The Glorious, Profane Spoils of Robert Williams’ 50-Year War With Mainstream Art

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Detail of Robert Williams' "Decorator General" (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

His paintings are a wild pop-culture pastiche of hot rods, pinup girls, and cartoon sex and violence. For the better part of the last 50 years, Robert Williams has waged war on the mainstream art world with those eye-popping paintings, a best-selling art magazine and a growing flock of like-minded rebel artists.

Now he’s the focus of a major L.A. retrospective -- which at one time might have been a frightening, if not downright laughable, notion to some. The artist himself will be the first to tell you.

“My artwork would not be appropriate if your pastor was coming to dinner,” says Williams, sitting in the library of his home in a sleepy neighborhood of Chatsworth north of Los Angeles.

In a Robert Williams painting, there might be blood, fiery hot rod crashes or lecherous robots. There have also been surly tooth fairies in torn fishnets that bear a passing resemblance to Symbionese Liberation Army-era Patty Hearst.

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Oh, and don’t forget that sexy and very funny series that depicts half-naked women reclining seductively on giant platters of tacos and enchiladas.

"There is gratuitous sex and violence in my work, and I defend that by saying artists should be responsible for the entire human pathos of life,” says Williams.

Detail of Robert Williams’ “The Decline of Sophistication”
Detail of Robert Williams’ “The Decline of Sophistication” (Steven Cuevas)

“A picture’s gotta have a lot of energy. You could start a car off of one of my paintings,” he laughs.

It was cars -- hot rods to be exact -- that drove a 20-year-old Williams to California from his native New Mexico in 1963.

“I was attracted to Los Angeles for hot rods. The other thing was girls,” he says, laughing. “I just had to get to California.”

While his canvases may boil over with surreal and slapstick eroticism, violence and psychosis, Williams is downright genteel and dapper in a crisp button-down shirt, navy-blue sweater vest and matching sneakers.

He speaks with a slight drawl left over from his days growing up in New Mexico and Alabama and a folksy earnestness that occasionally veers into Jimmy Stewart territory.

He can spend about as much time tinkering on those paintings as he does on his beloved candy-colored hot rod, a 1932 Ford Roadster. Alongside that is a pristine Model T, which he restored piece by piece with his wife, artist Suzanne Williams.

Williams with his treasured 1932 Ford Roadster, and Model T. The Model T was painstakingly refurbished by Williams and his wife Suzanne Williams
Williams with his treasured 1932 Ford Roadster and Model T. The Model T was painstakingly refurbished by Williams and his wife, Suzanne Williams

“Working on the cars is akin to masturbation,” says Williams. “That’s just something I have to do to get my mind off the art. But to me the art is a cerebral exercise.”

Williams bought the Roadster nearly 50 years ago, around the time he broke into the art world as an illustrator for Southern California hot rod magazines.

It’s where he’d get his footing as a professional artist. But he chafed at the rigid demands of advertisers and editors.

But in the pages of the '60s counterculture underground comics, Williams flourished alongside like-minded artists who pushed the boundaries of free expression. He was a founding member of a San Francisco-based comic artist collective that also included Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and the late Spain Rodriguez.

All the while, Williams toiled away on his paintings.

Problem was, there was little space for the kind of hot-wired, pop culture-drenched representational paintings he was creating in an art world dominated by abstract expressionism.

“And it was just looking hopeless, couldn’t get a gallery to show me, and finally I got involved with punk rockers.”

A visitor gets a closer look of a Robert Williams painting on view at the LA. Municipal Art Gallery
A visitor gets a closer look at a Robert Williams painting on view at the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery. (Steven Cuevas)

Williams found an outlet and acceptance in after-hours galleries at punk rock clubs in L.A. and New York. His art work started appearing on record sleeves and concert posters for bands that have mostly vanished. But mainstream success remained elusive.

Until 1987, that is. That’s when yet another then-unknown band came knocking on his door after spotting what is today considered Williams' most notorious painting.

A scruffy L.A. glam rock band called Guns N' Roses wanted it for the cover of its debut album. They also wanted to name the record after the painting: "Appetite for Destruction."

In the painting, which Williams created in the late 1970s, a pretty young woman in a short skirt is selling toy robots on the street. Her kiosk is knocked over. So is she. A menacing robot in a trench coat stands over her.

A signed copy of Guns n Roses “Appetite for Destruction” LP with original Robert Williams art. Courtesy of gottahaverockandroll.com
A signed copy of Guns N' Roses “Appetite for Destruction” LP with original Robert Williams art. Courtesy of gottahaverockandroll.com (gottahaverockandroll.com)

“There is suggestion of some kind of sexual violation, but you wouldn’t be able to figure out what the robot could do to her,” explains Williams. “She did have her panties around her ankles and she did have one breast exposed. Now, in the other half of this painting, there’s this monster jumping over the fence to avenge her.

