Perfectly Goddamn Delightful
There Is No Safe Distance from R. Crumb
by Jen Graves
January 30, 2008
Know what's fun? Picturing R. Crumb climbing on top of the
sturdy-looking wife of early Seattle power broker Horace C. Henry for
one of his famous erotic piggyback rides. Her formal oil portrait at
the Frye Art Museum hangs mere feet from Crumb's crazed drawing of
himself with a third eye. Farther into the museum, the splayed crotch
of Crumb's Devil Girl sculpture stares into a long gallery of
19th-century landscapes, Christian martyrs, and Bouguereau's
But Crumb's work is as jittery next to old-fashioned oil paintings as
anywhere. It's unnecessary for the Frye to set a green-and-orange
plaid couch in front of a table, where people who want to hold the
comics in their sweaty hands can do just thatCrumb's cross-hatched,
paranoid-hearted drawings defy context. Even framed behind glass and
sitting at what feels to me like a historical distance (the year I
was born, 1975, Crumb and fellow artists Rick Griffin, Victor
Moscoso, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Williams, and S.
Clay Wilson drew the world ending in Zap #8) they still emit electric
shocks. The effect reminds me of the frightened, rapt looks on
society women's faces as they read sublime gothic horror stories by
candlelight in James Gillray's classic 1802 print Tales of Wonder!
The British satirist is as good as any for comparison to Crumb.
The exhibition at the Frye, R. Crumb's Underground, was organized by
the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. After Seattle,
the exhibition will go to Crumb's hometown, Philadelphia. (Remember
the drive through the projects where he grew up in Terry Zwigoff's
agonizing documentary Crumb?) Its stop here makes perfect sense,
since Crumb is the alpha and omega for Fantagraphics artists. It's
hard to imagine Peter Bagge's Buddy Bradley, Jim Blanchard's Trucker
Fags in Denial, or Ellen Forney's big, soft womenhave Crumb and
Forney met? I'd love to see thatwithout Crumb. Fantagraphics also
publishes Crumb's daughter, Sophie.
The show is a 40-year retrospective, beginning with the juvenilia of
Robert and his brother Charles and quickly moving into the explosive
post-LSD drawings of the 1960s.
Haight-Ashbury in the '60s and '70s was Crumb's feeding trough, the
place where he swallowed counterculture posturing whole and shat it
out as satire, even while maintaining his own counterculture
relationship with the mainstream. Unlike hippies, Crumb didn't have
to try to be weird. He just was. And as anyone who watched Crumb
knows, the weirdness was not remotely willed or whimsical but came
from an unresolvable alienation, expressed even more starkly in his
brothers, one of whom committed suicide as a middle-aged,
tranquilized virgin living with his mother, and the other of whom was
pictured in the film meditating on a bed of nails, eating lengths of
fabric to cleanse his system, and detailing his public-molestation
exploits. Their father, a successful businessman and former soldier,
was a horror-show representative of postwar conformism.
In one panel in the show, Crumb addresses himself to his feminist
critics (he calls them "booshwah cunts"), who take issue with his
disturbingly sadistic portrayals of women: "Would you rather I went
out and raped twelve-year-old girls?" This hangs next to Crumb's
Jailbait of the Month, Honeybunch Kaminsky, 13 ("what a little
yummy") from 1968, suggesting that the question is not entirely
hypothetical. But the tendency to moralize about Crumb's work is
shortsighted, like the belief that politically correct speech leads
to understanding. Crumb let it all out, and it's uglybut far from
unfamiliar. His racism and sexism are pure products of America.
The contorted big-busted ladies, sweaty perverts, and jigaboo figures
are all here, with nothing left out. There's Angelfood McSpade, "the
dark-skinned sex bomb" who could arrest the stock market with the
scent of her vagina, and How to Have Fun with a Strong Girl from
2002, a semisadistic orgasmic allegory of an artist determined to
hang on to his creative juices. But the exhibition is comprehensive,
including Crumb's relationships with other artists, his
collaborations with his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and his 1980s
portraits of early jazz greats. Patton, the story of a Mississippi
Delta bluesman, is suffused both with real feeling and with a sense
of the ridiculousness of the white connoisseur. (Crumb is a blues
fanatic.) Stocked in the bookstore, in addition to Crumb's classic
perversions, are copies of The Complete Dirty Laundry Comics, drawn
and written by all three members of the Crumb family.
Still, the provocative drawings are more than just puerile. Hanging
over them is the cloud of failed revolutionthe revolution of the
'60s, which Crumb saw the seedy underbelly of from the beginning.
(One of his comics is faintly echoed in the rape scene in T. C.
Boyle's Drop City.) For him, love isn't the answer. The answer is not
flinching from the unseemly. History is beginning to prove his point.
