Robert Williams: A Tribute on His 70th Birthday

03/01/2013 05:19 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2013

On Saturday, March 2, 2013, artist Robert Williams turns 70 years old. His significant contribution to fine art was rediscovering classical figurative painting techniques and reintroducing them to an American audience with a revolutionary twist - it came to be called "Low-Brow," but in his earliest major paintings in the late 1960s they were called "Psychedelic" and much worse. Derided and degraded for decades by the contemporary art establishment, he rose to the top with a commitment to using the visual vocabulary of the cartoon as a realistic painting, rendered with precision and unlimited imagination.

I wrote this article in 2009 for an issue of Juxtapoz Magazine devoted exclusively to him and his art, and I now share it with you now here at the Huffington Post Arts to honor a great American artist. All images appearing here are copyright by the artist and used with his permission and that of the Tony Shafrazzi Gallery.


There are many great reasons that Robert Williams is the most historically significant artist of the past 40 years and is the living artist most likely to establish and maintain a status near the top of the canon of art history centuries from now. First and foremost, history has shown that oil paintings, specifically ones painted on stretched canvas, last a long time. We know that because quite a few of them are still around. Art historians will tell you why they are singular masterpieces, but an oft-ignored fact is that they were durable objects stored in castles and churches that did not burn down.

Films rot, video demagnetizes, photographs fade, graffiti gets painted over and the buildings it is on fall over, paper turns to powder - even if your comic book collection is sealed in plastic bags. Anything electronic lasting a thousand years might require its circuits getting gutted and updated every three decades, let alone requiring centuries of consistent civilization and a well-governed mercantile system to deliver the juice.

Paintings no larger than a person have shown that they can be hidden in an attic for a few hundred years with or without a nearby power plant. As great as Hitchcock, Spielberg and Tarantino are, the historical jury is out on whether or not the millions and millions of DVDs will not soon go the way of the VHS tape. How many operas do we all watch? How many films of the 1920s are we well versed in discussing? You think you are busy? Movies are so culturally specific that people will lose interest in today's masterpieces decades or centuries from now, there will be no preservation, long-term. But a painting in the corner can last a hundred lifetimes and still be experienced. If a flood or fire is coming, there will not be time to lift the heavy bronze sculpture, but you can easily grab the painting.

In The Land of Retinal Delights, 1966-67

Of all the paintings being produced in the past two hundred years, you can write off almost all of any but the best abstract paintings - while many people look and think "hey I could do that," it is inevitable that over the course of the next thousand years, looking at a splash or a scribble with less significance than ever will at some point inspire someone to think "hey, I could improve that!" Yesterday's meditation on formal elements is tomorrow's background for an illustration of some space invasion fantasy we could never comprehend ahead of time.

And such is the fate not only of abstraction, but of all mediocre painting. No matter how deep the rationalizations go, you only need enter a college art department one day after finals to see what happens to the work on canvas that was left behind after being whipped out in training exercises or created just for completions of assignments: They are quickly pilfered and gessoed over. But when a canvas pulsates with talent and accomplishment, it simply makes it to the wall in someone's apartment, awaiting the judgment of the next decade or century.

We live in a time when it is fashionable to make art that utilizes mechanical processes of reproduction, to the point of glutting out so much product into the world. But all of this quick fine art is as easy to dispose of as it is to manufacture. The human animal has shown over 6,000 years of recorded civilization to treasure the hand-made, the individually conceived and created and the well-crafted. In other words, I give your Shepard Fairey print 65 years, tops.

Paintings have been proven to chemically survive the elements, they are light and portable and do survive for centuries when undisturbed. The most masterfully hand-painted of them are revered enough as an example of what the species can accomplish that they do not get destroyed or painted over. Of all the art being produced today, Robert Williams is making exactly the type of art that will be around to be considered for a spot in a museum setting a thousand years from now.

