interview by ALEX GARTENFELD
photographs by TODD COLE
Robert Williams’ Mr. Bitchin’, a documentary film about the artist recently premiered at LACMA.
Tucked away on the second floor of the last Whitney Biennial were six small watercolors by ROBERT WILLIAMS, paintings whose scale belied the magnitude of their subjects. Beyond Ferocious depicted a remarkable flesh-tinted primordial man with an open set of jaws representing his head. Astrophysically Modified Real Estate presented a cul-de-sac of single-family homes whipped up by a remarkably inert tornado. The works looked like studies for a dangerously primal irreality. Williams is a skilled watercolorist, but more importantly, he’s a defiantly provocative figurative artist, even though he describes his art as “low-brow.”
Williams is part of New York’s famous Tony Shafrazi gallery, and was for decades a Zap Collective artist. In 1994 he founded Juxtapoz, a successful art magazine that presents a diversity of artistic formats, both low-brow and high-brow. In his younger days he coupled radical West Coast cartooning with human rights and anti-war protesting. Williams’ contribution to the seminal 1992 Helter Skelter show at MOCA created such a stir that its curator, Paul Schimmel, told him he’d never show his work again — in spite of the show’s record attendance. While Williams isn’t one to rail against institutions, the quiet scale of his watercolors at the Whitney Biennial was a pointed artistic statement.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Testing, testing. One, two.
ROBERT WILLIAMS — Individuals who are forced or constrained to be domicile in vitreous structures of paint and frank ability should on no account use vitreous formations as projectiles. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Where did that come from?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – I don’t know.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Was in your head, or did you read it?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – I use it to test sound. How many of the artists from the Whitney Biennial are you talking to? Every artist in the show?
ALEX GARTENFELD — No, no. You’re the only one.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Really? Why would you select me? I am honored to the point of having a hernia!
ALEX GARTENFELD — Did you think I’d spend days and days interviewing all 65 artists?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – That’s what I thought!
ALEX GARTENFELD — Well, you’re the only artist I know of from this show whose work has been actively boycotted. And you’re also, I believe, the only artist who chose to do watercolors. I’m not sure if Charles Ray’s flowers were watercolors, but your work stood out.
ROBERT WILLIAMS — Well, there were some questions that preceded the choice to show those works. I was advised to stay away from the big, lurid paintings, and to maintain a certain humility by showing the watercolors.
ALEX GARTENFELD — That’s not very punk.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Well, I’m coming from so far out in left field that I figured I’d better just be quiet. That’s not me. But I was very honored to be invited. And, you know, I’m an older man. I’m almost 67. I think I’m the second-oldest person in the whole Biennial.
ALEX GARTENFELD — How was the response to the work you submitted?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – The show was so important that when I was nominated to be in it, I got more than 30 phone calls and letters from people congratulating me. I had no idea of the power of this show.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Does the show’s power feel like validation, one a long time coming?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – I’m always getting kicked out of things. So just getting into this show was really important to me. Tony Shafrazi suggested I use some of the more relaxed work, like the watercolors. They’re not my favorite things, but they’re still my children.
ALEX GARTENFELD — They all tell very funny little stories, almost like the frames of a comic. Are they fables? Do you think of them in terms of their telling stories?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – They’re more like little, lighthearted anecdotes. When you do watercolors you don’t get involved — the medium doesn’t lend itself to heavy-handedness. Watercolors are what I’m going to do after I have a stroke, when I can’t stand in front of a big canvas and smell fumes for nine hours of the day. Watercolors are for Queen Victoria or Winston Churchill.
ALEX GARTENFELD — You have a taste for monumental sculpture, which you’ve worked on, too, in your own way.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – I love sculpture. But sculpture is expensive. You have to have underwriters to produce them. And you can’t sculpt a blue sky or a storm front over the horizon.
ALEX GARTENFELD — Was there anyone in the Biennial whose work you were particularly happy to be showing alongside of?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – I try to be very open-minded and go with as much conceptual art as I can. I try to be sympathetic to installations and photomontages and I respect the Dada origins of 95 percent of the work. Most of these artists are young and they’re experimenting like I did at one time. But I don’t know. I can’t pick out any one thing. I just try to realize that I’m up there with them — and how fortunate I am to be there.