Frye Museum goes 'Underground' with a godfather of the comix movement: R. Crumb
Caustic outsider is now viewed as brilliant artist
By REGINA HACKETT
P-I ART CRITIC
With portraits of her heroes inked on her arms and the steady gaze of
a girl in charge, Seattle Gay News writer Maggie Bloodstone has the
floor whenever she walks into a room, especially if that room is a
gallery devoted to R. Crumb.
She's the ultimate Crumb woman: broad of beam and handsome as a
horse. Crumb admires her writing, especially a 1991 article in The
Comics Journal titled "All I Needed To Know I Learned in the Comics :
How R. Crumb Taught Me the Facts of Life."
To his knowledge, he said, it was the most positive thing written
about him by a woman.
Bloodstone doesn't see it as a backhanded compliment -- to her the
guy is golden. Plenty of people don't agree, not that we hear much
from them these days. Hopping up and down with rage about Crumb's
views has become a historical position, and Bloodstone's version is
more or less mainstream.
Sure, he has mellowed, but that's not why he went from being
published in the grimy underground to taking star turns in The New
Yorker. The culture changed more than he did. Thanks to that change,
he's no longer viewed as a corrosive outsider but a brilliant artist,
straight up. In art, messages matter less than the particulars of
The current Frye exhibit "R. Crumb's Underground" was organized by
Todd Hignite for San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Chief Frye curator Robin Held brought it to Seattle because the
museum is dedicated to representational art and she's determined to
expand its in-house definition, and because she appreciates the depth
of Crumb's accomplishment.
Like a young Richard Pryor doing stand-up in San Francisco comedy
clubs, Crumb creates an entire world. If he draws a party, he laces
it with morning-after consciousness. If it's a sex scene, war is its
undercurrent. Crumb is his own character, and he draws himself
drooling after women whom he aspires to ride like horses and bend
like party dolls.
In the panels of his printed matter, light can't exist without dark
except when he draws early 20th-century blues musicians. Only they
are exempt from depravity. Voluptuously rendered, they are grace
notes in a corrupt universe.
While it's swell to see Crumb in a museum, he's best in magazine or
book form. That's why there's a couch and a couple of chairs at the
exhibit's entrance, with a coffee table piled high with comics.
This classic stoner tableau in no way reflects Crumb's current
situation -- a chateau in France.
Cardboard cutouts of Crumb's most famous characters (Mr. Natural,
Flakey Foont, Angelfood McSpade and Fritz the Cat) and a few
eye-popping sculptures (dream girl as pretzel) enliven seas of
text-with-drawings hung on the walls.
The sketches are the best thing about the show, his fluid impressions
of people, places and things, the suggestion of mental weather
dragging down the tone of dense row houses.
Why is it his figures are light in their sneakers and heavy in their
heads? In Crumb's world, feet don't fail the heads talking above
them, but they must get sick of the chatter, the constant second-guessing.
Even those who consider themselves well-versed in Crumb might be
startled by his storyboard scenes from the late '60s. They are savage
satires of situations that no longer exist, the poisoned undertow of
San Francisco's peace-and-love movement. They star inexplicably
charismatic males and their glassy-eyed, female followers. Think
Charles Manson and you've got it, although Manson isn't named.
Compared to Manson, how harmless a little horsey play seems. That's
Crumb's credo, to allow himself to take his secrets out for a walk
without a leash, and to subject the secrets of others to his dry-eyed scrutiny.
Why is everybody so well-versed in Crumb? The broad popularity of
Terry Zwigoff's 1994 documentary, "Crumb" -- one of the most
compelling portraits of an artist on film -- must have something to
do with it.
High points: The early drawings from the late '50s with his brother
Charles and the drawing duets with his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb,
her part stark, his nuanced, almost woven.
The cell phone audio tour doesn't quite work on a cell phone. If you
want to hear the interview between fan curator and reserved artist,
use a land line and dial 206-686-8562. Nothing incisive is said, but
the nasal sound of Crumb's voice is a nice extension of his style.
P-I art critic Regina Hackett can be reached at 206-448-8332 or
Adult-comic legend's work comes to Seattle
By Mark Rahner
Seattle Times staff reporter
January 30, 2008
Ideally, there would be big-legged girls to piggyback visitors
through "R. Crumb's Underground."
