With a new exhibition currently on view at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Chelsea and his remarkable inclusion in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Robert Williams seems more than ever the most likely candidate to represent the ways that late decadent American culture will be remembered by history. Despite decades of benign neglect if not willful disregard from the art world, Williams is an incredibly famous artist. He has fans all over the world, not knowing esthetic aficionados but real fans, the kind that wait in line for hours just to get an autograph or have their picture taken with him.
Beginning his career in the 1950s working with Ed "Big Daddy" Roth on custom car design for hot rods at the dawn of American youth culture, Williams subsequently became part of a fabled crew of visual rabble-rousers in the ’60s via R. Crumb’s seminal Zap Comics. Since then he has set just about every marker one could imagine in underground and mainstream popular culture, including the scandalous album design for Guns N’ Roses’ monster-platinum "Appetite for Destruction," which would utterly decimate all records for tee-shirt sales and teach artists a pretty crucial lesson on licensing agreements.
What makes Robert Williams such a great artist, however, is that ever since he got inspired by the Punk Rock scene raging in his beloved Los Angeles during the late ‘70s to by and large give up commercial work and dedicate himself exclusively to painting, faced with a cultural cognoscenti that just don’t love him like they should, he’s compensated for the deafening disregard with an exponential upping of the pictorial and painterly stakes to a level of visual derangement that is nearly without precedent.
But -- and he’s going to hate me for saying this -- that critical discrepancy between his aspirations and his achievements, the elusive ideal, scornful paramour, muse and tormentor that he imagines this official "Art" to be, is what makes him such an ornery genius. Thoroughly poisoned by the pop culture vulgarity of American youth’s pursuit of entertainment and leisure that began during the post-war period, suffused with a singularly dark vision that was at once satirically bent and deeply misanthropic, suffering from his own interminable carnal obsessions, and inherently contrary to the point of pathological aggression, it’s unlikely Williams ever would have fit in very well into the polite conversation of the marketplace even if he had been invited.
Left to his own devices, with the personality of an outsider and the skills of a master craftsman, addressing an audience of similarly perverse and misfit followers that could only encourage his creative degeneracy as they in turn sought to emulate his most prurient proclivities, Williams now enters onto this more formidable stage like both a blast of fresh air and a significant recapitulation of an outré legacy of forbidden images that must in time be acknowledged by the contemporary art canon.
A long shot, a mongrel dark horse that’s been feeding on exhaust-choked psychotropic weeds by the side of the freeway and chasing the fillies when he should have been training, Williams is not only the one to put our money on, he remains the last hope many of us have that spirit and vision will win out over the current pedigreed lot of academic thoroughbreds in the end.
Though he’s never had a proper museum show, has had a negligible to nonexistent presence over the past three decades in any galleries of note outside of New York and his hometown of Los Angeles, has continued to publish his immensely popular books with the likes of Fantagraphics and Last Gasp (who are better known as purveyors of comic books) rather than those more established houses that issue fine art monographs, and received the lion’s share of his praise in fanzines as opposed to the art periodicals of record, please do not mistake Robert’s selection for the Whitney Biennial for one of those nods to emerging artists typical of the show.
This is a late career artist at the top of his game, a shamefully overdue entry into still meaningful discourse of what art can be when it refuses to play by the rules, a monster of the imagination whose time has finally come. In many ways he still stands alone, but he is not. In his frustration these many years over the myopic exclusivity of the high art citadel, Williams has not only inspired generations of artists to follow his suit, he has named a movement for this irascible style of socially acerbic exaggerate realism -- Lowbrow Art -- and even founded Juxtapoz (along with the publishers of the legendary skateboard magazine Thrasher), a populist periodical that does not fit so neatly into the conformist constraints of current cultural capital, and which though now a shadow of its former glory still vastly outsells most art magazines out there.
You see, a lot of people are still counting on this old coot, so we hope you’ll all at least pay attention to his work at the Whitney and, for the devil’s sake, please check out his show at Tony’s while it’s still up through Jan. 24.
"Robert Williams: Conceptual Realism, in the Service of the Hypothetical," Oct. 31, 2009-Jan. 23, 2010, at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 544 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
CARLO MCCORMICK is senior editor at Paper Magazine.