“What it boils down to is we’re manipulated by a priestly elite of cultural directors in the art world, that’s telling us what is and isn’t art.“
with Robert Williams
Robert Williams’ paintings are so wildly psychedelic that Timothy Leary had several of his paintings hanging in his living room. Williams told me that his work was “tremendously” influenced by psychedelics, and it certainly shows. Prior to his psychedelic transformation Williams was hot rod illustrator who worked with Ed Big Daddy “Ratfink” Roth. He became well known for the contributions that he made to Zap and other underground comics during the late sixties, and his books Zombie Mystery Paintings, Visual Addiction, and Twisted Libido have all become cult classics.
Although Williams is a architect of grotesque and disturbing nightmare visions, and a deliberately sleazy, low-life flavor permeates his work, there is cartoony cuteness about it, and a good deal of hallucinogenic humor giggles through. So intricately detailed is Williams’ work that one often can not grasp what they are looking at upon first glance. One usually has to stare at it for awhile before the complex imagery begins to emerge– then it’s almost hard to believe what one is seeing. Over the past few years his work has received a great deal of recognition from the mainstream art world, including a showing at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. I conducted this interview with Robert Williams at his home in North Hollywood, California.
David: What was it that originally inspired you to start drawing and painting?
Robert: I just had a natural propensity to express myself graphically. When I was a little kid I would scribble, and things like that. I’m left-handed, and I think that has a great deal to do with it.
David: Why is that?
Robert: Because I use the other side of my brain. I’m driven to fiddle. I remember when I was extremely young– like three or four– my parents would sit me down on a big piece of butcher paper with crayons. I remember drawing a human skeleton, bone by bone, gigantic in red crayon. This was supposed to be Red Skeleton.
David: So you think that because you are left-handed, and therefore use the right side of your brain more, you see with a perspective that most people don’t have?
Robert: There’s an awful lot of people claiming an elitism by being left-handed, and I wouldn’t want to do that. But I did have a propensity for drawing, and I think being left-handed had something to do with it. I’m not the only underground artist that’s left-handed. There are an unbelievable amount of artists that are left-handed. There’s also a disproportionate amount of people that are in prison and insane asylums that are left-handed.
David: Is that right? That would be an interesting subject to do a study on.
Robert: Yes, a lot of people have. All they’ve come up with is– a lot more left-handed people are involved in graphic arts, and are in insane asylums and prisons (laughter ). A lot more commit suicide, and I think left-handed people tend to die a little earlier too.
David: Did you know that also in families where schizophrenia runs, there are also much higher percentages of gifted artists and other creative individuals? Apparently, the gene that encodes for schizophrenia expresses itself as high levels of creativity in those who aren’t afflicted with the disorder.
Robert: There’s a very thin line between a genius and a maniac.
David: What do you think separates the two?
Robert: I don’t know. Robert Crumb is a very brilliant person, and he’s got a brother that’s a flat maniac, an absolute imbecile, a genius imbecile.
David: It appears that the same genes can go either way. What were some of the major influences in your life that affected the development of your unique style of visual expression?
Robert: Comic books, movies, and things like that. Being able to render things that have an adventurous air to them, that affected me as a child. Automobile racing, airplane and aircraft warfare, things that affect a little kid. War comics, and EC comic books. Are you familiar with EC comics?
David: Oh sure. Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science Fantasy, Mad.
Robert: That’s before your time. I bought them at the newsstand when I was young.
David: My dad had a whole box of them, and he used to let me pick one when I did something for him.
Robert: He’s got originals huh? Is that right? Oh, you were very fortunate. I bought those when they came out on the stands in the early Fifties. That had a great effect on me, as did Disney. Are you familiar with Carl Barks?
David: He did the Donald Duck comics.
Robert: Yeah, and CC Beck who did Captain Marvel. There’s a whole slew of bizarre comic books that always helped my fantasy. Classic Comics were big with me. Do you remember Classics ?
David: Sure, that’s how I discovered Frankenstien, The Invisible Man, and Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They were great. So comic books were a big influence. Did you have any formal art training?
Robert: Well, I always excelled in art class, and then when I got into college I did real well. Then I went to art school at Chouinards for a small period of time.
