Robert L. Williams II has been a rabble-rouser and cultural iconoclast since he first gained public attention with his outré celebrations of grotesque Hot Rod illustrations, and shocking underground comix work.
He was born on 2nd March 1943 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and started his education at the Stark Military Academy. The boy spent his youth shuttling between New Mexico and Alabama, and was always painting and drawing. He became obsessed with car culture at an early age, and was purportedly given his first automobile at age 12. In his teen years he became a builder and driver of Hot Rods: pared down, souped-up vehicles customized for racing and display. Williams was apparently a difficult kid and always in trouble with local authorities.
In 1963 he moved to Los Angeles, attending City College, where he worked on the school’s paper The Collegiate before transferring to The Chouinard Art Institute, and quickly moving on into commercial art, working as an illustrator for cult car maven “Big Daddy” Roth and his brand/mascot Rat Fink.
By this time painting in oils for his own creative pleasure, Williams drifted into the Zap Collective: a loose-knit congregation of like-minded artists arguably the driving force behind the Underground Comix movement which revolutionised graphic narrative during the 1960s and 1970s which included R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, S. Clay Wilson, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscosco and Spain Rodriguez. In 1970 Williams published his signature anti-hero in the eponymous Cootchy Cooty Men’s Comics and Zap Comix #5, combining shocking, tasteless imagery of sex and violence to shake up the establishment. Cootchy Cooty still occasionally resurfaces in the artist’s paintings…
In 1979 many of his paintings were collected into a book that has become (utterly contrary to William’s explicit wishes) the name of the modern gallery-art movement dedicated to cultural examination through co-opted and re-found popular arts imagery. The Lowbrow Art of Robt. Williams was a groundbreaking book, at odds with the elitism and snobbery of “capital A art”, capable and prepared to back up its artistic arguments with keen intellectual vigour and insight.
He embraced the 1980s Punk movement (see his next book The Zombie Mystery Paintings) and as he followed his muse and formulated his creative philosophy he founded the art magazine Juxtapoz in the early 1990s (which has since launched the careers of many Pop Surrealist and Lowbrow artists). He has been controversial for decades due to his repeated use of sexual nudity, commercialism, ultra-violence and all manner of moral turpitude: a practice he explained (but felt no need to defend) in the book Visual Addiction, wherein his Rubberneck Manifesto declared “Something dead in the street commands more measured units of visual investigation than 100 Mona Lisas!”
Williams uses his classical painting skills and careful recapitulation of visual elements from our shared modern cultures to lure in the viewer, and to smash his point home with telling force. As with all “Lowbrow” artists he rejects in turn High Art’s rejection of skilled performance: restoring value to the mastery of techniques denigrated for decades as “mere craftsmanship” by critics and modernists. His pictures look like what they’re supposed to: it’s the motivation and message that are occluded, “all the better to bite you with…”
This spectacular oversized art book – a softcover edition of the incredible hardback released at the end of 2009 – collects recent works seen at his 2009 show Conceptual Realism: In the Service of the Hypothetical which toured California and New York, a delightful, magnificent package of social commentary, plaintive questing and mischievous mickey-taking encapsulated in 25 new paintings, and four fascinating sculptures (regrettably still works in progress at the time of going-to-press) each accompanied by revelatory essays, sketches, visual notes and underpaintings, and a another brief and challenging treatise from the artist himself: all preceded by a telling introduction from Tattoo artist and advocate Don Ed Hardy.
All art intends to make contact and connection: here is another powerful book from an unrepentant and unstoppable communicator – one whose works have always had the force and immediate influence of a swift smack in the mouth. Love it or leave it. You simply can’t ignore it.
© 2009 Robert Williams. This edition © 2009 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.