Williams was part of the trail-blazing Zap Collective, along with other underground cartoonist visionaries such as Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. His mix of California car culture, cinematic apocalypticism, and film noir helped to create a new genre of psychedelic imagery.
Robert L. Williams II was born on March 2, 1943 in Albuquerque, New Mexico to Robert Wandell Williams and Betty Jane Spink at 5:30 AM. At a very early age he displayed an interest in art, drawing and painting with watercolors. Military spit and polish was imparted to Williams at an early age as well, as he was enrolled in the Stark Military Academy in the first grade. Perhaps this led to his fascination and collection of World War One German Pickelhaube later in life.
Another love instilled in Williams at an early age was car culture. Robert the elder owned "The Parkmore," a drive-in restaurant complete with carhops and frequented by hot rodders.Williams himself received his first car, a 34 Ford 5 window coupe, at 12 years of age as a gift from his father. References to this childhood environment can be seen throughout his work as well as in the custom hot rods he would later build himself.
The Williams household was one of flux as his parents would marry each other a total of four times and Robert would shuttle between New Mexico and his father's in Montgomery, Alabama. Their final separation would come in 1956 with 12-year-old Robert staying with his mother in Albuquerque. His youth was spent delinquently and immersed in hot rods, high jinx, and gangs, which lead to his expulsion from public school in the 9th grade.
In an attempt to avoid jail and delinquent destruction, Williams headed to L.A in 1963. Floating on the allure of hot rod culture and affordable art school he landed in classes at Los Angeles City College and worked on the school paper, "The Collegiate", contributing artwork. It was here he also met his future wife, Suzanne Chorna.
Williams moved on to a short stint at The Chouinard Art Institute where he was branded an "illustrator" in a derogatory fashion. Now married, Williams fled the Art School Tyranny and headed into the professional sector in search of work. Trying to find his niche, Williams designed containers for the Weyehaeuser Corporation and art design for Black Belt magazine before finding his dream job in 1965 in the far out figure of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and his Rat Fink.
In the late 1960s, while doing advertisements and graphics for Roth, Williams was also a productive oil painter. It was during this period that he was creating his "Super Cartoon" paintings. Including "Appetite For Destruction" and "In The Land Of Retinal Delights" these paintings were meticulously created in the style of the Old Masters including hand-made paints and multiple layers of varnish. These works sold well but were very time consuming to produce, sometimes taking over a year to complete. Many of these paintings were owned by Williams' patron, James Bruckner Jr., and were on permanent display at the Movie World Cars of the Stars Museum.
As Roth's studio came to a close Williams joined the ZAP Comix collective of artists and flourished in the non-conformist, anti-establishment movement with fellow malcontents R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Spain Rodriguez, Rick Griffin, Gilbert Shelton, and Victor Moscoso. In 1969 he created his seminal Underground Comix anti-hero, Coochy Cooty. His creation was unleashed in 1970 in Coochy Cooty Men's Comics and ZAP Comix #5 and is still alive today in Williams' oil paintings.
Many of these comix and "Super Cartoon" paintings were included in Williams's first ground breaking book, "The Lowbrow Art of Robt. Williams" released in 1979. The title of the book was meant as a statement on the current "Highbrow" tone of the Art world and how Williams' work did not fit in with this idealism.
In the 1980s Williams caught the frenzied vibe of the Punk Rock movement and found his next audience. The "Zombie Mystery Paintings" were born in the glow of after-hours clubs and slam pits. The book of the same name influenced and inspired a multitude of artists with the energetic, vibrant, sexy, and ultra-violent images it contained which were in complete contrast to the uptight and exclusive Art scene of the day. These works were done quickly, on a rough canvas, and sold via a waiting list system due to demand. In addition to the books,popularity for Williams' work was established in avant-garde galleries like Billy Shire's La Luz de Jesus Gallery and the Tamara Bane Gallery.
Visual Addiction was Williams next book of paintings. The works in this tome were rendered more tightly and began to contain detailed background elements and vignettes. This book also contained Williams' famous "Rubberneck Manifesto" that claimed:
"Something dead in the street commands more measured units of visual investigation than 100 Mona Lisas!"
