The first image in The R. Crumb Handbook, a new book from MQ Publications, is a photograph of the artist seated at a table in a restaurant, scribbling away on the tablecloth, presumably at work on one of his famous placemat drawings. Speech bubbles read, “Yessir, every drawing a masterpiece! Check it out!” Tellingly, the book’s second full page image, a drawing by Crumb, shows the artist slouched in a chair, cradling his head in one hand and wearing an anxious expression. This time the speech bubbles read, “Life has gotten altogether too complicated...I’m bogged down in a mire of economic entanglements, legal obligations, business ties...endless bullshit! I never wanted a life like this...I wanted a simple, down-to-earth existense[sic]...it’s my karma for wanting to be famous, I suppose...”
While Crumb himself keeps a low profile in the South of France, his drawings have become a hot commodity in the contemporary art world, trading, when they make a rare appearance on the market, for thousands of dollars. Perhaps the biggest validation of his art world status comes from critic Robert Hughes, who once compared him to Breughel, and recently conversed with him on stage at the New York Public Library in a sold-out event.
Crumb first became known in the 1960s as a master of underground comics. He is responsible for such oddball creations as Fritz the Cat and the white-bearded, lascivious Mr Natural. Above all, his risqué comics have always been autobiographical—he has depicted his deepest neuroses, often showing himself as a skinny, drooling, dishevelled sad sack chasing big-bottomed women.
Over the years, and especially since the documentary film in the 90s that recounted the strange history of his family, Crumb has developed a cult-like following. More recently, the fine art world has caught Crumb fever; he currently has a show at the Whitechapel in London (until 22 May) and the Ludwig Museum in Cologne staged a major exhibition last year. Ex-MoMA curator Robert Storr chose Crumb’s work for last year’s SITE Santa Fe Biennial and he was also included in the Carnegie International, curated by Laura Hoptman. Between now and 2007, his work will be seen in several other museums, including the Hammer Museum and MOCA in Los Angeles, and the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco.
New York-based art dealer Paul Morris, who has shown high profile contemporary artists like Australian Tracey Moffatt and is one of the organisers of the Armory Show, represents Crumb internationally. He first showed Crumb’s work in 2000, in a three-person show that also included the San Francisco-based artist Barry McGee and Philip Guston.
At the time, Mr Morris priced Crumb’s works at $2,500 to $3,500 apiece. In 2001, Mr Morris organised a solo show of Crumb’s placemat drawings. They were priced at $4,000 each. Today they are worth up to $5,000. Mr Morris is quick to point out that it is not so easy to acquire a Crumb drawing. “There are 10 collectors who have over 100 drawings, the work has really gone into single collections.” A number of Crumbs, for instance, belong to Eric Sack in Philadelphia. Mr Morris gets pieces from Crumb himself, as well as from people who want to sell, but that is rare. “People don’t want to part with their drawings so they don’t show up at auction.”
At the moment, Crumb is working on a major book project—when he appeared in conversation at the New York Public Library with Robert Hughes Crumb said this publication will be his take on the Book of Genesis—and so the artist is holding onto his work.
The priciest and least available works by Crumb are individual sheets from his sketchbook. These drawings now go for $8,000 to $35,000 for each sheet, when they do appear on the market; large groupings of drawings can go for $170,000. Mr Morris points out that Crumb, like most comic book artists, sees the finished product of his work as the printed book, not the original drawings. Crumb confirmed this during his conversation with Mr Hughes, even admitting that he used to give away original drawings.
So who exactly is buying Crumb? It’s an eclectic mix. Mr Morris says that during the three-artist show in 2000 he sold work to “a few shrinks, to mothers whose sons were big Crumb fans” and to Friends of the Drawings Department at MoMA. “Two things I’d hoped for happened during that show”, he says. “Fine art collectors came in and said they’d always wanted a Crumb drawing and never knew where to get one, and people saw how tough the subject matter is and how great the draughtsmanship is.”
For his part, Crumb remains as sceptical about the fine art world as he does about the publishing world, preferring to simply go about his work. He cautions in the Handbook, “The fine art world and the commercial art industry are both all about money. It’s hard to say which is more contemptible...A serious artist really shouldn’t be too deeply involved in either of these worlds. It’s best to be on the fringe of them”.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Master of the underground comic'