Robert Williams is a champion of lowbrow art who has barged past the velvet rope of fine art with wonderfully complex, completely thought out, and masterfully executed oil depictions of Western Civilization gone horribly wrong. His work is so far out from the fine art world that he was forced to found Juxtapoz magazine to not only create context for his work but start a movement of street-level creativity as well. Even so, he is largely dismissed in high art circles and equally ignored in pop culture realms. When the excellent documentary on the artist was screened last week at Comic-Con, he was introduced as “Robin Williams.”
Mr. Bitchin’ should help prevent such mistakes in the future. It details the artist’s evolution from hot-rod garages to high-end galleries, and features luminaries such as Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Don Ed Hardy, and R. Crumb, as well as members of Guns N’ Roses, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blondie, and Butthole Surfers. While effectively and convincingly telling William’s story, it provides quite a primer on subcultures.
I met with Williams the day after the movie showing and a subsequent panel about him. As affable as he is intelligent, we had a casual yet charged conversation in the compound of Gentle Giant (which has released a miniature bust of the artist and is assisting the artist in realizing a series of large sculptures) in anticipation of the film’s release on DVD and digital platforms on July 30.
MW: Perhaps you can talk about promoting your documentary at Comic-Con instead of some fancy film festival or art function.
RW: I come back here about every 4 or 5 years and try to bring true fine art to the comic book environment. And when I say “true fine art,” I don’t mean to sound like a snob. But I’ve got a sophisticated gallery in New York and I’ve been showing in New York for 30 years. I very uncomfortably struggle in the real art world doing representational and cartoon artwork, and don’t simply pass it off as pop art. So I feel justified to come back to San Diego for the comic book convention to try to get one foot in the door with fine art.
Just like the movie industry has absorbed itself into the comic book world, I think eventually the fine arts world is going to collide with the comic book world. They’re not going to be able to avoid it. There are so many talented people in the comic book world, and a lot of them see themselves as experts and technically talented and feel that they have some claim to fine art.
MW: You present and explain your art quite well in your books. Why would you entrust a filmmaker to tell your story?
RW: Well, I’m a painter and a sculptor and something of a writer, but I’m not a filmmaker. I don’t have the financial resources to even attempt being a filmmaker. And it was other people’s initiative and their financing and their effort and their gambling to make the film, so I went along with it. I was honored to be part of that, you know?
MW: What do you think the film can accomplish that your monographs cannot?
RW: I think the film had a certain amount of entertainment value–not a lot, but a certain amount–and I think that something really important about the film is that it gives a good indication into the underground art world of Southern California from the ’60s up to now. Even with the Crumb film you don’t see that and, in that respect, I think it’s of historical worth.
MW: While the film puts a spotlight on your own work it also champions many subcultures that deserve recognition.
RW: Well, elite art collectors and elite galleries take a great deal of pride in French entertainment posters from the 1890s. And it’s funny that those get so much play in the art world but they completely turn their noses up at the psychedelic poster movement of the ’60s, which had a far, far larger reach in the United States and Europe. I can see how the art world appreciates Toulouse-Latrec, but that stuff really doesn’t hold a candle to the entire psychedelic poster movement. It really doesn’t. They had an enormous span of territory all the way to Asia.
MW: Bold aesthetically and in their reach.
RW: Yeah! They ushered in a whole new use of contrasting colors. The psychedelic posters dared the public to read them. Before in commercial art, everything had to be simply legible. But the psychedelic posters, man, you had to study them. They were totally daring. The art world is, in some ways, very constipated and conforming.
MW: It’s obvious to most that your work has the top level of comics and painting, but I see elements of Mexican muralists as well.
RW: I think my work is closer to comic books and pulp magazine covers than anything. I love ’20s and ’30s pulp magazine covers. They’re the most remarkable visual art. Another is Mexican movie posters. Those are really beautiful, dramatic, lithograph stone colors. It’s remarkable art that gets passed over as insignificant and it’s a shame. I’ve inadvertently and unfortunately put myself in a category where stuff is very had to seem of sophisticated relevance to the art world. But, gee, fuck ‘em.
MW: It’s one thing to do great work on your own but to be taken seriously you need to be part of a movement or a school.
RW: Exactly. It has to have power and enormous influence before they’ll realize it and the reason for that is that it starts generating money. Not only sales but secondary market sales. It’s one thing for an artist to sell a painting. When that painting has worth and sells itself down the line, that’s enormously powerful.
And another thing that’s very uncomfortable to me is that to be an artist and sell work you have to pimp yourself as a celebrity. I hate that. I hate to try pass myself as this really fucking special guy that did this. Of course, there’s a vain side of me that appreciates it, but that’s tiring. Man, it’s a lot of work to stand in front of a lot of people and pretend I’m a special guy. I’d rather hide from it and let the artwork do all the labor.
MW: But your essays are very eloquent. You’re not afraid to talk about your work by any means.
RW: I have to pimp myself because no one else is going to do it. Onlookers see me as this vain asshole: “Look, he did this picture and now he’s showing off.” It’s probably true, but I don’t know.
MW: So what is your hope for the video?
RW: To generate a larger market for my artwork. More security when I get older, although I’m pretty old now.
MW: I look at your current work, and it doesn’t reflect you getting older at all!