Robert Williams may be the lone voice speaking for us then, perhaps a final fragment of America, or a last illustration of the twentieth century's turn of the millennium into the twenty-first. It will be a time when you and I will be considered perhaps, savages. Don't worry, we'll both be dead and not have to explain ourselves or our world-view to anyone. The paintings of Robert Williams will speak loud and clear on behalf of you and I and of the mad times in which we wallowed.

And so, at the turn of the next millennium, Robert will have to go toe to toe with the other greats who have survived for inclusion in that unimaginably awe-inspiring museum heretofore beyond our comprehension. Ponder the whittling down of a list of artists for curatorial inclusion as akin to the refereeing of a series of winner-take-all street fights, and then envision your grandchild 30 generations from now at the curatorial helm weighing the pros and cons of that museum you will never visit, but on whose walls will rest images upon which you too have already gazed.

Swapmeet Sally, 2004

The boom in contemporary art of the first part of this decade was really the third postwar boom. There was Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, there was the 1980s Artist-as-Hipster-Rock-Star-Accessory and there was the turn of the century Artist-as-Corporation. Robert caught a whiff of the first one as an art student, rode part of the 2nd wave to some acclaim and was on the periphery of the 3rd. There are hundreds of big names who could take the crown of being remembered as the one artist of his or her time. Many nominees. To describe the possibilities of where Robert is headed almost requires a writer to compose a setting that could only take place in a Robert Williams painting itself... to plead Robert's case, one has to denigrate the strengths of the others along the way. This is not a case of "would it please the jury to hear this argument." This is a cheering section at a cage match fight to the death, with an announcer chattering "Williams kicks Jasper Johns in the balls, hard, they are in a pool of blood formed by the recently slaughtered David Hockney."

Robert's art inspires the imagination in a way that few of his contemporaries of the past half-century have managed. A hallmark of postwar art has been the curatorial class abandoning any responsibility for their choices of who gets in the club and who does not. They have a phrase about art, they say " The artist wants the viewer to bring their own meaning to this work." Notice how this disempowers the artist: that which he or she has imbued in the work, the core notions, the reasons for the work's existence, they are of no consequence. What matters most is that this big time curator has added it to a show and is not discussing it in any terms other than it's name-brand value. And artists learn to quickly play the game of being a curator's prop.

But curators of today are just a trend. Crafts guilds ruled most of Europe's art acquisitions centuries ago and something like them could return under the right economic chaos. Art consultants ran a big part of the show in the 1980s. But we are mired in a time when so much art is encouraged to be inoffensive and ambiguous. And the greatest of this art, the names that land in every museum collection, they will still have to answer centuries of questions. The human animal at its core hungers for art to offer opinions and give answers, to take a stand. Robert's art does this, and his embrace of epic themes, idiosyncratic points of view and freedom outside of arbitrary pictorial etiquette ensures that the world beyond him and his contemporaries will be interested.

The critique of Robert's work that cuts the closest outside of all these qualifications is that he paints so much in the comic book style that he is not as much an artist as he is an illustrator. Looking at his work from the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was on a terror with paint, thickening it and splashing it about nude women, impossible cyborgs and hostile beasts. He has refined his sensibilities back and forth over the years, so any cursory examination of a range of his work will find him to be a competent "painter" separate and apart from his abilities as a draftsman. And if you are late, I will reiterate that Robert's comic book sensibilities will serve him well in a world without comic books as a reference. Was Sandro Boticelli's Birth of Venus actually a recreation of a masterfully staged carnival backdrop? Who knows and who cares, the carnival has been over for 400 years and the painting remains, and so all of Robert's lowbrow influences will be ground into dust, only ensuring his sensibilities are made rarified and unique within the canon.

