Robert Williams is a indeed a "fine arts" painter and was one of the original creators of Zap! comics with his Coochie Cootie Strip. He now lives in North Hollywood with his wife Susanne Williams, who is an excellent painter in her own right. We were fortunate to speak to this loquacious and ingenious man of the arts.
Goblin: How come you give all your paintings three titles?
Williams: When I was younger I tried to paint serious surrealism. I tried to put on a real pedantic, sometimes partially Greek or Latin title to try to seem academic. When I showed it to people they would come up with their own title like the Turkey Painting or the Eye Painting, and my titles just never would float unless they were published and written down. So I realized there was a comfortable common title, and it was in its own way descriptive of what I was painting. In the Zombie Mystery Paintings I hit upon the idea of having three different titles so you'd have three different ways of looking at the picture: a matter of fact title, a pedantic poetic title, and a colloquial pool room title with a real vulgar slang take on it; something that wouldn't be acceptable in mixed company.
Goblin: Do you think Surrealism is still valid?
Williams: Surrealism is not valid; it's had a hell of a struggle for the past twenty-five years. I remember in '64 I went to Los Angeles City College and I was full of ideas of being a Surrealist and doing really remarkable artwork. Then I came into my first real head-on experience with academic art. It was all abstract expressionism and the drawing was really de-emphasized. In '64 there was a Salvador Dali show that ran for two days and nobody in art school or City College even knew about it. I went both days and it was a remarkable experience for me but it had no effect whatsoever on any of my peer group.
Goblin: People didn't like him because he had a reputation for being a charlatan with a flair for publicity.
Williams: And money. He was anti-Marxist and anti "the common people." He was also a slick artist, something which is really discouraged on almost every level of fine art. It's what is referred to as, and I'm referred to in this way, as being facile. That means that my work would probably be better off at the state fair with the crochet work.
Goblin: Is that attitude bad for art in general?
Williams: Well, art is supposed to be a wide open spectrum and that cuts off about a third of the art world. Anybody who has any physical dexterity and hand to mind co-ordination goes into prints, posters, and science fiction art. But it isn't fine art.
Goblin: Do you think that's just to protect the mediocrity?
Williams: I was told not to be negative but I am. When you take on the fine arts mantle you have to take on an open philosophy that you're working in experimentation and you have to look for new horizons that have never been explored. You have to deal with abstract thinking, oblique thinking and be able to tolerate . . . very roughly done stuff that is trying to achieve a purpose and has a reason for being roughly done. But that gives a lot of license to people who can't do a thing.
There is another facet that has entered the art world in the last ten or fifteen years, and that's been the maturity and totality of Dadaism. As a young artist I was always a big fan of Dadaism and I still am. It was a wonderful foreign abstract thought and was an absolute revolt. The humor was abstract and the thinking was very confrontational. You have to realize the environment Dadaism existed in was the very academic stale domineering absolutist world of the nineteenth century. When Dadaism came out in 1913 it was a very obvious thing to think of in the face of the tragedies of the first World War and the French Academy's choke-hold on things. Dadaism has always been an enjoyable philosophy, and a big hunk of art history until fifteen years ago when the punk rock movement got really rolling. That introduced a whole new form of loose art, which associated itself with Dadaism.
Two major offshoots of Dadaism which totally dominate art today: one is Minimalism and the other is Conceptualism. Both of these have Dadaist roots, especially conceptualism. You have to understand that the revolutions have been won. The last resistance of art authority from the old worlds was after World War II. Now there's nothing to resist against. So the revolutionaries have been the established dominate force for thirty or forty years now. That's where Julian Schnabel would fit in. The entire philosophy of the entire fine art world is that they're above the pathetic facileness of just depending on cheap dexterity as a sensation.
Goblin: Your techniques seem almost medieval at times, with you grinding your own pigment and going to those incredible lengths you go to to get precise lines.
Williams: I have my compulsions to follow. I would like to apply intellectual reasons for why I do things, and I do think there are intellectual reasons for the way I conduct myself and do my artwork. I'll be honest though, that a lot of it "is " compulsion! I have a compulsion to noodle the shit out tight and make it remarkable and interesting and hold your attention. I am attracted to older paintings that are really interesting - that have been so much noodled out. I love oil paintings, and actually I hate art. I know that sounds like a real contradiction but I'd walk twenty miles to see an interesting oil painting, but to go into a big white room with some conceptual thing standing there leaves me cold. Now that's not a matter of right or wrong. Right or wrong is not something that's in art, and that's how it should be. Art should be a philosophy and theory and I enjoy art to be that way. But I don't think art should be a religion that you blindly believe in.