RW: It does reflect an immaturity, doesn’t it? It perpetuates youth… But I’m the character that laid on the barbed wire so the rest of them can pass over. The rest of the young artists can carefully and comfortably come in. I cleared a lot of resentment out of the art world.
MW: I was talking to your wife Suzanne, who was concerned about how your marriage is portrayed in the movie. I didn’t see it as gushy at all. I thought it revealed you to be a balanced guy who is passionate about your art but able to conduct relationships in a healthy manner.
RW: I think Suzanne and I wish that part wasn’t in there, but it glues the whole thing together.
MW: To me, it deflates the romantic notion that many people have of insane artists who can’t handle relationships.
RW: Well, the art world is controlled in New York and it started with Abstract Expressionism. To make it a really strong international movement, they had to kill realism. The vast majority of people don’t understand that. So when I went to art school in the early ’60s, I thought, “I can draw. I’ll be a big shot.” No. No representational art. Maybe some loose figure sketching, but no lines that converged to suggest perspective. This was the philosophy of the late ’50s and ’60s. You painted with a passion, an emotion.
MW: And not craftsmanship or draftsmanship.
RW: Yeah, and far more people could be in art school and be artists if you got rid of craftsmanship. So these generations of artists got Bachelors of Fine Arts and Masters of Fine Arts degrees and can’t fucking draw. They didn’t have as much skill as a 15-year-old boy walking around at the comic book convention. So, in turn, they had to perpetuate this. They couldn’t make it as painters, so they became functionaries in museums and galleries or teachers. The continually churned this thing for 60 fucking years and that still exists.
MW: It takes a lot of bread to go to places like ArtCenter.
RW: ArtCenter is an exceptional technical school, but they have a sloppy fine arts department. Listen, about 20 years ago the Fine Arts department at ArtCenter passed out a memo that said no one in the department could use power tools because they’d hurt themselves. You understand what I’m saying? The people in the Fine Arts department are so inept they can’t have power tools because they’d fucking hurt themselves. That blew my mind. I always kinda figured they were all inept but to make a memo because they’re afraid a drill will get away or a grinder will run across a table and hit someone…
The thing is that it’s not wrong because it makes everyone an artist and everyone’s happy. But how can you make a compromise so people who can really draw slip in there. Now when I was in art school, my peer group referred to me “the illustrator,” and that was derogatory. Because I could fucking draw. I was going to Los Angeles City College and I don’t know how many thousands of people were in the art department, but the school paper needed a cartoonist and there was no one in the department that could draw. So I took the job as the cartoonist and won national awards. It’s a sad, sad commentary.
MW: I like how the movie reveals the work, research, and preparation you put into your paintings. You aren’t just some acid-tripping weirdo into crazy shit. You not only sand down a sculpture’s surface perfectly and use underlayers to get a color just right, but you refine your ideas just as much.
RW: Yeah, seven days a week. I try to get along in that world and try to open up just a little area but you can’t believe how much resistance there is. And these artists who come up through Juxtapoz and think they’re going to slip right into the art world hit this disapproval of representational art. To be a good representational artist, even if you’re fast and really talented it takes 10 years. No young people are going to do anything for fucking 10 years. Maybe 4 years in college if they really have to do it. People aren’t going to practice drawing time after time after time.
But I’m an old man and I won’t be around for much longer. You young pricks figure it out for yourselves, huh. And other artists have leapfrogged me and get the big money and credit. That’s the way things are. Never be first.
MW: Wasn’t it David Bowie who said that it’s not who does things first but who does them second?
RW: That’s right, what else is there to add?
BONUS INTERVIEW WITH NANCYE FERGUSON (CO-DIRECTOR/PRODUCER)
MW: You’ve worked with a lot of masters: David Lynch, Mark Mothersbaugh, Blake Edwards, Paul Verhoeven. How does Robert Williams stand out?
NF: All of those artists are unique in their greatness. Working with Robert is very much like figuring out his painting. It is a complicated, layered, surreal, funny, and imaginative experience. He is committed to his vision and things take a long time to unfold.
MW: After the movies showed at Comic-Con, Robert mentioned that he asked you to join the project when it was already a work in progress. How did that happen? Had you worked with him before?
NF: I was in a relationship with (and married to) Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, and we all went to Tokyo together for an art show that Bob, Mark, and many other great artists were part of. Mark and Robert often were in art shows together in the ’80s and we were all friends.
MW: What was it like to make a movie about someone that you already knew very well?
NF: Since Robert and Suzanne were friends, it made things easier because there was already a high level of trust, which is needed when you are working with someone’s life. It was important for me and all of us filmmakers to make a movie that we could not only be proud of but also that Robert and Suzanne would be happy with, as well. We are ecstatic that we achieved that.
MW: Did working on the film affect your personal assessment of Robert as an artist?
NF: Robert is a brilliant artist! That is a fact. The years of working on the film have only strengthened my need for more people to recognize that fact. I hope we can increase the number of people that recognize his genius.
MW: Are there other promotional events besides Comic-Con? Other cities, perhaps?
NF: Right now we are focused on the DVD launch screening at American Cinematheque in Hollywood on Tuesday, July 30 at 7:30, and then it will be out in the world!
Buy the DVD or digital version on July 30. Better yet, catch a special screening on that date at the Egyptian in Hollywood, where Robert Williams and filmmakers will be in attendance.