Living In A World Of His Own
Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman casts his critical eye over Crumbs World, a new book about Robert Crumb out now from David Zwirner Books
Writer: Robert Storr
Artist: Robert Crumb
David Zwirner and curator Robert Storr’s catalogue about the venerated and at times reviled underground cartoonist Robert Crumb has a somewhat difficult remit – to enhance our understanding of the artist after countless other takes on him (you could fill a library), as well as provide an overview of the man’s career that will appeal both to the long-time fan (such as myself) and the ingénue who has a passing interest in his work, and the era from which he emerged.
A tough ask, but at the very least it’s enjoyable, if not compelling. The essay that prefaces the main art section of the book, focusing as it does on a New York exhibition of Crumb (featuring the man himself) and his musings regarding it, does ramble extensively but is worth the read. Generally the theme is about Crumb’s place in today’s polarized and fractured world, where the artist’s serial pessimism and doom-laden predictions have proven to be prescient, not to mention redundant in the face of anti-intellectualism, atomisation and overwhelming loss of perspective. More significantly it is an apologia for Crumb’s oeuvre, which the author claims relies on instinct, the need for self-expression and his deep-rooted anger, rather than the desire to shock and offend (although that is a by-product the artist has never seemed concerned about). There’s a potted biography, which disserts on his place in pop culture, his horrendous formative years (“his birthright included all it takes for a psychopath in the making”) and how he has channelled his self-loathing and psychosexual issues into his art. Equally of interest is the section about his forebears – heavyweight satirists such as Hogarth and Gillray, who employed ribald, vituperative (and often grotesque) caricatures and woodcuts – not direct ancestors (Crumb was more into American cartoonists) but he is certainly part of that lineage, and as important as them when it comes to lambasting and challenging the establishment, and (in Crumb’s case) the reader.
The writer concludes that Crumb is the last man standing from his heyday, but more importantly (despite being semi-retired) he’s still around, and still relevant (he and Terry Zwigoff recently filled a medium-sized theatre in London for an interview and screening of the latter’s biography of the artist).
The art catalogue section is an excellent anthology of Crumb’s development as an artist – I would have preferred it arranged in chronological order, and it isn’t all that thematically coherent, but there’s a lot of work here that is both familiar and rare, from his early, barely seen work on Foo with his late brother Charles, to his sketchbooks featuring Fritz The Cat, and on to his classic psychedelic and middle periods, with Zap, Big Ass, Gothic Blimp, Best Buy, Mr. Natural, XYZ, Snoid Comics (his id alter ego) and Motor City Comics. And then there’s his later, more refined work, which shows Crumb’s artistic virtuosity coupled with even more brazenly confessional tropes, such as Hup from 1989, which featured a story about real estate mogul Donald Trump and his utter revulsion for him (I think he might’ve been telling us something), Self-Loathing Comics, Mystic Funnies and Id, when any kind of filter was dispensed with. Mr. Natural, a parody of self-declared Haight-Ashbury gurus and their acolytes remains a favourite, as the character is sympathetic despite his myriad flaws.
Throughout the art section one realises how multi-faceted Crumb has been in his career – his later work, on Philip K Dick, the autobiographical Footsy and the Kafka biography (all reproduced here) are considerably different to his comix – all beautifully rendered, with only the obligatory misanthropy the common factor. And it is gratifying to see some very recent work here (Crumb and his wife Aline Kominsky’s Bad Diet and Bad Hair Destroy Civilization) which is entertaining and still of a very high standard. Storr claims that because Crumb’s work is lowbrow he is not mentioned in the same breath as more feted modern artists – the fact remains that Crumb’s medium has always been the throwaway one of comics, but judging by some recent auction sales, his classic works are going for serious money anyway. And the catalogue, filled as it is with febrile slices of key Americana, explains why. Worth checking out.
Crumsbworld is out now from David Zwirner Books