Goblin: Recently there has been a small revival of Communist Realist Artists who were ignored in the 50's. Are you seeing any kind of a trend of realistic art coming back?
Williams: Realistic art is coming back slowly and they don't know how to handle it and what to do with it. The higher echelons are not really going to tolerate it. There is a machine that exists that is put together by a lot of people in institutions and money. You can't find any one person to blame but it's a situation that exists. It exists through the galleries and the foundations that underwrite them. Some of the blame can be put on curators and directors in museums, but the bottom line is the "idiot fuckin' artist." And the idiot fuckin' artist will do anything to get himself shown. The art really doesn't matter, it's the politics.
You can worm your way up. Just put out some kind of product that isn't offensive and is politically correct to the letter. From then on it's all functions. You make yourself known and you're continually trying to fill gaps that nobody has filled yet as far as when you can show. You can worm your way up without knowing anything about art and anything technical.
Goblin: How have critics responded to your art in general?
Williams: The majority of the critics hate my art. I've had the worst reviews in the world.
Goblin: Don't they at least respect your draftsmanship?
Williams: That's what they hate about it the most, that I'm a two bit "illustrator" who's out of my league. I have had some really important people supporting me in the art world so I'm not completely alone.
Let me paint you a picture of the anatomy of the art world into the last decade. I'll give you an idea of how shaky these cocksuckers worlds' really are. In October 25, 1987 the stock market collapsed. I had some business over in Santa Monica with probably the top gallery owner in the west coast, James Corcoran, and he was down in the mouth. He said, "You know the stock market fell today - it fell really bad." It didn't matter to me because I had my own private collectors who bought no matter what. I think even then I had a waiting list. So I didn't really think anything about it. It takes a couple of years for a stock market crash to really mess things up, it doesn't instantly happen. And the products put out by the art world are probably the most non-essential products of humanity. So it took about two years and then everything started falling apart. In the late eighties people were paying $250,000 for four blocks of wood that were stacked a certain way. The Japanese were blindly backing this stuff with billions of dollars. This was all conceptualist art and the prices on it were going ape shit. It was primarily fueled by the market in New York and Europe and the crazy buying frenzy of the Japanese. Then suddenly the market just disappeared. In '90 or '91 L.A. lost half of its galleries. I had a show in '92 at Best Cutlers in New York where half the galleries were also out of business. I put on a show with thirty oil paintings that had all been previously sold off a waiting list. It was a sold out. Two thousand people showed up and the police had to put up barricades. The son of the owner of O.K. Harris, one of the bigger galleries in New York, came to the opening and said, "You know, you're one of the ten artist in New York that's selling." Ten artists.
Let me put that in perspective: Guggenheim Museum says there are 150,000 fine arts people on the island of Manhattan. Ten are selling and I'm one of them. The top art critic of the New York times, Jacqueline Smith, came twice to make sure she hated it. She wouldn't write about it. Nobody would write about the damn show. They ignore it for a good reason, and that's because if it gets popular they don't want to say something stupid.
Some of them will say stupid things about me. I have a new book coming out next year. My publishers approached Robert Hughes, the top art critic for Time Magazineto do the introduction. They sent him a letter asking for him to do it and they thought it would be a couple months for a reply. The next day they got a fax back saying that he didn't want his name associated with me.
Goblin: You have to be doing something really brilliant to get that kind of hatred from the academic community.
Williams: I appreciate you seeing that so colorfully. I would like to be a little more modest than I pretend to be.
Goblin: You're a great artist, you're absolutely unique in the power of your vision. Where do you get your visions from?
Williams: It's a matter of sitting down with a pencil, a piece of paper, a Thesaurus and some grocery store encyclopedia and start coming out with ideas. Just sit down and shit them out. It's just about engineering an idea. The hard thing is to not come up with something somebody else did. Compared to great draftsmen I'm really mediocre but if you compare me to artists today I'm like Tifian.
There are some artists superior to me but they will not get into fine arts, they have to make that dollar. I've been trying to get these artists into the fine arts world, help me out and create a front so we can all earn a living. But as soon as they don't get that check or they get their nose bloodied a little they go right back to illustration. Goblin: Could you tell us about the Zap! Comics scene in the 60's?
Williams: S. Clay Wilson and I just bonded in the late 60's. There weren't a lot of us when we started out. It was a rare situation I don't think a lot of people understand. There are a couple history books on the underground comics scene and they don't set the stage of what really existed there for the first underground comics to start with. All of us went to art school when everyone was doing abstract expressionism. All of us were effected by EC comics in the 50's. Like they said: it poisoned us. We all were filled with contempt when EC was run out of business by the government regulations. We felt those regulations destroyed the best.
Goblin: What was the problem?
