Crumb's Bums

New York

Left: Aline and Robert Crumb. Middle: One of the Crumb and McCartney T-shirts. (Photos: Patrick McMullan/PMc) Right: The cover of The R. Crumb Handbook.

“You want me to cover a T-shirt launch?” I said incredulously to my editor. Indeed. So I hauled my art-critic carcass over to the Stella McCartney boutique on far West Fourteenth Street to attend a party celebrating underground-comics legend R. Crumb’s collaboration with the designer: His-and-hers T-shirts adorned with pictures that express his befuddlement over the passions ignited by high fashion. McCartney has been a fan for some time and has already hosted a glam party in London for the scrawny, bespectacled poet of lovely buxom ladies with meaty thighs and big butts. My friend Hanna Liden accompanied me, for moral support. The crowd inside wasn’t too dense, though it was difficult for me to parse exactly what sort of crowd it was. Hanna had no trouble identifying them: “Retail, events planners, miscellaneous rich people who just like to attend store parties. I wish I could name some celebrities here”—but apparently there weren’t any. Crumb alone stood out, looking rather different from the character so familiar from Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary: More nattily attired, richer, and with more facial hair. His drawings nowadays often grace the walls of fancy galleries. And The R. Crumb Handbook has just been released by MQ Publications. The cover illustration is a self-portrait of the anxious-looking artist exclaiming, “I’m not here to be polite!”

McCartney’s shop was given only a rudimentary “Crumb” dress-up for the evening, e.g., one table inviting guests to “Enter the Crumb raffle and win a tee shirt signed ‘Robert and Stella’!” and another tendering the enticement “Hey buy me, I’m a Crumb collectible item!” But Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, an eleven-piece band—Crumb’s favorite, I was told—performed, providing some much needed zest or at least contextual weirdness. The T-shirt itself had been sequestered in an obscure corner of McCartney’s store and made a poor impression. It looked like a Fruit of the Loom, with a Crumb comic strip that reminded me of an iron-on emblazoned on the back.

Dissembling, I introduced myself to Crumb as the editor of Artforum. “It was such a huge honor for me to oversee your cover for the magazine a few years back,” I said, beaming crazily. “I know you’re very involved with the iconography of the well-endowed female bosom, albeit always of the natural variety. Do you have any thoughts about the spectacular rise in enthusiasm for the silicone type, a concern for those of us in the art world, and of course the world at large?”

“I’m not into fake at all. Just reality. But you know, I’m not really that into breasts. They’re okay, but I’m much more a legs-and-ass guy.” He gestured toward the backside of an attractive woman in tight purple slacks. An apposite expression for her derriere would have been, to use the vernacular, shelf.

“Surprisingly, the female form hasn’t been treated in Western art nearly as much as you would expect,” Crumb said. “So much of it’s religious, so you know they had to cover up the women mostly. Brueghel really tried, but there was only so much he could do.” Brueghel? Was he thinking Cranach and just suffered a momentary mental glitch? “And then many of these artists were homosexuals, Michelangelo, et cetera. I suppose Dürer was probably straight. Gays are so powerful in the art world.”

“Don’t I know it,” I assented disingenuously. “But we marginalized groups need our own special industries to control, you know, like Jews and banks.” Crumb nodded.

“In more contemporary art, there’s stronger female imagery,” the artist continued. “Like Reginald Marsh.”

Really, Reginald Marsh? I’ll have to give him a second look. What about Renoir?”

“Oh yeah, he’s good.”

At this point Crumb’s wife, Aline, interrupted our conversation. “Excuse me, but I need him for a photo op.”