does). Conceptual art is the Dodo chick trying to kick painting out of the nest.
Anyway, thanks for the clarification.
Good insight and thanks for watching! Yeah, the sculptures where done for a solo show at Tony Shafrazi gallery in 2009. First just 2 then he did a few more. He talks about them a little in this snippet from another movie I did:
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Watched the video. I’m more of a fan of his paintings than his sculptures, and the sculpture has a deceptive similarity to some contemporary sculptures which it has nothing to do with (ex., some sculptures by Paul McCarthy), so I have a sense that they were easier to peddle than his paintings. In general, the contemporary art world is much more anti-painting than anti-sculpture.
Nice video. Also had some good info in there. You spiced it up well with the graphics, too.
Cool! Thanks for watching!!
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