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, orwere 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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