PRINT November 1993


“Something dead in the street commands more measured units of visual investigation than 100 Mona Lisas!” So says Robert Williams in his “Rubberneck Manifesto” of 1989, and it’s true—no Louvre gridlock matches the rubbernecking delays caused by a good car-wreck. But isn’t this a deadly realization for a painter? Creating a single Mona Lisa would be enough for most artists, but Williams wants to surpass a hundred of them. Can rattling the bars of an old medium like easel painting ever attract as much attention as road kill?

After a youth spent among beatniks and street gangs, in the mid ’60s Williams attended a Los Angeles art school that propounded a rigid Abstract Expressionist pedagogy. In rebellion he turned to the city’s underground culture, designing tattoos and customizing cars for Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. In 1967, Williams joined cartoonists R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson at the underground comic Zap, which would become famous not only for its sharp graphics but for its lavish sex and violence. To Williams, the no-holds-barred creative freedom of Zap was an expression of social dissent as important to him as dodging the Vietnam draft; and indeed, as if to prove the point, the magazine’s publisher and various of its distributors were harassed by the FBI, and the artist began to receive hate mail from right-wing types.

In recent years the hate mail has begun to pour in from the opposing camp: left-wing, politically correct types who see Williams as violent, sexist, and homophobic. In other words, though his art may not yet have attained the power of a highway crackup, he must be doing something right. And the medium is oil on canvas: Williams all but ceased to do commercial work around 1970.

What’s the modus operandi that pisses people off? In any given painting, Williams combines brash, lurid colors with half a dozen different painting styles. (He himself avows that his influences range from Bosch and Delacroix to girly magazines, carnival art, and, of course, comix.) And if the form of his vision is a slap in the face, its substance is a finger down the throat. Williams just adores the extreme. Human beings are mortal? Williams depicts them with their heads blowing up. Men desire women? Williams depicts women as buxom babes and men as horny goons. Artists need subjects? Williams depicts the artiste as a slobbering subhuman scraping a pancake of dead raccoon off the road.

At first sight, Williams’ paintings may shock, titillate, or disgust as readily as bloody bodies and mangled metal, but they differ from the spectacle of auto fatalities insofar as they are not senseless. Informed commentaries lurk beneath their apocalyptic veneer: recent works have dealt with crack babies, World War I history, and other eclectic subjects. As is typical with Williams, a work of 1992 titled The Cartoon Disease has two subsidiary titles: Scholastic Designation: Satisfactory Mental Health Is Predicated on the Self-Denial Standard That, Abstraction Is Anomaly and What a Monkey Sees Is What a Monkey Will Do, Hence the Liberties Expressed in Cartoons Expose the Supple Minds of Children to the “Curse of the Three-Fingered Glove” and Remedial Title: Pantyhose and Shorts Nibblin’ Pulp-Paper Goons Aren’t For Junior and Sis. Williams distributes key narrative moments across the surface of the painting: in an inset panel, a boy gets a scolding from his father for reading a comic; in the central image, thuglike police rush onstage as the boy’s head explodes, leaving Mr. Bugeyes Goes to the Fair unread. Splattered across the canvas, the boy’s brain is maltreated by a host of comic characters: one tempts it to drink, another to drug, one shits on it, and Coochy Cooty (Williams’ signature character) pisses on it. These vicious little figures illustrate the fear, shared by conservative ideologues and concerned parents, that comic books pervert the minds of youth. In the McCarthyite ’50s there had been public burnings of comic books, and a “voluntary” ethical code was established; this censure, paradoxically, helped provoke the rise of the comix underground. Lampooning it, Williams both argues against censorship and makes a sort of humanitarian assertion as well: for him, people are not mindless automatons living in a monkey-see-monkey-do world.

Ironically, moral censure has dogged Williams’ every career move. The image, a postrape scene, that Guns N’ Roses put on the cover of their first lp, Appetite for Destruction, drew record-store bans and feminist picketing. During the 1991 “Helter Skelter” show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Williams was singled out simultaneously by Queer Nation and an anonymous group calling themselves PIGS (Politically Involved Girlfriends), both protesting what they saw as the show’s Straight-White-Male orientation. On the other hand, Williams has had to face a sort of esthetic censure. While artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein had success in the ’60s appropriating the comic idiom, the art world’s upper echelons were closed to actual practitioners of the genre. More recently, an Art in America review of Williams’ 1992 New York show called his work “authentic kitsch.” The stigma of the commercial artist is hard to shake in the “high” art world. It’s like being a porn star who wants legit acting roles. Yet Traci Lords has shown she can shift from teenage skin queen to “straight” actress, and in the world of comix, Art Spiegelman has moved from underground artist to succès d’estime to the cover of The New Yorker.

So is it Williams’ turn? Is his work Art? Williams himself likes to say, “If it commands attention it’s culture, if it matches the couch it’s art.” Williams’ paintings definitely don’t match the couch—unless, that is, your furniture happens to be blood-spattered, riddled with whoopie cushions, stained with Mexican food, and covered with buxom babes.

Keith Seward contributes regularly to Artforum.