Robert Williams had a front row seat for the most significant victory in the battle of the sexes in recorded human history and was performing as revelatory a recording of it as any artist of his time. Many years ago I had an art history teacher speculate that Persian culture was once maternal, that women ran everything and some girls had multiple husbands and that was the way the world worked until a violent uprising destroyed every remnant of the culture. He was not able to thoroughly prove his hypothesis, basing his hunches on the rubble from some ruins. If the dames are running this joint in the year 3000, you can bet they won't be like the feminists who used to regularly gather to protest public exhibitions of Robert's paintings. Empowered women know that Robert has a keen sense of feminine guile and cunning, that he illustrates biology is what leads all people into temptation and that rationalism is the only salve to our animal hearts.

Consider a Robert Williams female nude. Aesthetically, it delivers the embodiment of desire. Conceptually, it acknowledges that every one of us is here from a sexual impulse. Now compare it to Andy Warhol's Marilyn. There may be a mild potency in the iconic status rendered by Andy, but it is going to take one thousand years of academics caretaking that image to ensure it lasts in importance. Oh, some of these overpriced prints may wind up as relics and nobody will know why they are so venerated, jut that they are to be venerated. Perhaps Andy's more potent icons will end up in cathedrals, get assigned saints and be proscribed healing powers. Meanwhile the destructive blow to conformity and the healing power of individual consciousness expansion will always be apparent in a Robert Williams painting, venerated or controversial as each individual work might be now and on toward a distant tomorrow.

And so when it comes to historical importance, Robert can take on his contemporaries like a golden gloves heavyweight. But how does he match up with the first half of the 20th century? We can only fit so much art of interest into our museum of the year 3000. Well here, at least he has some competition. Salvador Dali seems downright austere and classical next to Robert's paintings. But Dali had an absolutely masterful touch and with so many bootleg prints dispersed around the globe, it could be anywhere that a rock is overturned near an old settlement that an intact Dali appears. But Salvador is illustrating the faded paradoxes of the monarchal world order of a dying early 20th century Europe. Robert Williams is delivering American excess at the peak of its buffet line. Dali is inherently battling with Picasso and the Impressionists for face time in our future world gone wrong; he will inevitably be more likely lumped in with infantile conservatives such as Bouguereau as time marches on rather than be paired with hip contemporaries such as, say, Stuart Davis. There were early American claimants to capturing the essence of a new world busy being born, and they will make Dali's output appear to be a conservative smirking at a cultural corpse.

Once an artist can be seen as having the historic potential to be in a handful of those allowed in the time capsule, though, the fighting is over. It is practically a chummy cocktail reception in the flying rocket loft of the few. Botticelli can hear all about Robert's early fascination with carnies and hot rods, and perhaps Sandro can let his new buddy Bob in on just how close he got to that model portraying Venus on the half shell. As they zoom off to the future, suddenly the cacophony of art styles and approaches will find a rhythm all its own, the nonconformity and pain will be seen as a seamless inevitable construct leading straight to the assembling of all these great works. That is how history works, looking backward and why I have to wake up from this vision of the future lapsing out of the past to discuss Robert in the present.

I once made the mistake of calling Robert a Surrealist and was met with an involved lecture from the master himself on how his art was quite far from anything associated with that term. I saw Robert as a contemporary heir to the throne of Magritte, Ernst, de Chirico and Breton, men bent on challenging their world by painting the absurd impossibilities where language and dreams substituted for reality. Robert was well-versed on the communist politics at the heart of the Surrealists and rejected any association. He was painting conceptual hot rod narrative in a post-Surrealist, post-European America. What seemed obvious to me seemed to him to be the last thing in the world for him to have an association toward. This artist had tales to tell.

With Juxtapoz magazine, Robert proved that the hunger for content and craftsmanship was greater than the art world ever let on. The floodgates have long been opened. The revolution is not being televised, it is being published. The dogma of minimal conceptual elitism is being washed away, replaced by a democracy of merit. This of course makes the elites cringe. Their presumptions are that the gesture and intent of the artist take precedence over the final results. And of course, there is always that magic coincidence that the pages of the traditional art glossies are filled with advertisements for a clique of trendy galleries with wealthy backers who just so happen to once again be hosting the latest, greatest masquerade. This grand style of censorship is a simple group rolling of the eyes whenever the country club rules are ignored. Robert's revolution more than ignored protocol, it broke most of the rules and by the time the art world got around to embracing its version of a shocking rebel, their choice was Damien Hirst and he quickly played them to the point of overpricing his works for even the most elite of their markets.

