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The reluctant comic-book hero: Interview with Robert Crumb

A major survey of R. Crumb’s countercultural cartoons opened in Paris last month, but he remains mystified by the attention

Robert Crumb, often known simply as R. Crumb, began to draw at the age of two. By the age of ten, Crumb, born in Philadelphia in 1943, was an avid fan of comic strips, and by 16, he was sketching the adventures of the family cat, Fred, who eventually became Fritz, one of his best known comic-book characters. After school in Delaware, he found work in Cleveland, Ohio, illustrating for the American Greetings card company, but his comics flourished after he moved to San Francisco in 1967. There, characters such as the mystic Mr Natural were born, and Crumb became a key figure in the counterculture and a fixture in Zap Comix, fashioning racy images that raised the eyebrows of conservatives and feminists alike, but gradually acquired a loyal fanbase across the world. In 1991, he moved to the south of France, where he lives to this day. Since the early 2000s, Crumb has become increasingly visible in fine art circles. He has shown with Paul Morris and, recently, David Zwirner in New York, and had his first museum retrospective at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 2004. His latest survey show, “R. Crumb: from the Underground to Genesis”, opened last month at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (until 19 August).

The Art Newspaper: How significant is your Paris retrospective?

People tell me this Museum of Modern Art in Paris is a really big deal, and that it’s very prestigious to have a show there. I guess I should be impressed. I don’t know.

With shows like this, are you involved or hands off?

I try to get as little involved as possible. Having big retrospective shows in museums is not my big thing.

Does that relate to the ambivalence you’ve expressed before about fine art?

The contemporary fine art world has never particularly interested me. They started to embrace me and have big fancy gallery shows and museum shows. I’m one of the few cartoonists who mainly work for print who is now finding their way into the fine art world, and it’s the choice of the fine art world; it’s not my choice. I haven’t consciously promoted myself in that world.

Are people in the art world familiar with cartoon work?

With both the Ludwig Museum and this museum in Paris, the directors and curators have no familiarity with the work of cartoons or illustrators and popular arts. They don’t understand the cultural context of my work and what it comes out of. When they write about it, they try hard to crowbar it into the fine art context, force it in there, like putting a square peg into a round hole. I try to explain the popular culture that I come from, and they kind of paste my explanation onto their view of art. When Alfred Fischer from the Ludwig Museum first came to my house to look at my work in 2003, he was a nice guy, very conscientious and hard-working, and I liked him. He could tell you what Andy Warhol had for breakfast every day of his life, but he knew nothing about the background of illustration and cartoons. I started showing him stuff, books of 18th- and 19th-century popular caricaturists and illustrators, James Gillray and Thomas Nast. He was completely unfamiliar. There’s a Grand Canyon between these two worlds. For an illustrator who works for print, the printed work is the art object, not the original. It’s the printed work that’s the final product.

Do you find it strange that people pay a lot of money for originals of your work?

Yes, but it’s all relative. I can sell a ten-page story for $50,000 if I’m lucky—for cartoonists that’s a lot—but a single oil painting by Cy Twombly goes for millions of dollars. I’m involved with David Zwirner Gallery, in New York, and they are very good to me, a high-class operation. They had a show of my “Genesis” work [illustrations of the Book of Genesis], and after it they had a big fancy dinner party at David Zwirner’s house, a big elaborate house in Manhattan. Everyone’s standing around eating snacks, and there’s this Cy Twombly painting on the wall above the mantel in his living room, and to me it just looks like some two-year-old child’s scrawls, and I asked this guy who worked at Zwirner: “How much is that worth?” And he said: “Oh, I don’t know. Probably starts around $5m.”

Did The Book of Genesis start out with satirical drawings of Adam and Eve?

It’s an idea I played around with for years. First, I was going to do a take-off on Adam and Eve. I fooled around with that. But I couldn’t satirise it that well, so I decided to just do it straight from the original text. You don’t have to make fun of it, it’s so strange and compelling in its own right.

Which translations did you use?