David: If you could sum up some of the basic messages that you’re trying to communicate with your work, what would they be?
Robert: I’m a product of my situation. I’m trapped in a matrix of circumstances, like all the rest of us are. What I obviously represent is this artist that does representational artwork that’s trying to force his way into fine arts. When I went to art school in the Sixties, the predominating art of that decade was abstract expressionism, which was, to me, a very limited thing. To a lot of people it was a free form of revolution, but to me it was like a very confining thing. You were limited to working with a small pallet of earth colors and maybe blue. Draftsmanship and craftsmanship was really discouraged. When I entered art school my head was full of EC images, Salvador Dali, and other things that put a stop to you right away in art school. My peer group pressured me, referring to me as an illustrator. This happened not only to me, but to a lot of the artists in Zap Comix.
David: Are you saying that being called an illustrator was a put down?
Robert: Yeah, it’s very derogatory to refer to someone as an illustrator. I’m facing the same problems that Fredick Remington, James Montgomery Flag, and other real capable artists who were categorized as illustrators faced. For maybe fifty years the established art world has been in a very loose form of abstraction. In the last ten or fifteen years it’s just been ridiculous. It’s formed itself over into situations like minimalism and conceptualism, and it’s got further and further away from a graphic language. It’s like an absolute revolt against anything to go with a graphic language.
So in my generation, and two or three generations before me, people who were technically capable stayed out of fine art. They went into illustration, movie posters, and this whole variety of other sub-arts. I represent a percentage of people who are like the waves coming back on the shore, the chickens coming back to roost. This is a valid language. What’s happening is comic books are demanding their position in the art world, and cartoon imagery is the art of the Twentieth Century. Just like in the future rock-n-roll music will be the music of the Twentieth Century, cartoons will be the art of the Twentieth Century. This is coming to be realized, and that’s what I tend to see myself as representing.
David: There is something about cartoon imagery that particularly appeals to both children and people who do psychedelics.
Robert: It’s a language.
David: How do you differentiate then between what is cartoon art and what is fine art?
Robert: The difference between “low-brow” and “high-brow” art is that the later is real snobby. To be snobby you have to make it very stoic and boring. In other words, it’s got to be profoundly bland– like holding your nose against a brick wall and looking at it for an hour. You’re just looking at a fucking brick wall, and you can walk down eight paces and see the same brick wall with a little different texture. What it boils down to is we’re manipulated by a priestly elite of cultural directors in the art world, that’s telling us what is and isn’t art.
This would have probably held up into the next century, except for the fact that the economy collapsed. So these incredible pieces of artwork that these people have made– like two railroad ties chained together, named “Untitled #14”, that were going for a quarter of a million dollars– can’t even get pennies on the dollar. They can’t give some of this shit away that they paid a quarter of a million dollars for. This is what’s happening. New York is almost completely collapsed on the art market. They’re approaching losing half of their galleries now, the big ones. Okay, so I come to New York with thirty oil paintings for a sold out show. Do you understand what kind of an effect this would have on the art community in New York? Do you comprehend that?
David: No, I’m not quite sure what you are getting at.
Robert: The very stanch and conservative and entrenched art world has collapsed, financially on its ass. It’s on its knees, waiting for the storm to blow by, so it can try to crawl back up. It’s lost half it’s galleries. So, I come in there, and sell out a show of thirty oil paintings, before the doors even open. The opening night there’s 2000 people in there. The police had barricades on the street. I had a lot of very important gallery people from around SoHo at my opening, telling me, “you’re only one of ten people in all of New York that’s selling.” One of ten, out of 100,000 people that call themselves fine artists, in the art capital of this planet. But I’m doing ugly cartoons with naked ladies with big titties. The feminists were throwing rocks at me. (laughter ) I’m doing everything wrong, but here I am with a sold out show, and standing room only crowds, continually coming in. The first Saturday there was a thousand people in attendance, and the show was held over.
David: And this isn’t because somebody with a row of fancy prestigious degrees after their name is praising it. People just look at it and really enjoy it.
