R. Crumb’s inaugural exhibition at the David Zwirner gallery in London is a highly anticipated event. Love him or loath him, this highly controversial artist is a man of his era and once summed up the attitudes of the Hippy counterculture, in all of its glory. The exhibition Features drawings from his Art & Beautymagazines. Initially published in 1996, the artist recently completed the highly anticipated third volume in the series, and the show marks the largest presentation of the project to date. This is his first solo exhibition in Britain following his 2005 presentation at Whitechapel Gallery.
One of today’s most celebrated illustrators, Crumb helped define the cartoon and ‘Summer of Love’ subcultures of the 1960s and 1970s with comic strips like Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, and Keep on Truckin’. The overt eroticism of his work paired with frequent self-deprecation and a free, almost stream-of-consciousness style have solidified his position as a renowned and influential artist, whose work addresses the absurdity of social conventions and political disillusionment.
Combining iconography from comic books, art history, and popular culture, Art & Beauty portrays a broad selection of images of female figures in diverse settings. The inspiration for the series is linked to Crumb’s avid collecting of vintage underground paraphernalia including records, flipbooks, and specifically, Art & Beauty, a catalogue published during the 1920s and 1930s featuring semi-erotic images of life models for art lovers and aspiring painters—an early example of a top-shelf magazine.
Following a similar format as the older publication, Crumb has selected his own cast of female figures from tabloid celebrities, sport stars, life models, friends, and strangers, and accompanied them with journalistic-style commentary and quotations from other artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Cézanne, and Andy Warhol. The poetic, even philosophical, prose mirrors the romanticized language of the former magazine, but becomes tinged with a subtle sarcasm and self-mockery that destabilizes the relationship between image and caption. Crumb humorously lets his own obsessions and fantasies merge with cultural stereotypes and bigotries from the past and present to create an at once personal and exaggerated typography of women.
In the works from the latest volume, presented here for the first time, Crumb continues to investigate the intersection of art and beauty through drawings based on photographs from magazines, life studies, and in a departure from the earlier issues, camera phone snapshots from city streets and selfies purportedly emailed to the artist. Women close to the artist are prominently featured, including his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Eden Brower of Eden and John’s East River String Band, a group Crumb often performs with, as are household names such as the tennis player Serena Williams and reality television personality Coco.
Born in Philadelphia in 1943, R. Crumb moved to the dynamic Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco in 1967, and relocated in 1991 to the south of France where he currently lives and works. He has used the popular medium of the comic book to address the absurdity of social conventions, political disillusionment, irony, racial and gender stereotypes, sexual fantasies, and fetishes. Inspired by Thomas Nast, Honoré Daumier, T.S. Sullivant, James Gillray, amongst others, his drawings offer a satirical critique of modern consumer culture, and often seem to possess an outsider’s perspective—a self-conscious stance which Crumb often relates to his personal life.
So is R. Crumb a misogynist pig? or an icon of 1960-70s counterculture? In any event he wasn’t afraid of the approaching sexual revolution and documented it in an irreverent way. I leave it up to you to decide.
Left: R. Crumb Art & Beauty #2: Untitled (“A drawing rendered” (girl on porch), 2002© Robert Crumb, 2002. Courtesy the artist, Paul Morris, and David Zwirner, New York/London
Middle: R. Crumb Art & Beauty #2: Untitled (Serena Williams), 2002 © Robert Crumb, 2002. Courtesy the artist, Paul Morris, and David Zwirner, New York/London
Right: R. Crumb Art & Beauty #2: Untitled (Ducky Doolittle), 2002 © Robert Crumb, 2002. Courtesy the artist, Paul Morris, and David Zwirner, New York/London