PRINT November 2019



Robert Williams, Death on the Boards, 1992, oil on canvas, 60 × 84".

Robert Williams: The Father of Exponential Imagination, by Robert Williams. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2019. 484 pages.

THERE’S NO SUCH THING as a “popular imagination,” but some artists do access and describe localized dreamworlds comprising popular icons, histories, and lore shared if not by an entire populace then by sizable groups. Robert Williams is one such mythologist, his devotion to the arcana of twentieth-century culture suffusing narrative paintings indebted as much to 1950s Benzedrine-powered cartooning as to classicism. Like other practitioners of a hyperbolic figuration whose perversions and excesses hinge on American subjects, such as John Currin, Peter Saul, Jim Shaw, and Lisa Yuskavage, he mines outré languages, ideas, and techniques to offer up an expansive vision of the national id. If his friend and collector Ed Ruscha focuses on the anomie beneath the slick finish of the postwar golden age, then Williams takes a mechanic’s-eye view of its baroque undercarriage, his art gloriously teeming with tawdry thoughts and disavowed concepts.

The monograph Robert Williams: The Father of Exponential Imagination offers the most comprehensive collection of these visions to date. Spanning more than half a century, from the early ’60s to the present, the oversized, beautifully produced book showcases his paintings and recent sculptures as well as drawings, archival materials, and writings. Williams grew up drawing, fighting, and hot-rodding in Albuquerque in the ’50s. He’s been in Los Angeles since 1963, when he arrived to attend Los Angeles City College and Chouinard Art Institute (which became CalArts). After art school, he worked at Black Belt magazine and, most famously, for Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, custom-car genius and creator of Rat Fink, for whom Williams cranked out maniacally detailed advertisements indebted to Basil Wolverton and Salvador Dalí. Williams turned to the underground press in 1968 and a year later joined Zap Comix alongside Robert Crumb, Victor Moscoso, and S. Clay Wilson. He began his painting life as a sort of psychedelic realist. His In the Land of Retinal Delights, 1968, depicts a distinctly object-oriented LSD trip in microscopic detail. In the ’70s, Williams developed a labor-intensive technique of portraying obscure psychosexual vignettes with a Vermeeresque treatment of light and surface. One of these works, the horrific rape scene Appetite for Destruction, 1978, provided both the title and cover image of Guns N’ Roses’ 1987 album.

Robert Williams, The Fraught Proposal, 2014, oil on canvas, 30 × 36".

In one of the numerous artist’s texts collected in his book (in previous catalogues, he provided up to three pages of explanation for each painting), he describes his operating principles as follows: “Despite our five thousand years of culture and the great ideals of organized government with justice for all, metaphorically speaking, we’re still asshole deep in our primordial Cambrian bogs, hoping to catch a whiff of each other’s ‘come hither’ emissions.” This is a mode of expression ostensibly rooted in the larger project of the ’60s: License to explore the unconscious through free association, without concern for the social and political ramifications of whatever one might dredge up from the depths. This is his way of contextualizing the gender and racial stereotypes evident in some of his paintings. It’s a rationale that blends the primordial logic of unreconstructed patriarchy (I can’t help it if I’m a red-blooded male) with the Lenny Bruce–style posturing of the counterculture. As these things go, I prefer Williams’s directness to that of artists (I’m looking at you, Jordan Wolfson) who try to have their cake and eat it too by suggesting that what looks exactly like straightforward objectification or stereotyping is a critique. And Williams is a more complex thinker than he lets on—his paintings are both of and about those “emissions.” He is trying to make sense of his world, satirizing it when possible and mirroring it when not.

Between 1982 and 1985, Williams produced his first sustained series of pictures, “Zombie Mystery Paintings,” by loosening his technique and working faster. These paintings were sold by subscription and exhibited in alternative spaces in Los Angeles. He described his motivations thusly (and in the third person): “To distinguish himself as an energetic participant he incorporates two of art history’s most volatile devices: cartoon portrayals of gratuitous erotica and base violence. The work itself would be painted with bold, exuberant colors and thick impasto.” From this group emerged works that array their subjects like playing cards, including An Archangel Swindles the Devil’s Robot Out of Opium for Badly Tanned Cherub Hides, 1983, which depicts exactly what the title suggests. Other paintings offer a counternarrative of his experiences. In The Appearance of the Emblemata of the Beat Generation, 1987, a skeezy hipster appears to conspire with a tourist about a woman in view of a monstrous apparition sporting bongos, a beret, a mouthful of rock-teeth, and a fistful of cash. It’s a solid rebuke to the idea of the inviolable purity of high culture. As a group, the “Zombie Mystery Paintings” read as a catalogue of roadhouse imagery taken to the peak of craftsmanship.

