The Los Angeles art scene has historically been cast in shadow. Although brilliance, ingenuity and boundary bashing social commentary has blossomed on our coast for many decades, we’ve always been the barely recognized character actor to New York City’s glitzy and glamorous leading lady. Despite the fact that we’ve had some breakthough art stars accepted into the nearly impenetrable high-class, big-money Fine Art world, it’s been slow to change. The West Coast is still often smugly viewed as a laid-back, flip flop wearing, sun soaked anomaly. Enter stage left: boundary pusher extraordinaire; controversial, prolific, insightful and much criticized artist Robert Williams. With his first West Coast show in over 10 years, SLANG Aesthetics! opening February 21st at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park, he is consciously examining the notion of sophistication in the hoity-toity art establishment.
“When I came to California, I had all of these polluted ideas of what art would be and I was really energetic, excited to be an artist. And my influences were surrealism, comic books, pulp magazine covers, B-movie posters, hot rod art, girly magazines. The things that stimulated life. I get over to Los Angeles City College and I get to L.A. and I had no idea what the art world was really like.” – Robert Williams
Today Williams recounts stories of the early 1960s, as a young L.A. art student focused on the realist-style who entered the art world already an outsider. His penchant for detail and description was passé, while the amorphous and nebulous Abstract Expressionism was the fashionable rage.
Young Robert found himself, in his own words, “contradictory to the curriculum” of an art education where earth colors and imitating the paint spatterings of Jackson Pollack was considered intellectually profound while Williams himself was referred to as “the illustrator”. A pivotal question mark arose in Williams mind when An Exhibition of Drawings and Paintings by Salvador Dali was set to open in November 1964 at the Barnsdall Park Municipal, the same gallery which will feature Williams new show, SLANG Aesthetics! “I had a lot of artist friends that went to Otis, Choinard (now Cal Arts), UCLA and none of them knew about that Dali show, and if they did they certainly wouldn’t have attended. Realism was outré. It was out.” The current irony of coming full circle, to exhibiting at this particular gallery, has absolutely not been lost on Williams. He brightens when he reveals, “I’ve tried for years to get up there… I’ve just been careful.”
Cast from the get-go as the outsider, after several years Williams left art school to pursue life in the real world. His first job, as an art director and illustrator for the Karate magazine Black Belt, was short-lived and in 1965 the mysterious universe of syncronicity aligned in the unlikely location of the California State Unemployment Office. The only art job left on the books was something that most other job-seeking artists deemed beneath them, the Maywood-based hot rod builder Ed “Big Daddy” Roth was looking for an art director. It was mutual understanding and connection at first sight. After viewing Williams’ portfolio Roth commented, “If I’d have known you existed I would have hunted you out”.
“Big Daddy Roth had an enormous influence on me… Everyday was absolutely a new adventure. The people that would come in there, they varied from the extreme right wing to the extreme left wing. The FBI would come in checking on Roth and famous actors and rock musicians and really brutal people and really famous celebrities.”
Meanwhile, another collusion of fate was about to take place as Williams worked for Roth and continued to paint his own originals in his off hours. The seedlings of the Psychedelic Poster movement were sewn when Roth’s competitor, custom car/shirt printer Stanley Mouse, chucked it all to design Grateful Dead album covers and brightly contrasting band posters in San Francisco. This opened up a new world as art and music joined forces. Under the influence of heavy drug use, art began to question society’s long established value system. “And so along came a fella named Robert Crumb who was doing underground comics. About the time of Underground Comix the psychedelic posters began breaking off into cartoon panels. And when Crumb came he pulled it all together. He started a comic called Zap. It had Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton. They were a real aggregate of displaced sociopathic artists.”
“So they gave me some pages to do at Zap and I became one of the Zap artists. So all of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I’m around kindred spirit artists that had all went to art school, all had heavy art educations and all were suppressed by abstract expressionism.” Coincidentally, as Williams found his artistic compatriots, Big Daddy Roth went out of business and a surprise big money sale of Williams work to date, 5 or 6 big paintings and a lot of smaller work, allowed him to stay on his path creatively.
