New York

Robert Williams

Psychedelic Solution

The recent exhibition of “Messages from a Drunken Broom,” a new series of paintings by Robert Williams, was the first one-person show in New York for this leading force of esthetic terrorism over the past two decades, and it was shamefully overdue. How these works of antiestablishment vulgarity were received was as revealing as it was predictable, with opinion split according to the fundamental values of opposing social groups. Williams is relevant for both his status as a guru of the countercultural underground and as a maverick disregarded by the prevailing power elite. His career as one of the great ’60s masters of weirdo psychedelic psychographics, and the dark aura of his cult status, make it easy for us to think of him only in such terms; however, his recent paintings prove that he is an artist of great virtuosity and intelligence with whom we will have to contend.

All radical subcultures arise from (and are then nurtured by) a sense of alienation from the norm, through which their members reinvent their identities within a rebellious collective fantasy. Such extremism is incomprehensible to the larger culture, which regards it as a form of self-inflicted social stigma. Williams’ art comes from this tradition of underground mutation, and despite any adaptations he has made for the new works to conform as paintings, his art remains that of an outsider. Just as Williams acquired his technical skills as a painter outside academia—he is self-taught—his development as an artist has been distinctly outside the precious bubble of the art-world intelligentsia. From 1965 to 1970 Williams was the art director for the studio of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, one of the leading figures of car customizing. Faced with the problem of painting with the greatest possible intensity on the restricted surface area of an automobile or van, Williams learned how to achieve the compositional unity and the fluidity of bizarre juxtapositions that characterize the wildly surrealistic paintings he has produced since then. The germination of Williams’ epic mythology of human transgressions can also be traced back to that peculiar renaissance of Southern California’s automobile subculture, with its hallucinatory paganist iconography dreamed up to express the hellish power and primal beauty of evil. His anarchist faith in perpetuating America’s disappearing outlaw society led Williams from the trash esthetic of the car culture to the psychedelic subculture that was beginning to grow in the social stratum just above the class of cars, guns, booze, and biker degenerates in the late ’60s. The turning on and dropping out of this generation was an articulation of the same escapism and catharsis that first attracted Williams to the car culture, and the emergence of ’60s poster art opened up new sources of income for him and other underground artists of that era. The work Williams subsequently did for the pages of Zap Comix (edited by Kitchen Sink Press mastermind R. Crumb) became so identified with the more superficial aspects of hippie rebellion that the sincerity and insight of Williams’ recent work could easily be discredited as retro kitsch.

Williams’ art, with its manic energy and outlaw ethos, revels in its contradiction of notions of taste, good or provides a continual affront to pieties of culture and refuses to be closed up in the neat categories of esthetic discourse. “Messages from a Drunken Broom” displayed an honesty, relevance, individualism, and inspiration not often found on any gallery’s walls. But that is because Williams’ nightmare vision of misogyny, abandon, decadence, cruelty, and ecstasy is too true to the essential pain and lust of humanity ever to be coopted by mainstream civilization.

Carlo McCormick