“I have not gone without avenging this graphic crime.”

Williams told the band fine, use it. But he warned them the cover would probably land them in trouble with religious and feminist groups. It did. One organization famously referred to it as a “glorification of rape.”

The band rallied to his defense, singer Axl Rose telling MTV that he thought people were overlooking Williams' artistic genius.

“I think since it was such an outrageous picture that the skill gets overlooked,” said Rose, standing alongside Williams in an interview shortly after the album’s release. “A lot more people, I think, are turned on to Robert’s artwork (because of the album) than were before, and I’m really glad to be a part of that.”

But the band ultimately caved and yanked the artwork.

The painting caused a stir again in 2012 when a reformed Guns N' Roses used the image in a concert poster and companion DVD. Subsequent copies of the DVD still employ the Williams painting, but in denuded form. The girl is removed, the painting devoid  of its original power.

The 1987 notoriety cemented Williams’ reputation as a major outsider artist with an outsized influence on a new generation of artists -- many of whom are now regularly featured in the magazine he co-founded 20 years ago, Juxtapoz.

That includes sculpture and Academy Award-nominated makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji. Like Williams, Tsuji left behind a career as a professional artist because of the rigid demands imposed by the business side of moviemaking.

He now devotes himself full time to his artwork; enormous, eerily lifelike silicone busts of iconic personalities like Abraham Lincoln and Andy Warhol that he creates in his home studio in Burbank.

Sculpture and Oscar-nominated makeup artist Kozuhiro Tsuji in his Burbank studio with his silicone-based bust of Abe Lincoln.
Sculpture and Oscar-nominated makeup artist Kozuhiro Tsuji in his Burbank studio with his silicone-based bust of Abe Lincoln. (Steven Cuevas)

Tsuji says Juxtapoz helped carve out a niche in the art world for left-field artists like himself.

“Many people told me that it’s hard to make a living as an artist, but every time we do a show or there is a magazine article it just brings more attention,” says Tsuji. “Some people are really touched and moved by (my sculptures), and I realized how powerful these kind of portraits can be.”

Since first landing one of his paintings on the cover of Juxtapoz 17 years ago, L.A.-based artist Mark Ryden has become highly sought after by collectors and some notable celebrities.

Ryden declined to speak on tape. But via email he said it’s hard to “overstate the impact Robert Williams has had on a generation of artists who love representational art and underground imagery.”

January 2002 Juxtapoz with Mark Ryden cover and pull-out poster.
January 2002 Juxtapoz with Mark Ryden cover and pullout poster.

At one time, says Ryden, such artists would be relegated to the commercial illustration world. He agrees that Williams opened a door that made it possible to not only create such art, but also get it seen widely -- and for the artists to make a living from it.

“Williams was showing his counterculture work in galleries at a time when the fine art world was almost exclusively minimal, conceptual or abstract,” says Ryden.

“He brought the West Coast underground into serious New York galleries. Robert is a rebel and a pioneer, and I really admire him.”

“I am an underground artist,” says Williams. “And I always have been. And I have been in trouble lots. And if you need biblical illustrations to give you inspiration, I am not your man.”

Hundreds of people jammed into the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery for the January opening of “SLANG Aesthetics!” a very non-biblical survey of Williams' paintings, drawings and sculptures from the past decade.

The exhibit also includes work by Ryden, Tsuji and dozens of other artists who owe at least some of their success to exposure they got in Juxtapoz.

Visitors of all ages (and hair colors) attended the opening of  Robert Williams / Juxtapoz exhibit at the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery
Visitors of all ages (and hair colors) attended the opening of the Robert Williams / Juxtapoz exhibit at the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery (Steven Cuevas )

“It’s been called lowbrow art and pop surrealism and a bunch of different names, but it’s a feral art. It’s an art that’s raised itself in the woods,” Williams says.

“This is an art that’s most vital when it’s struggling to get to the top.”

Reaching that peak doesn’t seem like much of a struggle on this night, as Williams greets a crush of fans and poses for pictures on the exhibit floor.

The opening is a smash.

Robert Williams mixing with friends and fans at L.A. Municipal Art Gallery
Robert Williams mixing with friends and fans at L.A. Municipal Art Gallery (Steven Cuevas)

But after a couple hours, Williams wearily laughs that he’s ready to head home and drink some bourbon. At age 72, the big art openings may not seem as thrilling as they once were.

But the painting is.

“I have a compulsion," Williams says. "I have to do it. My greatest happiness is when that sucker is done and it’s out of my life and I gotta get that next one going.”

Williams admits the brush moves a bit slower these days. But he’s certain that he’s getting better at caging the images and urges that continue to fire his imagination.

"Robert Williams: SLANG Aesthetics!" and "20 Years Under the Influence of Juxtapoz" are on view through April at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery.

This article was originally published on March 7, 2015.