The cartoons of Robert Crumb, aka R. Crumb, have ignored the lines between comics and fine art, so-called good taste and bad, and countless other binaries for more than half a century, his lurid, distinctive pen-and-ink style interpreting everything from the Book of Genesis to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis to the likeness of Stormy Daniels. Through April 13, an exhibition at David Zwirner on West 19th Street in New York attempts to showcase the full breadth of his formidable career. Titled “Drawing for Print: Mind Fucks, Kultur Klashes, Pulp Fiction & Pulp Fact by the Illustrious R. Crumb,” it was curated by curator and critic Robert Storr. Beginning March 12, Zwirner will also present an online exhibition of pages from the artist’s sketchbooks of the ’60s, offering a rare glimpse into the development of some of his signature ideas and early characters, like Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural. Now 75, Crumb spoke to ARTnews by email about political cartoons, his love for the ukulele, and his 1986 classic, Book of Filth. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ARTnews: I was at the preview for the Zwirner show, and Robert Storr seemed keen on emphasizing that your work shouldn’t be seen as offensive. Is this a perception that bothers you?
R. Crumb: I was very happy to listen to Robert Storr explain why my work was not, in fact, racist or misogynistic or sexist or anti-Semitic and should not be taken as such, because I have never drawn a single line meant to foster or encourage any of those attitudes. I thought he explained it as well as it can be explained, and certainly far better than I could explain it myself.
Of course, it “bothers” me that people perceive my work as racist and sexist, that they might be assuming that I’m advocating racism or sexism. I do believe that such people have an entirely mistaken notion as to what my comics are about. I feel very bad when I encounter this reaction because you know, I want everybody to love me, especially the women. Instead, I have alienated most of them with my vulgar, gross drawings. My readership is largely male.
I heard what Storr said to the people who find the work offensive, but what do you have to say to them?
I really have nothing to say to them. As I said, I can’t explain myself or defend myself from their anger, their outrage. All I can do is hang my head and shrug my shoulders.
What do you think the line is between satire that’s offensive or not? Is it easy to draw?
Where’s the line? Damn if I know. Depends a lot on who’s looking at it.
The first edition of Bible of Filth came out in 1986. Do you have a different relationship to the work inside of it now than you did back then?
I certainly do! When I look at that old libido-driven work of mine now, from the perspective of age 75, I can barely relate to that person. Some author of old said something to the effect that, being a young man with a strong sex drive was like being chained to a mad man. When the hormones decline, your perspective changes in a profound way, you see the world differently. You no longer size up women as potential sex partners. You feel fatherly and protective toward young women and brotherly toward older women. You see women more clearly as people, for better or worse.
Plus, I have more distance on myself. I see my own craziness [more] clearly than I did when the hormones were raging. That said, I stand by the work I did in those days. It’s a pretty goldurn honest reflection of who I was in those days, and maybe a reflection of the whole society that I grew up in. Maybe, I wouldn’t presume. I leave it to Robert Storr to judge.
You’ve spent a lot of your life as an artist on the outside. But right now you have a show at David Zwirner, one of the most insider of galleries, which began showing you in 2007. How does that feel?
It never ceases to feel strange to be accepted into the fine art world of David Zwirner. Paul Morris, who connected me up with Zwirner and who used to show my work back when he had a gallery in New York, told me he became interested in my work because so many young artists cited me as an influence. Paul Morris was not a comics reader at all and knew nothing about the tradition I come from, cartoons and commercial illustration. Robert Storr is very unusual in that he gets it, appreciates it fully while also being deeply into modern fine art. This is very unusual to find in one person. Storr can, you know, legitimize me to these fine art cake eaters. He can talk to them. I am not of the fine art world, never aspired to be part of it, and don’t quite understand what I’m doing there. They’re really good to me, I must say. I’m not complaining.
And yeah, sure, I like to get big money for my original art. That’s a nice thing, though it brings its own complicated karma.
Your work can be fairly political. Right now is an interesting time to be a political cartoonist, because everything is already so absurd. What advice do you have for young political cartoonists just starting out?
My work is generally not political in the direct sense. It’s more personal. It’s all about me, with overtones of social commentary. Real political cartoonists start with a set of political beliefs that drive their critique. They comment directly on political events of the day. I don’t know any “young political artists just starting out.” I would hope they’d be pretty damn well-read before they presumed to put out cartoon comments on the political scene. I rarely see any political cartoons that I think are really astute and right on the mark. Monte Wolverton is pretty good.
You’ve been drawing for a long time now. What’s the biggest difference in your practice now from when you started?
In my youth, I was constantly drawing. Drawing was the only thing I could do with competence. I was afraid of people. I hid behind my sketchbook. I don’t draw all the time anymore. Nowadays, I hide behind my ukulele. I guess I’m still afraid of people. I take the ukulele with me everywhere instead of the sketchbook. Fame has made me inhibited and self-conscious about drawing. I stopped enjoying it. Playing those pretty chords of old-time melodies, though, is relaxing and pleasurable.
What’s next for you? What kind of work do you feel inclined to create these days?
What’s next for me? I have no idea. I might do some more oil paintings, will definitely keep playing music. As long as I can still move my fingers.