ALEX GARTENFELD – You mentioned that you’ve been kicked out of a lot of things. I assume you’re referring to the 1992 Helter Skelter show in Los Angeles, where your work was picketed.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – There have been a handful of very important shows on the West Coast in the last hundred years. There was the 1915 Pacific Coast exhibition in San Francisco. The next most important show was by Ed Kienholz in 1966, a show called Backseat Dodge. After that there was Paul Schimmel’s Helter Skelter show, which featured 16 artists, including myself.
ALEX GARTENFELD – What did that show represent for you? Why do you think of it as so categorically important?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – The historical fact about the Helter Skelter show was that it was the first major art show in which the majority of the artwork was cartoon-oriented, a fact that is never pointed out. Remember, this was 1992. It was a turning point in art, and no one seemed to comprehend that they were actually walking through a giant comic book. I was blackballed by a lot of people after being in the show, both by critics and curators. I was considered the nadir of the show, the worst. The show did not get good reviews. It was reviewed in more than 150 newspapers — and I was almost always referred to as its darkest moment. But the most interesting review was in The Washington Post, which said it was really a pleasure to go through an art show that looked like a Zap comic. Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw and a whole bunch of artists who did cartoon-related artwork were also included. It was Mike Kelley who got me in the show.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Had you known him for a long time before the show?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Yes, Mike Kelly and Jim Shaw. Mike’s been a great champion of mine since the early ’80s. He saw my work in Zap Comix and underground cartoons and he got me in a number of shows.
ALEX GARTENFELD – You told me that the tabloid coverage of your work brought in record numbers of visitors, but that afterward the curator, Paul Schimmel, said that he’d never show your work again.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – I used to do paintings that had three titles. The first title was a matter-of-fact name of the painting; the second title was a phony, pedantic title; and the third title was a poolroom title, a filthy title written by a cretin — an idiot sizing up the picture, say. The painting that caused the most trouble was a painting of Oscar Wilde, who is a hero of mine. In 1882 he went to the United States. It was a lecture tour — 30 states. He went to Leadville, Colorado, a really brutal town, famous for its murder rate. One night, before his performance, he went to a bar and saw a sign over the piano that said, “Please do not shoot the piano player. He’s the only one we can find.” That about summed-up the mood of the town. The next day Wilde lectured about beauty and esthetics to all these rough people. He not only discussed Botticelli with them; he also discussed Cellini, the goldsmith, so that the miners could relate to the esthetics of minerals. He won over the crowd. I thought this was really a high point for him in America. But when I wrote the titles for my painting of him, the second and third titles referenced his homosexuality, and they did so in a demeaning way. The gay community immediately interpreted this as homophobic. I had 30 paintings in the Helter Skelter show and more than half of them featured nude women — so I had feminists picketing against me and I had gays picketing against me.
ALEX GARTENFELD – How has the reaction to your work changed?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – The feminist thing has kind of cooled down, and the gay thing isn’t on my back, but I inadvertently caused a lot of trouble. So I thought it was prudent that I put six very quiet watercolors in the present show.
ALEX GARTENFELD – What were the three titles of the Oscar Wilde painting?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – You’re going to transcribe this and get me in trouble.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Well, you know, I did a lot of paintings with titles that were very questionable. I paid dearly for that liberty. OK, the first title was Oscar Wilde in Leadville. April 13th, 1882.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Not too bad.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – The other two will curl your hair. Scholastic designation: Culture, unlike war, moves in a breeze and not a gale. This is the slight, persistent force that has made a Nineteenth Century playwright and sodomite the messenger of art to cretins and is destined to be the doomed nut in a three dollar fruitcake. Here’s the remedial title: A fairy’s kiss for a syphilitic lily-sniffer.
ALEX GARTENFELD – I like the second one. It’s dense.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Yeah, it is quite dense. But I think they were misinterpreted on purpose. Those groups were looking for a way to advance themselves, through this landmark art show.