Williams: They had a lot of gratuitous violence and hints of sex. They were very well written and the graphics were the absolute best. When that ended it hurt us. It really let me down. They quit it in '54 when I was twelve years old. I had been collecting them since the late forties. I had always been attracted to pictures and imagery, especially meritorious, sleazy and sensational stuff has always excited the hell out of me. I was involved with the carnivals when I was young. It was beautiful, you could sink your teeth into it.
So there were a handful of us as the psychedelic thing hit in '65, '66. We all started taking drugs and didn't know each other yet. We were going along taking the same courses, and getting into Big Daddy Roth, Von Dutch, EC Comics, B movies, things like that. We started knocking into each other when we began running around with psychedelic poster artists. I got to meet Mouse, Rick Griffin, R. Crumb, and Gilbert Shelton and the soup started brewing and their was no way to stop it.
Goblin: Zap! comics issue four was put on trial for obscenity, just like the Beats, Frank Zappa, Lenny Bruce, etc. Do you think it's a rite of passage for any important movement to be put on trial for obscenity?
Williams: It was put on trial but the artists and even the publishers didn't have to worry. They made examples out of the newsstand dealers who were peddling it. You have to remember the Vietnam war was going on and there was a pressure in the United States to swing to the right. Then there was this fifth column element, that I guess I was involved with, that tried to stop the war. Right up to 1970 the government had serious plans of throwing us all into Japanese internment camps and they had started refurbishing those camps. You won't read this in the history of underground comics -- we were under some serious pressure! It was horrifying. I was dodging the draft, working for Big Daddy Roth and was involved in Zap! Comics so I had three strikes against me. I had to talk to the FBI guys every week. They didn't see me do any felonies, they liked my artwork, but I was right there with my head under the ax. The federal government got on Roth with Internal Revenue and so I made sure everything I did was paid up. So I told everyone at Zap! you better watch yourself, you better start paying your income tax. Crumb, Wilson and Spain said "Well, we're like Joan Baez, fuck 'em." And boy they got their ass in a lot of trouble. Wilson and Spain didn't make a lot so they didn't owe a lot, but Crumb was packing away a lot of money.
The government was always there. Our phones were being tapped and the cops were watching down the street from the hotel. It was just continual surveillance in the late 60's. There was a paranoia. Either we were going to get forced into the army, and if I got forced into the army they were going to make me point man in Vietnam and get me killed, or we'd get thrown into an internment camp. But the third alternative happened and the whole country loosened up and said "Fuck The War!" But for three or four years it was a scary situation.
Goblin: How much concentration does it take to do your highly detailed (sometimes with a one bristle brush) art? Can you take drugs at all when you do that?
Williams: I don't do that any more, I'm beat to death on that. I used to watch my life go by one stroke at a time. I used to get up very, very early. In my twenties I formed an almost Spartan system of discipline. I'd get up before the sun, have a couple cups of coffee, have those paints mixed, and be sittin' at the easel with a one haired brush and a magnifying glass. I'd hammer away the whole day until the sun went down. About noon I'd be in so much pain I'd have to start taking aspirins and Darvons. Then I'd get through at about six or seven and I'd have to have me a big old beaker of wine. I'd put that wine down and flop in bed and start the cycle all over again.
Then during the Zombie Mystery Paintings I got even worse about it. I'd get up at 4:20 every morning and I'd have a couple cups of coffee, a slice of kielbasa and an English muffin, mix my paints and sit there and hammer ten to fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, with no breaks, no visits, no nothing. My wife was taking care of me like I was a caged animal and I was cranking out twenty-four or twenty-five paintings a year.
What happened was I had a physical breakdown in '92. I'd pumped out thirty paintings in nineteen months, and I mean paintings I was responsible for that were like no others. They're incredibly detailed and interesting. My wife said "no more of that." I went to seven doctors and they couldn't find out what was wrong with me. I had bladder problems, kidney problems from breathing the paints, stress, emotional strain and I just cracked. Now I just do a painting a month, I'm 53 years old and I'm still charging but I'm taking my time.
Goblin: Why do you think bohemians are attracted to lower art forms such as graffiti art, tattoo art, poster art, etc. Are they more valid or is it just easier to make money that way.
Williams: What do you call a bohemian? That's a pretty loose term, it's like Beatnik. There's a lot of different ways of saying it, bohemians are from Bohemia, a bunch of people in the left bank of France. Frederick The Great had one of his top regiments made out of artists who were bohemians who turned centuries later into one of the leading regiments of the Nazi army. You won't hear that anywhere else. "La Boheme " is a classic story of bohemians then and bohemians now. If you're poor and you need romance in your life to justify being a jack-off then you're a bohemian. Then when you get a little money in your life and get a cleaner house then your bohemian life gets behind you.