Robert Williams, The Appearance of the Emblemata of the Beat Generation, 1987, oil on canvas, 36 × 30".

The Father of Exponential Imagination is also a memorial of sorts. Williams is one of the last living and functioning (no one said the underground was easy) members of a dysfunctional family of mostly blue-collar twentieth-century artists whose work encompasses illustration, cartooning, tattoos, porn, psychedelia, sideshow banners, and noir. In a 1988 interview, he lamented the cognoscenti’s ignorance of this world but predicted a shift. Speaking of men like Roth, the pinstriper Von Dutch, the satirist Gilbert Shelton, the psychedelic surf cartoonist Rick Griffin, and the monster T-shirt artist Stanley Mouse, he said, “The art world will be starving for any fucking detail on these people.” That day has yet to arrive, though I agree that it should. Those artists, and Williams himself, represent a widely influential culture of drawing that values facility, humor, and wild representational imagination. Their work is also, like Williams’s paintings (and here’s where I confirm Williams’s paranoia), mostly available not in museums or galleries but in print, and not in art publications, but in subcultural “culture magazines,” underground comics, and zines. Studying, collecting, and proselytizing about these intertwined and still partially buried lineages is an activity that might itself be headed toward oblivion. But not if Williams can help it.

Like his old colleague Crumb, Williams is both an artist and a cult figure. Not unrelatedly, he is the founder (with Greg Escalante, Fausto Vitello, and Suzanne Williams) of Juxtapoz magazine, which since 1994 has encouraged and encapsulated what has been called variously “pop surrealism,” “lowbrow art,” and, I suppose, “exponential imagination” but has expanded to include more or less anything figurative and theory averse. Juxtapoz was founded as an explicit riposte to what Williams perceives as the monolithic and all-too-conservative art world that has stepped on his neck, and he’s given a good number of column inches in interviews and in his books to vitriol about “fine art.” Nothing could verify the true outsider status of the Juxtapoz crew as persuasively as their conviction that there are some forms of art and discourse so awe-inspiringly badass that they will stick in the craw of a clichéd contemporary art world, as opposed to being ingested as easily and eagerly as a California roll.

Various underground comic covers, 1970–85, and marijuana packaging, 1967, by Robert Williams.

In his restlessness and his urge to both belong and destroy, Williams tends to paint the history he wants studied, as in Death on the Boards, 1992, a beautifully detailed painting of a disaster on the Los Angeles Motor Speedway on November 25, 1920. Deftly combining the kind of nineteenth-century verisimilitude that Dante Gabriel Rossetti would have appreciated and the midcentury figuration of EC Comics in a single swooping composition, Williams gives us allegories of fate (a skeleton as referee, a nude flapper as Lady Luck, a green centaur as a hubristic driver), surrealist visions (an ace-of-spades monster twisting a speedster like dough), and absurdist interventions (Williams’s comic book character Coochy Cooty dead in a red panel). In this work, as in much of his art, he worships speed and nihilism but also, in his subservience to skill, shows a humility conspicuously missing from his actual statements.

As with crafting hot rods, a Williams hobby, artistic authenticity lies in knowing the material and being able to execute the task at hand. These paintings have such physical complexity that they practically vibrate. However, the claim of authenticity, as often as not, stems from the denial of one simple fact: Free expression is never completely free. The artist is always constrained, if not by law then by unwritten custom, by preconceived notions, and by unexamined assumptions. With consummate skill, Williams shows us some of the alluring and/or unsavory dreamworlds of our culture’s recent past. But he also shows us that all of these fantasies are tied to a larger one, one he shares with his despised AbEx colleagues: The avant-garde ideal of heroic transgression—gendered, classed, premised on white privilege—is a fantasy of escape from normativity that never sheds its own thoroughly normal hang-ups. I don’t think Williams would disagree with this statement, and neither does it affect my appreciation of his paintings. I understand my own privilege to do so as well as the corresponding mechanics of my “freedom” to exercise it. I can have all these thoughts at once: that Williams is making a myth, that the picture is superb, and that what lies beneath might be rotting. Much of what interests me contains these knotty contradictions.

I can have all these thoughts at once: that Williams is making a myth, that the picture is superb, and that what lies beneath might be rotting.