Robert: That’s right. Because it’s a basic language of things that you’re interested in. But it’s not because I am so brilliant that I create it, it’s just that I am a symptom of the situation. I came up with the rest of my underground buddies, reading underground comics, Hot Rod magazine, surfing, and all this stuff that people are really interested in. We’ve cooked it like soup, brewed it into an essence, and made art out of the things you want to fucking see– not what’s intellectually proper.
David: Is there a particular age group that your artwork seems to especially appeal to?
Robert: Yeah, from thirty down is who I appeal to.
David: How did you get into the underground comic scene?
Robert: I used to be art director for Ed Big Daddy Roth, and that was very much an underground think tank down in Maywood. Roth was this very important seminal character in the underground. During 1959-1961 Roth was doing monster T-shirts. He would go to car shows, set up an airbrush, and just paint shirts for people. They caught on really big. So he started doing decals, and then selling these shirts through the mail. It became an institution in the early Sixties. He used very low-brow subject matter. There’s a lot of beer cans, open wounds, warts, monsters with drool coming out, and popping eyeballs, like Basil Woverton. Now Basil Woverton was an influence on Ed Roth and me too. Have you heard of the poster artists refered to as the Big Five? Stanley Mouse, Rick Giffin, Victor Moscoso, Alton Kelly, and Wes Wilson, who did the very first psychedelic poster. Mouse is one of the better ones, on par nearly with Rick. He was a competitor. He started out doing hot rod T-shirts, as a competitor with Roth. But, there’s always been a West coast underground that’s been like a brotherhood.
David: How have psychedelics influenced your work?
Robert: They influenced it tremendously.
David: How so? What was your work like prior to and then after?
Robert: My work before psychedelics was kind of like a Wallace Wood style.
David: The guy who did those old science fiction stories in the EC comics?
Robert: Yeah, he was big influence on me too. It was kind of like a street element, hot-rod Wallace Wood effect I had in my work. Maybe a little science fiction fantasy. But when psychedelics came along, it opened up the world of color and shape– an emphasis was put on things that were really not paid attention to before. The predominant thing about psychedelics is harsh contrast, working one color against another. That had been done by the German Expressionists, but it wasn’t done like this. The German Expressionists like to get one color against another color to make it ugly– real dark green against harsh pink, for example– and it would be this real obtrusive thing. But psychedelic art wasn’t like that, it was colors at their maximum. It’s like 100% yellow against 100% red.
David: That stark contrast which is similar to what you see when you’re tripping.
Robert: Yeah, it’s sort of like putting green up against a red-orange, so where they touched each other, your eye would vibrate. Then Op-Art came along, which was a product of psychedelic art. That had like a two or three year hiatus, and then fell out. When I was working for Roth I had to render a lot of automobile stuff. He always hired a lot of artists that were technical illustrators, to do really slick automotive renderings. There was a fellow there named Ed Newton, who could do the best chrome in the world. The smooth chrome would just make your mouth water, but his imagination wouldn’t let him take it any further than car or industrial surfaces. He showed me the formulas for working chrome.
David: I seem to recall a piece that you did as a center spread in Zap, with all these really highly polished chrome characters.
Robert: Yeah. So, being psychedelic, man, I just saw all the possibilities to that shit on water, air, women– everything. So that chrome center-spread that you’re talking about was my first attempt to make everything chrome in the picture. In fact, that’s a reproduction of it on a mirror up there.
David: Oh yeah, that’s it.
Robert: A fellow from England sent that to me. That’s the “Rosetta Stone” of Chrome there. It tells you how to handle any shape. (laughter) So, I’m talking about 67, 68. So I started doing this, and it got out in the car magazines, and before long, advertising agencies started picking up on this. I started having advertising agencies calling me. J. Walter Thompson called me, but I couldn’t get along with them, and I didn’t want to be bosed by them. Inside three or four years, the entire advertising thing– all over the United States, Europe, and the world– started having chrome lettering. The chrome lettering you see today started with me. So I netted exactly nothing out of that. There was a number of artists that made pretty good livings off of doing chrome.
David: But why is that? You didn’t try to market it?
Robert: Well, I’m not a commercial artist, see.
David: Not like one of those… illustrators.
Robert: Yeah. When I got into it, and I got really deep into it. I started figuring, well this is a stylization, and I’ve got a language going with a whole new form of visual surface control. And if I get deeper into this, I’m going to find something even better. I started getting more abstract, and getting deeper into working with this.
