Art by R. Crumb, with Aline Kominsky-Crumb
Essay by Robert Storr
Published by David Zwirner Books
This publication accompanies the exhibition from February 21 to April 13, 2019 called Drawing for Print: Mind Fucks, Kultur Klashes, Pulp Fiction & Pulp Fact by the Illustrious R. Crumb.
I’d seen the work of R. Crumb, but I didn’t pay it much attention—it was too vulgar. Too distasteful. Too uncomfortable.
Of course, that’s the point.
Crumb shows the reader the mirror which flatters not, except Crumb’s version of this looking-glass is a grotesque funhouse mirror that embellishes the most unsavoury aspects of humanity.
Perhaps the best way to describe the mish-mash of art in this collection is, indeed, “vulgar.” The essence of the work of R. Crumb might be best captured by the quote on page 2 by Martin Kippenberger: “You can’t do dumb and be dumb.” Alas, this book presents some extraordinarily dumb art—remarkably honest, critical, juvenile, intelligent, gross, skilful art. The art spans sexually charged (and always perverse) comix covers, grotesque body horror, anatomically accurate depictions of biologically enhanced popular figures (such as Stormy Daniels), and even two stories about Donald Trump—one from 1989 and one from 2020 (aptly titled “Bad Diet & Bad Hair Destroy Human Civilization”).
Bodies translated by Crumb are distorted and disproportionate, yet they are clearly bodies and obviously people. They are uncanny, often literally dripping with vice: A well-dressed, disfigured man oozes sweat while spitting that he is “ALL JACKED AROUND” (“BLAME IT ON THE SYSTEM”); the phrase “ULP GULP” escapes the lips of a contortionist who, with bulging eyes and supernatural dexterity, sprays saliva while slapping her shoe with her tongue; the snot-nosed character named “The Moron” snivels and whines while stomping on a sea of upturned faces; yet, these are only three images among the 150 pages of art, and they are not even the most extreme examples. In these pages, Crumb also depicts perfectly accurate scenes from real life—a seemingly random fragment of a city, with telephone poles, crossed wires, fire hydrant, street signs, and dwellings all rendered with meticulous exactitude. Above this image of the city, on the top half of the same page, are two versions of a car: one perfectly modelled after the real thing, and one which has been slightly stunted and warped, turned into a vehicle occupying space in Crumb’s world, a car in his distinct, subtly awry, style.
This collection of art clearly presents Crumb’s stylistic progression. Initially, he is more comfortable using language and journaling to express himself, but Crumb gradually warms to integrating words and images in his cartoons and comix. He experiments with layouts, characters, styles, content. His technique is refined, and his style and tone become more confident, more assured. That’s not to say that Crumb’s earlier works are less valuable; even the sloppiest strokes and the roughest sketches are intelligible—and intelligent. The crude doodles and crass (self-)portraits throughout his timeline of work are inherently disturbing and fascinating because Crumb’s distorted representations of the world, his interpretations of reality, messed up as they are, might actually expose more honest reflections of the flaws in the world.
The book opens with an essay by Robert Storr, and the essay is brilliantly written, tightly composed, and deeply insightful. I can honestly say that I would not have appreciated Crumb’s art without the perspective provided by the introductory essay. I needed convincing to give Crumb’s work a try: why would I want to look at low-brow disgusting, insulting, uncomfortable, incorrect, sexually deviant caricatures? The essay gave me permission to seriously look at and appreciate Crumb’s shocking depictions of human beings; Storr unflinchingly examines, explains, and validates the explicit, provocative art of R. Crumb. Storr’s essay describes why it’s worth looking at this detritus created by R. Crumb, which is the same reason it’s worth consuming any media—to recognize and acknowledge the kernel of truth behind the fiction.
Crumb is a scathing, confused, helpless, hopeless man trying to make sense of himself and the increasingly alarming, nonsensical world around him—our world, the one we all occupy alongside Crumb. He criticizes it by presenting extreme depravity in extremely depraved ways. Is this work insensitive? Yes. But it is also valuable, partially because it is insensitive. Storr’s essay reminds the reader not to confuse the art with the artist. These warped depictions of black people and Jews and women and Crumb himself are not meant to represent the truth but to distort, and therefore expose, prejudice and inequality and all-around meanness in the human spirit. Crumb uses his art to criticize mass media, and his most effective stories and characters are those who break the fourth wall to deliver this self-reflexive, meta critique of media, pointing out how the news can subtly affect bias or overtly manipulate audiences and the truth. Another vein that bitterly runs through Crumb’s body of work is how comix/comics are, inexplicably and inexcusably, still not considered “high art.” (It seems to me that Crumb demonstrates a righteous anger.)
This book was valuable. It shifted my perspective. I have a greater appreciation for comix, for Crumb, for counter culture, for vulgarity, for those who are dismissed out of hand without any consideration at all. It was absolutely worth my time, and I can’t think of anything I would have changed about the book; by definition, this deserves a perfect score. Pick up this wild collection to better appreciate the often overlooked medium of comix and to challenge your perspectives.
Some of these doodles manipulate shading, shapes, and depth like surrealist art. Some portraits are beautiful, some are hideous, and most are both. This collection of art contains short strips, stories casually doodled over several pages, coloured comix covers, beautiful, meticulous, deliberate impressionist narratives, crass caricatures… but it all unmistakeably comprises Crumb’s world. This is indisputably our world, distorted and hideous and painfully honest when translated by the mind and the hand of R. Crumb.