Despite his obvious relish in offering text explanations, the interpretive information is always present in the paintings, which the artist acknowledges with a wink at the outset of an eighty-page appendix titled “A Chronological Index of Most of the Works Reproduced in this Volume, Including Alternate Titles and Synopses.” The section compiles the aforementioned narrative explanations and brings us to the present. Williams roams into anecdotes, history, and theory with apparent humor and wisdom. One of Williams’s many umbrella critiques is that art abdicated its meaning to the viewer, and in doing so, the artist lost control. Somewhat paradoxically, maintaining fantasies can be a strenuous and exacting process, so it’s not surprising that Williams’s project is an assertion of nearly fanatical dominion over meaning, history, and painting itself. Here is a bit of the artist’s “Feral Art Doctrine,” dated November 23, 2015: “Since the rise in popularity of nonobjective abstract art and design, all forms of narrative realism have been relegated to the commercial and entertainment art world. During the past sixty years, the arts have granted its approval to a more visually peripheral aesthetic translation. In other words, fine arts no longer felt any responsibility to encourage direct observation and ceased requiring any measure of draftsmanship.”

Williams is, broadly, correct. Painting was declared dead, and quite a few painters felt as if they’d been left out in the cold. But many of the most brilliant practitioners of figuration were doubly marginalized—think, for example, of Barkley L. Hendricks, Joan Semmel, and untold others who faced the obstacle of not being white, straight, and male. The artist’s complaint (and others quite similar to it), odd from a man who has boasted of a waiting list more than three hundred strong, is nearly the nadir of the book. The actual nadir is the only text not by Williams: That would be critic Mat Gleason’s humorless screed about death matches between Williams, Jasper Johns, and David Hockney—a bizarre refutation of what he imagines to be “Abstract Expressionism” couched as an art-world conspiracy theory worthy of Alex Jones. Against all evidence, I hope it’s a joke. This sourness is somewhat balanced by the sense that Williams is in love enough with his project to write the following in a curiously heartfelt, undated “Artist’s Note”:

Most of the works in this collection are oil paint on canvas, and despite contemporary and timely subject matter, are created in the most traditional application of this medium. The double-primed linen canvas is affixed to the wooden stretcher bars with tacks, not staples. The paints vary little from the pigments used in antiquity, and the slow process of laborious brush work, layer upon layer, has not been superseded by air brush or any photographic procedure—and, by no means is this adherence to ancient standards a smoke screen to don the cloak of a cheese dip Rembrandt. Conventional classic painting technique has much more merit than a euphemism for a pretentious promotional charade.

In another undated text, “My Misinterpretation of Fine Art,” Williams discusses his disappointment in what he perceives as the dominant movements of his time. AbEx traded skill for expression; Pop appropriated, it did not invent, and rejected distortions; Conceptual art devalued the object; etc. The text has none of the rage and bitterness seen at other points in the book; the tone is more one of bemused regret. As elsewhere in his work and writing, Williams forgets or ignores the sociopolitical contexts of these moments. It’s a plaintive, even vulnerable essay, as if its author just wants to join a party he imagines is, finally, the best one.

This less combative mood has made its way into recent paintings that focus on intricately devised scenarios that purport to reveal the psychology of any given situation. Death by Exasperation, 2010, offers an allegory for an exhausted imagination, as creatures labeled “Jabberwocky” and “Non Sequitur” are examined by a team of doctors in a verdant curved world. The juice of the painting, as in much of Williams’s work, is in the rendering of squid, shrimp cocktail, a tanker, and distended eyes. The Fraught Proposal, 2014, shows a ’50s marriage offer, though the man’s head has sprung a globular creature with human arms that contains carefully rendered dimensional symbols of every conceivable straight-male neurosis: infantilism, madness, death, violence, stealth, and on and on. The glow of the cranial creatures illuminates the sidewalk, and it seems possible that our heroine, face turned from the viewer, is gazing upon it. I wonder if the painting is a metaphor for Williams looking at his own work. Is Williams ultimately a painter in search of genuine understanding, capable of externalizing, in meticulous compositions, his more humanistic questions and ideas about his existence, beyond the sum of his subcultural parts? Or is that, too, just a fantasy?

That his aesthetic and intellectual world is one rooted in bygone and contested Americana and vanished notions of craft and entertainment makes him both questionable and fascinating. The Father of Exponential Imagination invites more scrutiny, more speculation, and, ultimately, an expanded idea of art history. 

Dan Nadel is a writer and curator based in New York.