“I had already been poisoned by them. They were right, these were not good for kids. They poisoned me like a snake bite,” artist Robert Williams said.
When the United States Congress started conducting hearings on the influence of the vulgar and violent comic books of the 1950s, it was already too late for Robert Williams. He’d watched his parents marry and divorce four times, grown up in and around a drive-in popular with hot rodders, been volleyed back and forth between parents in Alabama and Albuquerque, N.M., and made friends with hoodlums and criminals. For anyone hoping for a well-adjusted Williams to emerge, the comics he was drawn to as a youth might just have been the nail in the coffin.
It seems fitting then that the documentary exhibition at LSU’s Student Union Gallery of Williams’ work carries the title Poison for the Impressionable. His own artistry, developed over more than half a century, often contains many of the same subversive elements and themes that got parents and government officials alike so concerned with the comic industry of the ’50s.
“The paintings weren’t painted to make friends. They were painted to catch you and draw you in and hold you there to investigate them,” Williams explained. “To be your best friend and just paint kittens and puppies — I had no intentions of that. I’m not interested in placating you, I’m interested in getting your blood pressure up.”
Without apology, Williams’ career has been marked with imagery of fast cars, faster women, violent acts and things that just weren’t supposed to be talked about, much less seen. He’s been targeted by feminists, the academic art world, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and now, for many of the same reasons, by LSU Associate Professor of Art History Darius A. Spieth and graduate student Joe Givens.
Spieth and Givens worked together to bring Williams’ work, which is on display through Friday, Dec. 14, to LSU based on a shared love for the artist’s work and a conviction that his paintings are a turning point in American art.
Spieth, while still pursuing his undergraduate degree, came across Williams’ work for the first time in 1991 and has gone on to be a collector of his.
“It became immediately clear to me that this is of great historical importance. It had this very distinct style and he was clearly a trailblazer,” said Spieth.
The curator of the exhibition at the LSU Student Union Gallery, Joe Givens (to whom Spieth serves as a graduate advisor), was introduced to the artist’s work a few years later with a copy of Juxtapoz, a magazine that focuses on figurative and lowbrow art that Williams helped launch in 1994.
“At the time, I was a comic artist,” Givens explained. “I’d go to my art classes and paint still lifes and then I went home and drew my comics. And never did the two worlds meet. I saw Juxtapoz and Robert’s work for the first time and that rule was broken in my mind.”
Givens shared this epiphany inside a closed Union Gallery as two female students liberated one of Williams’ more recent works, “Swap Meet Sally,” from its crate. Spieth and Givens both dropped the thoughts they were trying to express and gave a quick, visceral chuckle at the work’s emergence like two drag racing fans hearing supercharged motors rev.
Givens continued with a smile, “This is a guy that I’ve admired since I was 15 years old. He really has defined my taste in art. And here we are opening up Robert Williams’ paintings.”
“Swap Meet Sally” is one of two originals in the exhibition which share the walls with a copy of the first issue of Juxtapoz, an original printing of the Guns N’ Roses album Appetite for Destruction (which notoriously included one of William’s paintings on the cover), copies of Zap Comix (to which he was a major contributor, alongside cult figures like Robert Crumb, Victor Moscoso and S. Clay Wilson) and more than a dozen full-color reproductions spanning the entirety of Williams’ career. Each one has its own power, its own originality and sheds light on the many chapters of his life and artistic career.
Givens shifted attention to a reproduction of his personal Robert Williams favorite, “The Voice from the Wee Gee Board.” It is 30” by 36” painting depicting a naive young woman being pulled into an alternate dimension and becoming a sexo-psyche possession of an evil genie-like figure.
“I think this work sums up his style and what he’s about visually and in content. There’s these very meticulously rendered parts and you have the more expressive brushstrokes in parts,” he said. “They’re like horror stories wrapped in moralizing tales.”
Spieth chimed in, “He’s playing with conventions and just deliberately driving them over the top.”
However, those in the academic art world took decades to see what many in ’70s underground rock venues loved about Williams’ work. In fact, when he first entered art school, his exceptional craftsmanship and skills as a draftsman were seen as a flaw.
“My art peer group were all abstract expressionists who all referred to me as ‘The Illustrator,’” which he explained, was lobbed at him as an insult.
“Realism, back then, was considered something you’d do to win a blue ribbon at a county fair, like baking a cake or something.”
Yet, Williams does not necessarily return fire with the disdain one might expect. While he has his gripes with abstract expressionism, pop art, conceptual art and likely other movements, his main complaint seems to be the lack of space provided for others to flourish.
“I will defend all art movements. There are no bad art movements. But in the ’50s and ’60s, abstract expressionism absolutely took over the art world in the United States and in Europe.”
Now, 50 years later, Williams appears to see the same problem with the establishment in the art world, one he contends is myopic and champions little in the way of originality.
“I just want them to move over about a foot and a half and let this other world exist,” he said. “When nutty stuff comes in that doesn’t have the academic background, doesn’t have the right paperwork and isn’t authenticated by them, they’re very cautious about it.”
In recent years, Williams has seen more favorable acceptance from the art world. He has lectured across the country and his work has been seen in some of the most influential art venues in the nation.
Interestingly, Williams carries the unique honor of having given the movement with which his work is associated perhaps its most widely used moniker: “Lowbrow.” He did so without intent and with no knowledge that the word would be employed by art scholars decades later when he originated the term in 1979.
“The thing about ‘lowbrow’ — it’s not a great term — but what it denotes is that this is the bottom of the barrel. And if you’re at the bottom of the barrel, you can do as you please,” Williams said.
While most identify Williams as the father of lowbrow, he is quick to point out, “I fancy myself a conceptual realist.”
While the critics have not always been kind and many have attacked Williams for his use of sexual and violent imagery, his compulsion to defy boundaries and moralists has set him apart.
As Spieth put it, “There’s a tendency to look at what’s depicted and draw conclusions about what the intentions are and what the person who’s making these things is like. I think that’s misleading because this is, in my opinion, a major figure of late 20th, early 21st century American art.”
Millions would agree with Spieth. Williams’ loquacious and jarring works which have given new life to figurative art, continue to inspire and offend decades later.
His work is highly sought after by collectors the world over including numerous celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Anthony Kiedis (The Red Hot Chili Peppers). Within the last five years, the magazine he helped create, Juxtapoz, became the top-selling art magazine in the world. It could also be argued that without his work, the popularity of graphic novels in recent years would not have been possible.
While he coyly says he is, “just an old man sitting over here in Chatsworth, Calif., painting my paintings and paying my bills,” Williams’ work — as visitors to the LSU Student Union Gallery will experience — still has the power to catch you.
“If I could get you to look at three or four of my paintings, I’d have you. Even if you hated me and you hated the art, you’d look for my paintings to find something you didn’t like. Then your mind would start nursing on all the details … and realize there’s an intelligent thinker behind this stuff and there is deep thought in this.”