David: I’m not sure what you mean by “getting deeper into this.” You mean you elaborated on it more?
Robert: Yeah. Instead of making it look like chrome, I started changing the colors on it, trying to alter the language– so it doesn’t read properly as chrome, yet the language is there. It’s psychedelic as hell. It’s obvious that the guy who that did this has taken some drugs. (laughter )
David: Is there a deliberate attempt to shock people with your work?
Robert: Well, you know I hear this all the time. “Are you just like shocking people there? So now you have this open wound and this naked lady?” That’s kind of a cold way to phrase it. The uglier way to phrase it to say I’m exploiting subject matter. But what it is is, if you do a cartoon or you do a picture, and you want attention, and you’re trying to gain an audience, you have so much to compete against. You’ve got television, movies, music, you got so many diversities and diversions that you have to compete against, that a picture has got to have so much energy in it. One way to get the energy is to have emotional tricks.
In other words, not only is the picture composed of a composition of color and shape, but there is emotional composition in it. Like you might have a dying baby next to a dog turd. These things are just like really disturbing situations, and they’re not things to win your favor– they’re things to hold you. And while you’re sitting there being upset, but yet attracted, the rest of the picture is taking effect on you too. So yes, the stuff is just contrived to be shocking, but it’s done in a language of it’s own. It’s demanding your attention. It’s trying to addict you to it, but it’s not necessarily trying to win your approval. What it’s trying to do is to get you to go to the next painting.
David: So in other words, you’re just trying to make it so fascinating, that people can’t help but be interested and drawn into it.
Robert: That’s right.
David: You said that you’ve had to compete with other mediums for people’s attention. Have you experimented with other mediums for your own expression, such as animation or computers?
Robert: I’ve done story boards, and one thing or another like that. I’ve had some awful good offers, but, you know, I’m a painter, and if I really can’t get off on these other things. But I’ve been offered some really good situations.
David: Have you tried doing any work on a computer?
Robert: No, I haven’t tried that. But I’ve seen my work that someone else has digitized on a computer. The guys in he band Butt Hole Surfers took some of my work and did this.
David: You said that you had some good offers– to do what?
Robert: To do all kinds stuff for television– like movies, both animated and live-action. They want me to do a series on HBO.
David: And you don’t want to do it?
Robert: It’s not that I don’t want to do it. It’s how much are they going to do for me, and how much time am I going to absorb in doing this? I’m really in a safe position now that I’ve worked thirty years to get to. Things are really flowing smooth for me. I’ve accomplished an awful lot. And if I just set that aside and start fucking around with something that I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, I’ll start ending up under the dictates of someone else after awhile.
David: There seems to be a co-mingling of sex and death in your work. What’s the association between the two for you?
Robert: I think a lot of what you’re seeing is melodramatic. A lot of this stuff is hokum.
David: The recurring motif of corpses making love to beautiful women.
Robert: You see, if I was to pass myself off as fine arts, I would tell you that this all has religious significance. (laughter ) This is so deep, I can’t explain it to you. If you don’t understand it, you’ll never understand it. You know what I’m saying? But I can’t say that, because all that it is, is just melodramatic hokum.
David: But you do see an association between sex and death?
Robert: Of course I see that.
David: What’s the association that you see then? I’m really curious about that.
Robert: Well, I see exactly what you see. There’s– fucking’s fun, and you’re going to die. (laughter ) You’re driven by your libido, but yet death’s waiting for you.
David: There’s the fear of death, the promise of sex, and those two forces drive much of life.
Robert: No. The thing that overdominates the fear of death and the want of sex is the ego that wants to be gratified. The strutting of the rooster. It’s not getting the pussy– it’s being able to get the pussy.
David: Are you aware that sex and death occurred simultaneously in the evolutionarily process? Billions of years ago, in the primordial soup, they arrived at the exact same moment. Before death, all organisms were asexual and cloned themselves into immortality. Mortality hit when sexual reproduction started. I think that’s were the sex-death association began.
Robert: I think you’re simplifying the situation there.
David: You think it’s more complex than that? I especially see the motif in psychedelic artwork. You and Giger do it quite a bit.