Williams released several more books as his work progressed in style, size, and content. His paintings have moved from the realms of zombie sex to quantum mechanics and command sold out shows on both coasts and demand around the world. He has influenced genereations of artists and given them voice through publications that featured Underground/Lowbrow works of art like "Art?Alternatives" in 1992 and later, "JUXTAPOZ". Williams has also participated with other artists in such ventures as "The Art Boys" which included such notable members as Gary Panter, Matt Groening, The PIZZ, Mike Kelley, Neon Park, and Mark Mothersbaugh. Other known collectors and contemporaries include Nicolas Cage, Timothy Leary, Debbie Harry, Anthony Kiedis, Von Dutch, Artie Shaw, Stanislav Szukalski, Ed Ruscha, and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Over the years as Underground Comix artist and master oil painter Williams has had many encounters with feminist groups. The antics of Coochy Cooty and paintings like "Oscar Wilde In Leadville" and "Appetite for Destruction", which was featured as the cover for the Guns N' Roses album of the same name, before controversy forced record company Geffen Records to move it to the inside sleeve, have raised many an eyebrow. Here is his response from a 1992 interview:
"I do not believe that my representation of females aids in their oppression. It is my artistic right to render the images of woman as my imagination sees fit. Remember, I will gladly accept the title "Bad Person" to continue my expression. In other words, nothing short of death will stop me from painting nekkid ladies..."
Of his paintings, Williams states:
"My paintings are not designed to entertain you, they are meant to trap you, to hold you before them while you try to rationalize what elements of the picture are making you stand there."
Of the moniker Lowbrow Williams steadfastly denies that the term was ever meant to define the movement, but was merely used in the title of his first collection.
"There was never any intention to make the title of my book the name of a fledging art movement but, over time, that seems to be what has transpired."
Williams has remained fresh throughout the decades. He began the magazine "JUXTAPOZ" in 1994 which propelled to fame many new artists and rose to become one of the highest circulated art magazines. 1997 saw the release of the to-date retrospective "Malicious Resplendence" as well as a one-man show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York. Two more Shafrazi shows followed in 2000 and 2003. These works were published in "Through Prehensile Eyes" in 2005. 2007 saw Williams as a featured interviewee in the movies "Independents" and "The Treasures of Long Gone John" as well as a collaboration with Vans for their Vans Vault limited edition sneakers line. The popularity of the shoes would lead to more collaborations including hand painted sneakers.In his 2008 lecture at the Oakland Museum of California, Williams states:
"The Art movement I go by is Conceptual Realism."
Williams had several pieces in the accompanying "L.A Paint" exhibition.
His next one-man show was in 2009 once again at the Shafrazi Gallery titled "Conceptual Realism: In the Service of the Hypothetical" and a catalog of the same name was released. This exhibition moved to California State University Northridge in 2010. 2010 also kept Williams busy with his inclusion in the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Robert Williams lives in the San Fernando Valley in sunny California with his long time wife Suzanne who is a talented professional artist in her own right.
- The Lowbrow Art of Robert Williams, Last Gasp
- Zombie Mystery Paintings, Last Gasp
- Visual Addiction (out of print), Last Gasp
- Views From a Tortured Libido, Last Gasp
- Malicious Resplendence, Fantagraphics
- Hysteria in Remission, Fantagraphics
- Through Prehensile Eyes, Last Gasp
- The Hot Rod World Of Robt Williams, Motorbooks
- Metamorphosis 2, beinArt
- Conceptual Realism: In The Service Of The Hypothetical,Fantagraphics
- OFFICIAL Robert Williams website
- "Lowbrow God", Robert Williams lecture from the L.A. Paint show at the Oakland Museum of California in 2008. YouTube video, requires Flash.
- ipedia article on Robert Williams
- Lowbrow Artworld
- Malicious Resplendence 1997
- Fizz magazine #3 1995
- Motorbooty #3 1988
- Art?Alternatives #1 1992
- "Malicious Resplendence 1997"
- http://beinart.org/info/essays/robert-williams.php beinArt.org article on Robert Williams
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