Goblin: That theme has been returned to many times in our interviews. If you used to work for five bucks an hour and then you're getting $50,000 a year you may not want to go back to being such a free spirit.
Williams: You have to have a pop open valve, a relief in life when you're young and helpless. You have to have romance in your dismal, pathetic beginning, and being a dashing bohemian is the way do to it. I have a problem with being emotionally and mentally eccentric and iconoclastic. I can't help that. I just see things wrong no matter what I do. I'm kind of lapped over with being a bohemian. I remember the "wonderful fifties" everyone talks about when the assholes were so fuckin' tight and right wing. When you went to a coffee house to get a joint from someone the guy you gets the joint from is the guy who robbed the Shell station two nights ago. It isn't the relaxed hip thing it is now. It was a pretty clear demarcation of felons.
Goblin: Why aren't there any depictions of phalluses as phalluses in your paintings. You've just got corn dogs, guns . . .
Williams: Their are lots of penises in my pictures. There's the Transvestite Zombie jumping through the poodle gut hoop for the women and his dick is hanging out with a blue lizard biting it. In the same book there's a young girl that's going to get fucked by a dike that's made up of Venus Of Willendorf grinding up a big dildo.
Goblin: So you're not a phallophobic.
Williams: No, but you have to know what the energy of an image is. If you have a big gaping pussy hanging open with the flaps down and fluid coming out you have to know what kind of response and emotional energy that thing would incur. In the composition of a painting now I have to have an emotional cadence to it . . . a demeanor. Sometimes I'll control that and sometimes I won't.
Goblin: Have you had any trouble with censorship and how has it resolved?
Williams: Sure I have. Sometimes I'm accepted and sometimes I'm not. Zap! Comics and pornography in the late sixties changed that forever. Now I get in more trouble from feminists than I ever would get from the right wing a long time ago. I did a painting called: Two Bull Dikes Fighting For The Privilege Of Buying A Prostitute A Banana Dachuiri. It was hung up in a gallery downtown that was full of feminists and they just shit their pants. It's hard to deal with that but you have to.
They beat me back pretty bad. I had a giant group of feminists on me a couple of years ago that just rode me hard. Then I had to defend my album artwork three times for the Guns N' Roses Appetite For Destruction record.
Goblin: You must have to just try to keep a sense of humor about it.
Williams: I'll have three or four women say they want to cut my balls off, then I'll have five or six of them tell me they want to have my children.
Goblin: That sounds great. But do you think the religious right is the big threat right now to freedom of expression?
Williams: I think it all exists to the point now that it is a valid resistance. Let me explain that. Jesse Helms did more to support the arts than anybody. He caused so much right wing stink, and he was an old grumpy man griping about pornography. He was an easy target. Here's an old Christian fart saying "that stuff's terrible." But he's a harmless turd.
Don't get me wrong, you can still get in trouble. If you do an album cover with a dick on it you're still going to have the PMRC get a hold of you and give you a hard time, but by and large those rough days are over. My biggest problem is with people that are politically correct. I am increasingly policing myself not to draw minorities and be careful about the way I represent women. I'm very careful because I know I'm going to get in trouble with these people. The art world is just filled with sensitive leftists.
Goblin: Do you think they're the new fascists?
Williams: They certainly are. The Right Wing is funny now, and I'm afraid no one really has a good take on it. It's been beaten down into the form of fanaticism and you're getting glimpses of it through these survivalists. They used to be outspoken and you could see what they're doing but I think they're beaten back. When I moved to LA it had a Nazi fascist police department that made my life miserable. They had a chief of police that was like a dictator -- he died in office! When he died he had such a fascist machine in the police department they had to take the head of every department and move him over one department to break up the power. They used to be the rated fifth biggest army in the world. Now they're so beaten back and wimpy and whiny if they're going down the street and they see something wrong they will not stop unless they are called.
Goblin: You have a horror for the future in your paintings, but does that give you hope for constructive change?
Williams: There's hope. Things are getting better. There are problems people aren't looking into and no one wants to admit to. That's the fact that since there haven't been enough wars in the past twenty years the population has just gone through the roof. The planet is just not going to feed these people. That's going to erupt into an ugly situation.
I don't want to ponder horrible things. There's always intelligent open minded people that keep the world going. I believe that for any young person that's willing to work and dedicate themselves, and is honest and has virtue and applies themselves, that there's a lot of opportunities in this world.
Goblin: It's great you can stay so positive. You seem like one of the last Romantic artists. You're romantic and you're heroic.
Williams: Jesus Christ man! Send me a check!
The Robert Williams Website