ALEX GARTENFELD – How did you feel about the reaction?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – That show traveled, and it traveled without me. That was 18 years ago. A year or two ago Artforum revisited the show to see how it held up. They called me up and asked me for images. I told them, “I’ll send you images, but don’t run me down.” They said they wouldn’t and then they did and then it came out. So it seems I’m absolutely indefensible — and why I have six quiet little watercolors in this Biennial.
ALEX GARTENFELD – For the next one you’re in you can do something bigger, now that you have the confidence.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – I’m walking on eggshells at these museums. They need the shit shaken out of them, but apparently I’m not the guy to do it.
ALEX GARTENFELD – We should backtrack. Were there any comics growing up that particularly spoke to you?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – In the early ’50s comics got more and more intense. There was a publishing company called Entertainment Comics — EC — who had the best artists and writers. The comics were aimed at an adult audience, but they sold for a dime to children. There were horror comics, war comics, cowboy comics, and pirate comics — really intense, bloodthirsty comics. Kids loved them. Mad Comics featured cartoons about mental illness. In 1954 the Kefauver subcommittee in Washington said that juvenile delinquency was partly caused by comic books, the same thing they say about video games today. They singled out a number of comics and the EC ones were among those that had to go. A number of really interesting comic books went out of business. Then they created the comic book code. After 1955 you couldn’t find any comics on the stands that weren’t Disney comics. The intensity was gone. EC had Mad Comics, and they made Mad Magazine. Years later, when I got involved with the Zap artists, and we started doing Zap Comix, we had a sense of revenge: “If you thought those comics were bad back in 1954, you ain’t fucking seen nothing yet.”
ALEX GARTENFELD – In the past we’ve talked about the protest against the Vietnam War and your linking cartoons to the protection of American civil liberties. You were in your mid-20s around the time of the Vietnam War. Did you take part in the protests against it?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – I was of draft-able age. You’re very fortunate that you don’t have a draft hanging over your head; my peer group and everyone before me did. Here’s this enormous war that I had no interest in, that I thought was unjust and stupid. I was in a lot of trouble with the police and I felt like, hey, I’m getting beat over the head by cops here — why should I go over there and get pushed around?
ALEX GARTENFELD – What were you getting in trouble for?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Well, I was a young fuck-up. I was involved with drugs, and drinking, and partying, and hotrods, and motorcycles. I wasn’t a dark felon, but I was a fuck-up.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Were you racing hotrods?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Sure. Still do. I used to race hotrods and motorcycles.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Where do you race now?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – The local drag strip. I’m part of the hotrod world. My wife Susannah and I have three hotrods.
ALEX GARTENFELD – When did you get the first one?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – I was 12 years old. I’ve had a lot of hotrods.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Was there a significant overlap of people involved with comics and those involved with hotrods?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – There were a number of people who had a passion for both. They went through the same traumas I did. I came to California in ’63, at the age of 20. I thought I was this great draftsman. I wanted to make hotrod art with naked ladies, B-movie posters — all this lush imagery, all this exciting stuff. When I got into art school I realized I was born at the wrong time. Abstract expressionism dominated the art world in the ’60s. It was mandatory to be sloppy.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Was anyone making minimalist art or was it all abstract expressionism?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Abstract expressionism was an absolute. Pop art came in a little later.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Did the pop artists appreciate you?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – It wasn’t as lenient as you might think. I remember when pop art started. It was called neo-realism, but it never really lent itself to free representational art. It was always appropriation of something else. When I went to art school all my peers were abstract expressionists. I was referred to as “the illustrator.” It was meant to be derogatory, and I still get it from some people.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Were there any senior artists in the LA community who became mentor figures to you?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Not directly. But I had to be respectful of the artists who held the throne at that period, and almost all of them were abstract expressionists.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Did they include Ed Kienholz and Walter Hopps?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Keinholz was an abstract expressionist. He just did it in installations. Walter Hopps was the curator and the brains behind almost all of the artists in Los Angeles. He put them together. Walter was a very, very close friend of mine. Walter wrote the introduction to my book, Malicious Resplendence. Then, in ’69 or ’70, he did a Zap Comix show at the Corcoran, in Washington, D.C. Later I met Gilbert Shelton, who was also in Zap. He used to do hotrod art for a publication called Drag Cartoons. Through Gilbert I asked if I could get some pages in Zap. He contacted Robert Crumb and I did get pages in Zap. There was this underground soup brewing on the West Coast. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. It was a tempestuous period when we didn’t know what the country was going to do. 1965 was still like 1955; the American public still had the same values.