Robert: That’s just melodramatic hocum, things that go bump in the night– things that get your interest.
David: To grab people’s fascination.
Robert: Right, those are devices.
David: What do you think happens to human consciousness after death?
Robert: It’s over pal.
David: You don’t think that there is any continuation of consciousness?
Robert: Hey, what can I tell you? How do you want it? (laughter ) You go up to the sky and you live up there with angels, where you spend eternity not being able to use foul language (laughter ). You call that heaven? You live forever among these very stoic people with beards, and you can’t fuck or say shit or anything. Would you like to spend eternity like that? Or would you rather be with the devil?
David: If I could have my preference, I wouldn’t want something in the Christian framework at all, thank you.
Robert: Well, would you want to be you today, and in your next life a armadillo? (laughter )
David: I’d be interested in trying on a new body. What would you like?
Robert: I’m going with this one ticket. This is it.
David: Don’t want another shot at it?
Robert: Well, I want another shot at it, but I’m not going to sit here and dream it up. I’m realistic.
David: Really? And I thought you were surrealistic all this time.
Robert: Have you ever looked into the eyes of a skull and think this guy’s somewhere else now?
David: No, but when I was studying neuroscience, I held a human brain in my hands before dissecting it, and tried to imagine where the person’s spirit was. I marveled at how a whole person’s life all took place in this little three pound handful of grey meat. It was an extraordinary experience.
Robert: That’s right. Three pounds of Jello.
David: It’s just a grey blob.
Robert: Better enjoy it while you can pal. This is it.
David: Live for the moment philosophy?
Robert: Well, you know I deal in abstraction and fantasy, but I know what reality is. I’ve been in jail before. I’ve been in fights. I’ve had my life threatened. I’ve been in hospitals a bunch of times. I’ve seen people die. I’ve had a lot of people die before me.
David: You’ve had a lot of really intense life experiences, and this is reflected in your work.
Robert: I’m just an old guy in tract home over in the Valley. My house looks just like everyone else’s house.
David: Yeah, you know, I was really surprised at that. (laughter ) I think I was expecting a polished chrome house, with a giant nude woman on the roof wrapped in a huge taco shell. Why did you choose to live here?
Robert: I got the house at a good price years ago. I used to live over in Hollywood, right in the eye of the vortex, man– taking drugs, and lots of parties in the Sixties. I was glad to get the hell out of there.
David: So what are you working on these days?
Robert: Well, I’m starting my next book– Views from a Twisted Libido.
David: Is there a theme to the new series?
Robert: I’m getting a little more psychological material. That might interest you. Did you read my Zombie Mystery Paintings ?
David: Yup, you bet, savored it from cover to cover.
Robert: You should have enjoyed that.
David: I loved it. I thought it was brilliant.
Robert: Every painting was looked at in three directions.
David: Unless one reads the three titles and descriptions, they’ll miss a lot of it. Zombie Mytery Paintings is one of my favorite books.
Robert: Those were really rough paintings– a lot of gratuitous sex and violence. The reason they were so rough was because I had to compete with punk rock artists in LA and After Hours clubs in the early Eighties. So, the original idea I had for presenting this material was that I was going to have two psychiatrists interview me, and give their opinion on each painting. What I was going to do was this. In the first paragraph I would state the painting verbatim the way you look at it. Then the second paragraph would be from the very liberal gestalt psychiatrist. And then my third paragraph would be a behaviorist psychiatrist, like from the marine core, a very pragmatic idiot finder. So, I got in touch with a bunch of psychiatrists, and I had them go through a couple of pictures and give me their take on it. But everyone I talked to kept justifying everything. They just wouldn’t cut me down. I couldn’t get anyone to attack me. So I just wrote the whole thing myself.
David: You wanted them to say something like “this is obviously the product of a disturbed and diseased mind. As you can see there are several varieties of psychopathology evident here.”
Robert: Yeah (laughter ), yeah, right. Someone ought to take me and put me in the presence of my mother and have me describe this thing of how I treat women. (laughter )
Posters, prints, and books by Williams can be ordered through: L, Imagerie, 15030 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, California 91403, (818) 995-8488. (Full color catalog available for $4.)