New York

R. Crumb

Paul Morris Gallery

“This bunch of drawings,” writes Robert Crumb, “were made while waiting for food in various restaurants, or after eating, while people sat around drinking wine and talking.” The image is pleasant: the artist doodling, basically, in the company of friends and family, eating out. Before leaving home for supper he has pocketed a pen, but little else: The grounds of the drawings are the paper place mats supplied as table settings by the restaurants, often the same three establishments that he must regularly visit, in the small French town where he now lives. He seems to care so little for these drawings, at least at first, that he leaves them when he goes. “The proprietors saved the placemats,” he continues, “which I borrowed back in order to put this book together”—“this book” being one of two in which the drawings are published. Each collection—Waiting for Food (1995) and Waiting for Food 2 (2000)—has a preface by Crumb, the first of these, quoted above, being brief, matter-of-fact, but friendly; it even ends with restaurant recommendations, “in case you are ever in Sauve.”

The preface to the second book is longer, more informative, and more anxious. “This sort of thing,” writes Crumb, “drawing during social gatherings, in restaurants, is my way of alleviating some of the stress involved in socializing. . . kind of like smoking. . . something to occupy your hands. Then too, I get weary of talk, talk, talk. I run out of things to say. . . and here in France these dinners go on for hours.” That, now, is as authentic a Crumb voice as the friendly one, and the drawings themselves move between these poles—the pleasant and the paranoid.

Sometimes Crumb draws fantasies, grotesqueries, lets his mind run. Sometimes he draws musicians, like the portraits of old blues and jazz players that he has often done before; these days his tastes lean to singing cowboys. A few pictures are finished cartoons—as when Eve in the Garden, facing an angry God, complains, “IT WAS TH’ SNAKE! HE TRICKED ME!” (A worried Adam only mutters, “OH MAN, WE’RE SCREWED!”) As much as anything, though, Crumb draws what he sees—which, in a restaurant, is other diners. In an image captioned “PETER NORTH EATING ALONE at the MICOCLE,” we see a man from behind, his jacket over his chair, a carafe and an open book on the table, the smoke from his pipe drifting upward, and around him a homey corner with drink and foodstuffs laid out on shelf and windowsill—an image slightly lonely, but serene.

On a trip to California, on the other hand, glimpsing an angry-looking misfit in a Sacramento diner, Crumb ups the ante, sketching him with blackened face and bulging eyes, and imagining him thinking, “It’s not my FAULT I’m UNFIT for normal social life. . . Those Dirty Goddamn #@MM!!!” Elsewhere, finding a puzzled-and forlorn-looking character sitting alone, he heightens the man’s perplexity by dotting his aura with question marks and supplying the caption “WHATZIT ALL ABOUT??” The same man or a similar one reappears nearby, having made the famously easy transition from bewilderment to rage: “I’M SO DEEPLY OFFENDED BY THE ACTIONS OF MY FELLOW HUMANS,” he says, baring his teeth and exuding waves of rabid energy.

Anyone who saw Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb, a wrenching study of the artist as loner, will find these sad preoccupations all too reasonable. TIME’S RUNNING OUT. . . IT’S THE 11TH HOUR—phrases like these run through the drawings. “I don’t know. . . I just don’t know. . . ALL MY LIFE I’VE BEEN . . . STRANGE,” Crumb writes, apropos of nothing, and even a lovely study of potted plants has an incongruous groan of a caption: “Ohh Mercy.” A paradigmatic Crumb image shows the artist himself lugging comically huge rocks into a heap, for no clear reason outside psychic truth: “I gotta pile up these rocks!” he says, sweating heavily, the cartoonist as Sisyphus. The caption reads "STORY OF MY LIFE?

The balancing mood, though, is a melancholic peacefulness. It’s partly the suggestion of custom—the regular places, the regular habits, the comforting, diaristic routine. And the particular routine occasioning these drawings—having supper—is literally nourishing, even if Crumb stresses not eating food but waiting for it. Then there are seasonings of vitality, as in a few portraits of Crumb’s wife, the cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, a vibrant, even caustic presence (“I have to drink some wine tonight, otherwise I’ll be too skathing . . .”), always treated affectionately. Finally, there’s the pleasure of the actual drawings, far more rewarding than is suggested in the books. There, rather than having the drawings photographed for reproduction, Crumb photocopied them, reworked the photocopy a little (using correction fluid to make “improvements”). Then the results were reshot as line. These are visually cruder than the drawings themselves, and lose the textures and colors of the paper place mats and even their framing shave. which define the works’ character. The silver lining in the dinners that last for hours, Crumb admits, is having “plenty of time to make elaborate drawings, lots of cross-hatchatching”—just the kind of drawing, in other words, that holds up on the gallery wall.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.