ALEX GARTENFELD – You mean that it was still an Ozzie and Harriet era, with strict family values, that the pendulum had yet to swing?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – You didn’t question the government. There was no sexual revolution. The drug scene was very underground. The beatniks left a little bit of an impression, but not much, on the general American public. But 1967, just two years later, was like 1975. A revolution took place over the Vietnam War, but it had been brewing underground in the drug culture for a long time. When it surfaced, it surfaced real fast, and a lot of underground artists, including myself, were caught up in it. To the government and the right-wing people it looked like the seeds of insurrection.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Did you convene and plan anything explicit, physically political, or seditious?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Well, I had contact with left-wing people who did go overboard. There were communists and leftists who were way overboard anarchists. And there were also serious right-wing proposals to reopen the internment camps they’d used for the Japanese-Americans during World War Two.
ALEX GARTENFELD – You’ve told me that you sort of lived in fear during that time.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – We did. If the country swung further to the right, our asses were gonna be in real trouble. I had gotten out of the draft by unsavory means and I was listed with the FBI. Not only that, I was involved with the underground comic book world — obviously seditious. When I worked with Ed Roth an FBI guy came in two days a week to talk to us.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Did you feel a kinship with protesters and activists working outside of the art and comic worlds?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – I was involved in public rallies. I could tolerate a certain number of leftists, but I didn’t go to any openly communist things.
ALEX GARTENFELD – What kinds of causes?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Liberal causes for Blacks, for human rights, and ones against the Vietnam War. I didn’t go to anything any farther left than that.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Do you still think of yourself as a politically active person?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – The only political cause that I embrace now is zero population growth. I think overpopulation is a key cause of global warming. I think that we have to get the population under control or things are going to get really fucked-up. But let me get back to where I was going — I was talking about getting involved with these leftist groups. Mouse and those psychedelic post-rockers were up in San Francisco, and I’d go back and forth from San Francisco to LA. I was the only underground comic book artist in Southern California.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Was there any difference between you and the San Francisco-based cartoonists?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – They all had the same problem in art school that I had: they couldn’t just draw; they were restricted from making involved, representational art. It was the same situation all over the United States. Abstract expressionism totally dominated the art world. Then came conceptualism and minimalism. That was an enormous benefit to art schools because students didn’t need an enormous amount of training. It takes years and years to learn how to draw, but now you could get along fairly easily for four years in art school just by cobbling things together.
ALEX GARTENFELD – How did you found Juxtapoz?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – I was running around with underground artists, but they were comic book artists. I’d always been a painter, and there was no peer group in the fine arts world for me to function with. When the punk rock art movement came along there were a lot of punk rock artists who followed underground comics and I had that connection with them. I realized that if I made my paintings a little more relaxed I could still draw in them and be punk. The punk rock thing was wide open and it liked lurid, vulgar material, see, so I could do a lot of gratuitous sex and violence. It just had to look a little sloppy. I could hammer those things out real fast.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Where did you show your punk work?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – In after-hours clubs, where young people got drunk and loaded on drugs. You had this real fun audience that liked any kind of crap. Once I got established in a peer group, I started advancing the work and making it tighter. Other artists were doing it, too. But there was no way of getting into art magazines, which didn’t tolerate this sort of thing. So I was getting a lot of write-ups in tattoo magazines and a lot of people were using my designs on tattoos. I was talking with this girl who worked for a tattoo magazine in New York and I said there ought to be a magazine just for this kind of art. She called me back two weeks later and said that she’d talked to her publisher and that they were going to do the type magazine I was talking about.
