From left: R. Crumb, poster for “Robert Crumb: Yeah, But Is It Art?” Museum Ludwig, 2004. R. Crumb, cover of Fritz the Cat, 1969.

From left: R. Crumb, poster for “Robert Crumb: Yeah, But Is It Art?” Museum Ludwig, 2004. R. Crumb, cover of Fritz the Cat, 1969.

Robert Crumb

“Yeah, but is it art?” R. Crumb’s comic-strip alter ego asked on the poster for this eponymous retrospective at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. For many audiences, the question might have seemed beside the point. After all, comics have historically been an integral part of cultural heritage in countries like France and Belgium (consider Moebius’s Blueberry or Hergé’s Tintin). Even within the world of fine art, they have seeped in from the margins at least as far back as Joan Miró and Kurt Schwitters, and since Pop art this entertaining medium has widely been considered a worthy source by artists. Indeed, the decision to mount a Crumb exhibition seemed a fitting one for the Ludwig, whose collection of Pop (the largest outside the United States) includes work by artists like Öyvind Fahlström, who makes explicit reference to Crumb, as well as by such Pop descendants as Raymond Pettibon, who appeared in Crumb’s magazine Weirdo in 1985. Nevertheless, the museum’s serious treatment of the comic-book artist had a sense of novelty, at least in Crumb’s own estimation. At a press conference for the exhibition, he pointed out that it was only fifteen years ago that the Museum of Modern Art’s “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture” show held up his work as exemplary of a medium belonging to the masses. And while Crumb’s drawings have often been shown as art—and even prominently, as in the 2004 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh—he claimed that he sees publications, not gallery exhibitions, as his ultimate vehicle.

If such a tension between contexts was still in play at the Ludwig, perhaps that was because Crumb is not merely the virtuosic illustrator one found in the comic books and original sketchbooks, record covers, posters, and postcards organized by curator Alfred Fischer. In fact, the sixty-one-year-old could be considered the founding father of underground comics. His comics were sold for the first time on the streets of Haight-Ashbury in 1968, when he also gained widespread notoriety for making the album cover for Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills; and with his growing popularity and influence, independent art publishers began releasing books violating the official comics code born of the McCarthy era, which censored excessive violence, sexual depictions, and profanity. Then and now, one could understand Crumb’s comics as opposing the culture of Walt Disney, since his well-known characters have traits that render them unsympathetic, even grotesque, rather than endearing and together offer pointed social allegories: Fritz the Cat, a hippie tom, is self-satisfied, smugly bourgeois, and idealistic but unmotivated; Mr. Natural, a white-bearded, barefoot eco-guru in loose-fitting getups, is forever making incoherent boasts; Angelfood McSpade, a sensual, black, earth-mother stereotype, is revealed over time to be a white man’s erotic projection. With these figures and their stories, laced with bizarre situations and phantasmagoria, Crumb composes raucous satires underscoring the irrational fears, anxieties, and hypocrisies underlying cultural experience. Perhaps the most macabre of such lacerating allegories in the current exhibition was a 1993 sequence of drawings in which African-Americans and Jews take over the United States.

It is this Crumb—a representative of the “other” America, who became popular amid student protests and the Vietnam War—who was probably most familiar to German audiences visiting the Ludwig. In Germany, Crumb’s stories appeared in translation as early as 1969 through the left-wing alternative press U-Comix (since 1978, the popular publishing house Zweitausendeins has regularly released his comics and carefully crafted sketchbooks). But audiences at this exhibition, while they witnessed several manifestations of Crumb’s social critique—marked by his fecund imagination, delight in the absurd, and gift for psychological observation—had to be astonished by his perfect drawing technique, as his original work seems to differ so little from the printed versions. It is apparently this dimension of Crumb that Fischer sought to foreground—the skilled draftsman rather than the pointed satirist. Indeed, since moving in 1990 to Sauve, a small village in the south of France, Crumb has made his peace with America and become, in his late phase, a hermit preoccupied solely with his own obsessions (of course, even here humor abounds, as his libidinal struggles work their way into portraits of women in Art & Beauty Magazine, 1996/2003).

Still, given this emphasis on the making of these comics, did the material on exhibit bridge any presumed divide between the worldviews of mass media and fine art? During a public lecture that accompanied the show, a meeting place was suggested by Ludwig director Kasper König who made a case for Crumb’s artistry, arguing it offered multiple intellectual meanings and therefore subversive potential. But Crumb, deflating as ever, stated that he considers those full-size, plastic advertising mascots from the 1950s to be true art, a disavowal bringing to mind his alter ego’s answer to the question posed by the exhibition’s title: “You tell me, I don’t know.”

Michael Krajewski is a critic and art historian based in Cologne.

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.