As time went on, music fashions changed and as psychedelia faded, Robert Williams was embraced by a new era of rebels, the punk rockers. Under the lead of his friend artist Gary Panter, a fan of Zap Comix who Williams describes as the “grandfather of punk rock art”, Williams began participating in after hours art shows at clubs that used these forums as a “thinly masked disguise to sell booze without a license”. “The punk rockers were just up for any kind of program. They were sloppy too, but they had no hesitation of dealing with sex or violence energy in their work. And, well, I like that.” A new series of work called Zombie Mystery Paintings was extremely successful and today he says that he couldn’t paint them fast enough to sell.
During this period it was common for unknown bands to come to Robert asking to cheaply license his artwork for album covers. When an unknown band named Gun N’ Roses approached him in 1987 about using his painting Appetite for Destruction on their first album cover, Williams did his best to dissuade them. “I’ve been in the underground and questionable publications long enough to know exactly what the fuck’s going to happen to you. First it’s the church groups, then you can’t get it through the Canadian border, then it’s the women’s groups. You can see the thing happening… They went through all my stuff and said, “We want this.” I said, “OK, more power to you. I think it’s bitchin’ if you dare to do that.” Everything Williams predicted came to pass and after extreme controversy, and picketing of several Tower Records locations, Geffen Records was forced to move the artwork to the inside cover. This resulted in over-the-top publicity for the band and for Williams himself. According to Williams, the band was “kind of inarticulate, so I had to be on MTV and I had to defend this thing… It just got a lot of coverage. They sold 14 million records and I got nothing. I got a little thing that I charged a garage band for. And this is my painting, it isn’t their album cover. I’m grateful, and it’s in this underground vein that I keep finding myself in; that anti-social, sociopathic situation that I don’t seem to be able to change.”
Not long after this, Williams, through his connections in tattoo and skateboard magazines, was asked to do a magazine of his own. “So I said OK and I was the guy to feed the artists in. It wasn’t like my ego trip, it was to help get this world going. And the name of the magazine was Art? Alternatives. It did real well. I’m feeding in these punk rock artists and what not in there…” After a short time Art? Alternatives folded and with no rights to the old name Williams created a new magazine called Juxtapoz in 1994. “The first 3 or 4 issues were like Art? Alternatives and they were fucking outlaw, underground publications. They had derelict artists in them. The thing just took off; success, right off. They printed 23,000 copies and they just sold. So as it got bigger and bigger and stronger it started developing a life of its own. Now it is the number one selling art magazine in the world. At first schools and classes would not permit it, now it’s in every class.”
To date, Williams estimates that he has created about 400 to 450 paintings, many of which have influenced the artists involved in the group art show, 20 Years Under the Influence of Juxtapoz, which opens along with SLANG Aesthetics! The show features 25 of Williams new oil paintings as well as drawings and giant sculptures. Williams is modest in describing his influence over other artists. “I’ve created an opening that a whole lot of people can be comfortable in. And when you go up to Barnsdall Park you’re going to see a lot of art from other people, and some have barely heard of me. The door was opened. I kicked a hole in the wall. A lot of people went through it and they didn’t notice who kicked the hole in the wall. I don’t want tribute for that. But the problem is if they don’t realize it, this whole thing is going to close up.”
“Now this kind of art, although I don’t advocate it for being the top form of art, it is one hell of a challenge and a danger to the orthodox art world… This show at Barnsdall Park, I’m sure that some people are gonna come out of the woodwork and say I’m a sexist and I’m this and that… The bottom always comes to the top. I might not live to see this, but it’s gonna come. And it will be credited to Ed Roth and Von Dutch and Basil Wolverton and EC Comics and Zap Comix. And I’ll get some little mention I’m sure.”
“That’s what the deal with Barnsdall Park is. It’s like that Dali show 50 years ago- you gotta hunt that sucker up.” Williams smiles craftily, “I think it’s not too late in my life that I could do some big-eyed children…”
SLANG Aesthetics! & 20 Years Under the Influence of Juxtapoz runs Feb 22-April 19, 2015. Free. Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park: 4800 Hollywood Blvd., LA, CA 90027; (323) 644-6269. www.lamag.org
Guest Curators: Andrew Hosner (Thinkspace) & Gary Pressman (Copro Gallery)