Three of them. A very modern Jewish scholarly translation, an older Jewish translation that was the most widely used, and the King James. I mixed all three of them. I like the King James language: “And behold!” The modern versions are dry.

Were there any extreme reactions?

Not really. Some mild criticism. There’s some group called something like Christian Comics and they had an internet discussion where they talked about it. Some thought it was a good thing I’d done in making the Bible readable and accessible to people who would never read it otherwise, and others were very extreme and, to my mind, very mean-spirited—more narrowly focused religious fanatics to whom nothing is acceptable that is not done their way. I didn’t do it their way so they didn’t like it. Some even thought it was sinful to even try to illustrate it.

Any interesting letters?

I got a very interesting one from a college professor who used my book to do a test with his students, to see if the comic version of it was better than trying to read the original text. He had half his students read the original text and half read just one chapter of my book. He then gave them a quiz about what they remembered, and those who’d read the comic remembered much better. They were given another quiz a week later, and even then, the ones who’d read the comic had much clearer memories of what they’d read.

How does your very American work translate to a French audience?

In the 1970s, they had a hippie revolution in France too, and they started printing my early stuff in these hippie magazines, especially one called Actuel. People have told me since then that with the translations in Actuel, they just went ahead and freely converted my words to things that had cultural references in France. It went over well with the French hippies.

You once turned down the chance to illustrate the cover for a Rolling Stones album. Why?

I thought their band was lame. I’m stuck on old music, from the 1920s and 30s—most of the covers have been for that kind of music, whether with contemporary people playing it or reissues of old records. I don’t care much for modern rock’n’roll. I did a cover for Janis Joplin, but she came personally and asked me. And I needed the money.

Today, comics are more accepted as fine art. How has that changed things?

Yes, comics are being taken more seriously now. Bookstores have a graphic novel section. There’s a lot of pretentious comics being done. But the amount of really good artists doing comics is the same as it always was. Two out of 100 are really good. It was like that in the days when comics were strictly a low commercial medium and in the early days of the underground. Right now, a lot of people do fine work, like Joe Sacco and Chester Brown. Doing really good comics is hard. Most people can’t pull it off—they’re facile and shallow and lightweight, or they don’t know how to be coherent and readable.

Did any fine artists influence your comics? People often compare you with Philip Guston.

I didn’t see Guston’s work until later. The similarity between us is coincidental. He discovered the same level of collective consciousness I did, but he came from abstract expressionism. I came from popular culture. I didn’t go to art school. And there was no place to learn cartooning. You looked at others’ work and you copied it, that’s how you learned in the old days. All fine art produced since the Second World War is not of interest to me. I’m a little interested in the pop surrealism of LA—Todd Schorr, Robert Williams. I like Dalí. I like Otto Dix, George Grosz, Christian Schad. And American social realists, like Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper. But abstract expressionism is totally uninteresting to me. Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, all those people, to me it doesn’t add up to two cents.

You once said: “When you draw your sex fantasies, they end up happening.” Has it proved true?

Yeah. Life imitates art. It’s a magical process: you draw these things and they come true.

Biography

Born: 1943, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Represented by: David Zwirner Gallery, New York

Selected solo shows:

2012 “R. Crumb: from the Underground to Genesis”, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris 2009 “The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis”, travelling exhibition: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; David Zwirner, New York; Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon; Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio; Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine; San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, California 2005 “Robert Crumb: a Chronicle of Modern Times”, Whitechapel Gallery, London, and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam 2004 “Robert Crumb: Yeah, But Is it Art?”, Museum Ludwig, Cologne 2002 “Who’s Afraid of Robert Crumb?”, Paul Morris Gallery, New York

Selected group shows: 2011 “Les Enfants Terribles,” part of the Biennale de Lyon, France; “Speech Matters”,

Danish Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2007 “Crumb/Guston: Allers-retours”, L’école Européenne Supérieure d’Art de Bretagne, Lorient, France 2000 “Öyvind Fahlström/Robert Crumb”, Espace Gustave Fayet, Sérignan, France 1990 “High and Low”, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The reluctant comic-book hero'