Those girls are just one of the many obsessions of the preeminent
underground cartoonist festooning the walls of the Frye Art Museum
now through April 27. Mr. Natural, Devil Girl, Angelfood McSpade,
Fritz the Cat, Crumb's loathsome self-depiction more than 150
familiar and rare images are on display from Robert Crumb's
four-decade career of tapping his id to create uncomfortably
hilarious and truthful adult comics. Already a legend among comics
fans for his pioneering work, he became a household name after
director Terry Zwigoff's 1994 documentary about him, "Crumb." It's
fitting that Seattle is the site of his most comprehensive U.S.
exhibition, since it's also home to the largest publisher of his
work, Fantagraphics whose impressive output includes 17 volumes of
"The Complete Crumb Comics" and 10 of the "R. Crumb Sketchbook."
(Complementing the Frye show is "Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix
Revolution,"at the Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery in Georgetown.)
The misanthropic self-described social reject, now 64, is at his home
in the south of France, so I strolled through his filth with Robin
Held, the museum's chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections.
Q: Will Crumb be appearing here?
Q: Have you spoken with him about the exhibit?
A: No. He's not very interested in doing this. He goes in and out. He
sort of authorizes exhibitions. His relationship with Todd (Hignite,
the exhibition's curator) was the genesis of this show.
Q: Looking around at all of this, I see explicit perversion, drug
use, fetishism, misanthropy ... Forget the old masters! This is educational.
A: Well, but the old masters were doing this kind of work, too. I
mean those images by male artists of inert females and how you can
finally overpower them, or sexual images of women created for other
male viewers. It's a long, long history of that in art.
Q: Crumb said psychedelic drugs broke him out of his social
programming, and that he made his most popular characters on acid in
the mid-'60s. Now he's fabulously successful and able to live in the
south of France. What's the message for today's youth?
A: I'm not sure how to answer that. Because a lot of what you just
went into was a lot of mythology about Crumb.
Q: No, it's straight out of his mouth.
A: Well I know, as a lot of things are, because he also says he went
on a really bad trip and never took drugs again.
Q: It seems like the message isn't exactly "Just say no."
A: Oh no, the message is not "Just say no." The influence of drugs on
his work, it doesn't seem to me like something like William Burroughs
where William Burroughs took heroin his whole life, and for him it
was part of his creative work to be in that altered state. I don't
get that sense about Crumb the same way.
Q: Crumb hates the establishment, hates commodification. And now he's
the subject of this museum exhibit. (Note: There's plenty of
merchandise for sale in the gift shop, too.) Irony, huh?
A: Well, I think everything you can say about him, you can also say
the opposite. He would say the opposite. He's pretty contrarian. Just
at the point you want to construct him as a really countercultural
guy, he'll turn into the family man. And just as soon as soon as you
construct him as a family man, he wants to paint himself as this sort
of outlaw counterculture guy.
Q: Let me read you something he wrote: "Curators and gallery people
are not oriented toward cartoons, comics or commercial art. That
world is quite alien to them. Now, through complex circumstances,
they have decided that I am somebody worth promoting and displaying
in galleries and museums. My work has some value economically, and
then, too, I've been around a long time. Reputable critics have
praised my work, all of which has validated me to some degree to the
museum and gallery people. Otherwise I'm not sure that they really
appreciate what my work is all about. I'm not sure that they really
know what they're looking at."
What do you think of that?
A: What you see here are original drawings and storyboards ...
[that's] not stuff that would end up in art museums, anyway. But
that's why we made an attempt to bring the comics here, too, because
the real experience is really about you and that sweaty comic book in
front of your face, right? And what you're reading on the couch or
reading in the tub or reading on the bus. So, in a way, this is not
the art. That's the art.
But this gives people one way in. I mean, having it in frames and
behind glass and having these be precious objects, no, that isn't it.
But it is a way for some audiences to get at the work he does. It's
hard to draw that really fine line, because he's been showing when
did he start doing work? The stuff he was doing in his bedroom was
1960, right? He started showing it publicly not only in the comic
books in the late '60s, he was in gallery exhibitions in the '70s and
he was in museum shows starting in 1983.
Q: So he's a big hypocrite.
A: No, I just think he plays both sides of the coin.
Q: I think he hates everyone, including himself.
A: I think that's probably fair.
Q: What do you think makes him an important artist?
A: I think his amazing draftsmanship in all kinds of styles has been
influential to many, many, many artists. And he can get an economy of
line and shade at these very specific figures, very specific actions,
very specific preoccupations. He's really, really good at what he
does, and the images are incredibly powerful.
Q: What's your favorite piece in the exhibit?
A: I'm really, really fond of the Strong Girl. I really like the
strong girls, and how they're about his fears and fantasies and also
about the power of those women over him and trying to best him. Yeah,
big butts and power and Strong Girls.
Q: Bearing that in mind, can I have a piggyback?
A: Whoa, I think you're bigger than me. I'm not quite a Strong Girl.
(Laughs.) I'll give you one if you give me one.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or email@example.com