With Robert Williams hovering about, the art world has been reduced to a rank and file populated by art MFA graduates parroting six brands of contemporary art: Blank art (school of Judd, motto: If cleanliness is next to godliness, my nothingness will take me to art heaven), Blanket art (school of Duchamp, motto: If I label that rag in the corner "art" with enough pomposity, my artistic inadequacies manifesting as envy of the talented will be omitted from the discussion), Blender Art (school of Warhol, motto: I just put pieces of pop culture onto canvas and make it look like packaging for a new improved Ronco blender as seen on TV and call it art. Want a sip?), Bling art (school of Koons, motto: I vote Democrat but aspire to have rich Republicans decorating their mansions with these apolitical overpriced baubles), Blotto Art (school of DeKooning, motto: I am composing chroma in earnestness, but there is a can of paint here somewhere that matches your couch and complements your carpet) and Blueberry Art (school of Josef Beuys, motto: I will feed some blueberries to passersby who don't realize they are participating in my art social intervention project, and then the world is saved!). Robert's art does not fit in the vacuum created by academia's jettisoning of basic and advanced drawing requirements in favor of these six avoidances. Robert's revolution is destroying the vacuum. The ramifications are becoming painfully apparent. Galleries that were once the sanctuary of the disciples of Kippenberger are now showing florescent LowBrow. Museum trustees are adding figurative paintings to their collections that have not one formal connection to elitist high modernism nor academic postmodernism. It is like America returning home to occupy its own institutions after having taken over the world.

One thing that cannot be laid at the feet of Robert is any blame for a generation of artists whose superficial similarity starts and ends with a cartoon lexicon. The range of these idiots is not much wider than a roll of toilet paper but the gamut runs from its own A to Z, anime paintings to zodiac kitsch. Half of it all seems to be on brightly colored panels in upscale art galleries and the other half seems to be on urban streets that look rugged but are safe enough for adventures in pretend vandalism by white art school kids supported by their parents. Calling these dabblers compatriots with Robert Williams would be like placing the cultural heritage of Hokah, Minnesota next to that of New York City and expecting an ongoing give and take to last more than 20 seconds. The use of the cartoon as imagery by Robert Williams and Generation Trust-Fund is for two separate and distinct reasons. Robert uses the cartoon lexicon because it opens many conceptual layers of revelation to the viewer, deepens the narrative and balances the composition with points of interest that are not negative space nor decorative horror vacui. The Trustafarians use cartoons because they are easy to paint.

There is a refusal to be lazy beating in the heart of Robert's paintings. "Better dead than mellow," was a punk rock saying that Robert adopted as a motto. It would be simple to replicate the detritus of contemporary culture, as so many proto-pop artists do, but Robert's references are always in the service of the deeper friction between concept and passion. This he embeds into each major work. It would be a breeze to whip out prints with popular images altered just a bit to be "Williams-ized," but Robert understands that to construct an original presentation of a single vision adds value to the work, now and down the road. Each Robert Williams painting populates its own world. There are no recurring characters appearing at the expense of the artwork being able to stand as its own masterpiece. You need not be well-versed in the slang of this or that decade, street scene, sequel, prequel or academic tradition. Being informed about the subject matter will allow you to more completely appreciate a painting signed by Robert Williams, but with no point of reference, his paintings are likely to give a viewer a satisfying resolution and an enjoyable, if perhaps anarchically confrontational viewing experience.

Nothing Robert does is easy. It is fussed over, polished and reworked into perfection before it is unleashed into his land of retinal delights. They don't call you Mister Bitchin' if you aren't always delivering.


Lowbrow Art