ALEX GARTENFELD – This was in the early ’90s. Where did the name Juxtapoz come from?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – The name of the magazine was Art Alternative and it was going really good. But for some reason the publisher, who also did girlie magazines and biker magazines, fired the girl, so I no longer had a connection with the magazine that I was instrumental in starting. I tried to buy the title, to get it under our control again, but they wouldn’t sell it. I went to the people at Thrasher magazine and told them the story. They tried to buy the title, but couldn’t. We came up with a list of 100 or so other titles. “Juxtapoz” was available.
ALEX GARTENFELD – So “Juxtapoz” wasn’t a name you were dying to have.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – I had some really, really bitchin’ names, but they were either too far out or they belonged to someone else.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Juxtapoz was a success right from the beginning, wasn’t it?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Yes, it was in the black from the very first issue. We started with 23,000 issues and now we’re up to 130,000. That magazine has sold and sold.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Now you have 40 or 50 people working on it.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – There’s a large staff. It started growing and growing and now it’s the number one art magazine on the stand.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Is there an issue of Juxtapoz that you consider particularly important, that either got a strong response or was particularly provocative … or that gave you a new critical platform?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – The magazine went through a lot of changes — a lot of changes. I think the first five or six or ten issues were the most important because they cut the style. The magazine has since developed a life of its own and has pretty much pushed me aside, which is OK. It outgrew me in no time and found its own life. I set the style for the thing and established one of the important things, which they maintain today: I feel that when you do an article on an artist it’s important to use his picture, to give him credit, and to make his face a recognizable thing. All the other art magazines always avoid doing that.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Or they get criticized for turning artists into celebrities.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – If that’s what it takes to make an artist, then more power to them.
ALEX GARTENFELD – Perhaps your biggest mainstream moment — the thing that made you notorious — was your cover for Guns ‘n Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction”, which was eventually covered over. You’ve told me that the band came to you looking for that image, and you warned them that there might be negative reactions.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – That was a painting before it was an album cover. I did a number of really tight paintings in the mid-’70s called Super Cartoons, and I used that one on the cover of my book, The Low Brow Art of Robert Williams, which came out in 1979. It was a fine arts book; it was not at all intended for the general public.
ALEX GARTENFELD – The composition of the image is really striking. It’s very vertical.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Here’s the anatomy of the picture: first off, I used an extremely vertical canvas that people avoid because it’s enormously difficult to use. I cut that canvas almost in half with a painting of a fence, which made the painting fly apart. The question was, could the painting be held together? What kind of device would hold it together? I’ve got a robot in a coat that has just assaulted and ravaged a young girl. I don’t know if it’s sexual — looks like it could have been because the girl is lying unconscious on the curb with her panties down and her breasts exposed. She’s a vendor of toy robots. The bad robot has destroyed all her little toy robots. Now, over the fence is this ridiculous orange monster with swords for teeth and it’s avenging the girl, attacking this robot. Compositionally, the action forms a long oval, which very successfully holds the painting together. The painting is trying to separate itself and it’s being held together by the onlooker’s inquisitive interest in what’s going on. To maintain that interest, I had to have sexual violation and ridiculous monsters. And it worked. It’s a very interesting oil painting. It eventually sold for $200,000 dollars.
ALEX GARTENFELD – So, the band saw your painting and they liked it.
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Anyway, yeah, this band calls me up. They were absolutely fucking unheard of. To me, they were just another one of these garage bands that I was licensing stuff to. Their first record, with that painting on it, sold 14 millions records. But they had to pull that cover and put it inside in a sleeve so parents wouldn’t see it. I told them that they were going to have trouble but they wouldn’t listen. I said, “Good luck to you. I’m behind you. But you’re going to get in trouble.” And they got in a lot of trouble and I had to defend them.
ALEX GARTENFELD – How did you get involved?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – I went on MTV a bunch of times to defend that piece of artwork — and inadvertently defend Guns ’n Roses, who were stupid enough to isolate the raped girl from the cover and put her on a t-shirt with the caption “Guns ’n Roses was here.”
ALEX GARTENFELD – Didn’t that mess up the mechanics of the painting?
ROBERT WILLIAMS – Not only that, but they owned the rights to the t-shirt and made millions off of it. That was a sore spot with me, but anyway … time has passed and whatnot and now I’m in the Whitney showing watercolors.
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