PRINT November 1993


About a year into a brief but zealous correspondence I struck up with the late custom-car-culture paterfamilias Von Dutch, I confessed to him I not only didn’t drive but hadn’t owned a car for over 20 years. “Dear Dutch,” I wrote, “This may come as a surprise to you, but I ceased tinkering with autos back when the Testor Corp. added mustard oil to their plastic model cement. Before that I was usually so way gone on glue I could never be bothered to finish any of those little kits.” He quit answering my letters, but not because I’ve never been much of a mechanic. He stopped because I leaked his real name, Kenneth Robert Howard, to the editor of an obscure Toronto magazine, who printed it.

Now that he’s the posthumous focus (along with associates Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Robert Williams) of the Laguna Art Museum’s “Kustom Kulture” exhibition, sharing Von Dutch’s given name doesn’t present the same risks it once did. It wasn’t so long ago that another eager acolyte who tried it, hot-rod historian Pat Ganahl, lived in mortal fear of the man afterward. Besides being the inventor of custom pinstriping, Von Dutch was a gifted gunsmith and knifemaker who took a reckless delight in brandishing his handiwork around pesky sycophants. Exacerbated by years of alcoholism, the unpredictability of his behavior could pose real problems for anyone within range who breached the parameters of the myth Kenny Howard had spent a lifetime living out.

In the ’50s, story after story appeared in car magazines across the country about a young Southern Californian with blond-movie-star good looks who was revolutionizing the generally prosaic business of car painting. The accompanying photos usually featured him hard at work on a pinstriping project, or goofing for the camera surrounded by the exotic appurtenances of the emerging beatnik life-style. Because they were written for car buffs, most of these features regrettably played down the full range of Von Dutch’s virtuosity in favor of the image of a beer-swilling Venice beach bum with a Teslalike ability to paint straight lines and to sight cylinder bores to within a few thousands of an inch without a micrometer. By the end of the decade, a full-blown car-painting craze was underway. Flame jobs, spider-web wheel wells, flying-eyeball body panels, and baroque pinstripes (having a car “Dutched”) rapidly entered the iconography of the American highway as merchandisers stepped in with mass-produced decal versions of Von Dutch designs to keep up with the demand. Enter Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, the deft self-promoter at the center of Tom Wolfe’s 1965 bestseller about California customizers, The Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

Portrayed in Time magazine as the “supply sergeant to Hell’s Angels,” Ed Roth tilted the trend for hot-rod graphics even farther toward the defiantly tasteless with the sweeping array of popular “Rat Fink” T-shirts and gimcracks he pitched at car shows and in the back pages of car mags and comics. While Roth signed deals with toy manufacturers and the novelty companies that would make him a household name in the ’60s, Von Dutch turned his back on the “Monster Art” motherlode and took up the nomadic, low-profile life of a machine-age gypsy: “I used to get all over [Roth’s] case for being so commercial, but you see, his sons were as big as him so he had to keep his nose on the grindstone just to feed them. He’s an honest man.”

Laguna Art Museum guest curator C. R. Stecyk’s Kustom Kulture catalogue raisonné, published in association with Last Gasp of San Francisco, is an invaluable sourcebook of subcultural esoterica on the history of the genre and the league of lowbrows who pioneered it. Robert Williams, a Roth Studio alumnus turned reactionary salon painter, is the sole headliner with a fine-arts background, though the exhibition and book include a number of mainstream contemporary artists whose responses to Southern California’s car culture have been critically noted (Robert Irwin, Judy Chicago, Edward Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, etc.). Other books and monographs on many of them are available, but nothing of this scope has appeared before now on the career of Von Dutch. His reclusiveness became so complete that most professional customizers even believed him long dead.

When I finally made contact with the Howard Hughes of hotrodding, in the summer of 1992, the ’50s-era golden hepcat was a toothless, cranky piece of local color living out of a trailer in Santa Paula, California, where he was the overseer of a vast array of antique automobiles and aircraft owned by a collector named Jim Brucker. Peterson’s, the publisher of most of the country’s monthly car mags, had been recycling the dated material in their Von Dutch file for over thirty years, so I wasn’t prepared for the time-ravaged troll who greeted me at this “Cars of the Stars and Planes of Fame” museum-cum-warehouse compound outside town. The Von Dutch legend has a life of its own, but the man who lived it had been and beyond recognition by alcoholism. The years of maintenance drinking that had gone hand in hand with his dazzling productivity finally killed him a few months after our meeting. Throughout the decades between his early rise to national prominence and his final years he never stopped impressing everyone who met him with his polymorphic ingenuity and complete disregard for convention.

Had he lived to see it, His Dutchness would have found himself today at the center of a link between traditional art-marketing systems and accepted theories and the new interest in “outsider” art. I tried in my last letters to brief him on post-Modernism’s urgent appetite for nostalgia, but his interests had veered so far out of both Kustom Kulture and the contemporary-art loop that his impending acceptance in the museum mainstream meant nothing to him. He lived in a humbleness bordering on squalor, with no phone or bank account, surrounded by the internal combustion machines he’d always preferred over people. In a copiously illustrated letter that turned out to be his final word to me on his retrospective, he wrote,

I used to sell paintings in a place in Hermosa Beach. One day when I showed up the owner said, “That gal is interested in that one but wants to know what it means.” Actually it meant nothing but I made up a big story then and she took it! All that sort of thing is why I don’t like to be called an artist. When I build a motor vehicle-gun-knife or other mechanical thing they are a reality if they work good. There is no bullshit that will make them work if they don’t.

At the beginning of this year, a spate of well-meaning but Kandy Apple Purple obituaries appeared in the car magazines. In one of the best, in the January ’93 Street Rodder Annual, Jerry Weesner asked Von Dutch’s 86-year-old mother, Margaret Frisby, if there was anything about her son she’d care to share with the readers. “Momma” mentioned the great response she was receiving to her flower paintings from the residents in her rest home, then replied, “I always say goodnight and God bless to all my friends and family before I go to sleep. I’ve been doing that with Kenneth too. The other night I got to telling him what to do, like I always did, then I thought, gosh, I don’t know if I can talk to him because he’s up there in heaven with his father. I finally made up my mind that if I want to talk to him, I’m just going to do it!”

If that’s the case then there’s no reason not to continue believing the message her eccentric son emblazoned on his first motorcycle jacket. VON DUTCH LIVES!

“Kustom Kulture” closes at the Laguna Art Museum. Laguna Beach, California, on 7 November. It travels to the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, 3 December–23 January 1994, and the Center on Contemporary Art, Seattle, 29 May–17 July.