Interview with Robert Williams
March 6, 1998.

What is your favorite Beatles song?  
Uh... "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."
What number book is this for you?  
This is book number five, or actually book number five and a half, I was in another book with Ed Roth a couple of years ago, so I've got five and a half books to my credit.
And this is the first one that's an overview, from your beginnings to now. Has your work changed and evolved, as you look over it, do you see any progression from where it started to what your current passions are?  
Oh, oh, tremendous amount of change, tremendous amount of change. I started out trying to be an academic artist in the early sixties, I came out to California from New Mexico, and tried to... Well, I got myself a small art education at Los Angeles City College and Choinard's Art Institute, and I tried to be a formal painter. I always had this propensity to do cartoon imagery and this was not fashionable in the early sixties, as abstract expressionism dominated modern art at that time. So I later established kind of a cartoon surrealism that I depended on, and it was done very tightly-rendered... I took myself very seriously, and I did a number of real time-consuming large oil paintings that eventually I did sell for a lot of money. But I slowly slipped back into a cartoon style of oil painting that I would refer to as super-cartoons, that were more true to my cartoon roots, and from that, I degenerated into a punk-rock style of painting in the early eighties, called "Zombie Mystery" paintings. And then from that, that evolved into a tighter and tighter and more allegorical style of paintings that were reminiscent of comic book stories on one single canvas, and that's about where I am right now. So as you can see, there's been quite an oscillating in style.
Having worked in both mediums, what would you say is the difference between an oil painting with just one image inside of a frame and the narrative form of comic books?  
Well, with a comic book, you have to take on the element of the fourth dimension which is time, so you have to be able to think laterally through a story. A single picture becomes subservient to the story as a whole. So you have to learn to think through a course of time. So everything that happens in one panel is subject to what's come before and where it's going to go. It's much like doing storyboards for a movie or an animated cartoon.
There's not much detail...  
There can be as much detail as you want to pack in there, or not. I produce oil paintings that tell stories within themselves, that seem to have an allegory all unto themselves on one single canvas. And a lot of the devices to make this story happen are devices that have been taken from comic books, in other words, there would be a panel breakdown within the painting, and different views of the same scene, different interpretations of the same object, all in one painting.
Yeah, your work seems to explode across the eye, I would say... How would you describe the philosophy of your paintings?  
Well, we're in a period of art now where cartoon imagery is starting to gain a great deal of favor. I belong to a school of art and I am more or less a precursor of a form of artist that approach cartoon imagery and paintings as an entity in itself, rather than using cartoons as a form of pop art or a form of graffiti art, to fall under the proper fine arts categories that already exist. So we're actually breaking new territory. I say we because I'm certainly not alone. There's hundreds of artists in the United States that are young, capable draftsmen, that are getting interested in painting now that there is an audience and a market for realistic and cartoon imagery paintings. This has gained so much interest to the point that we have a very interesting magazine out now called Juxtapoz, and it's got a very large circulation, you can find this on just about any large newsstand, and it caters primarily to artists that have an allegory or a storyline in their paintings. So I am not just one lone voice in the wilderness.
Do you think you are breaking new ground?  
Oh, we're definitely breaking new ground, there's no question about it. My last show in New York was at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, and the Tony Shafrazi Gallery is the second- or third-biggest gallery in New York, and Tony Shafrazi was the gallery owner that introduced Keith Haring and Kenny Sharf to the art world. So, he has already got a tradition in dealing with cartoon imagery, he did this in the early eighties. So the foundation for this direction's already been laid down.
And you think this is the direction the art world is evolving to, over the next several decades?  
I would hope so, but I would not definitely say that. The art world is dominated now, as it has been dominated the last fifteen or twenty years, by minimalism and conceptualism, and this has been deeply enrooted into modern art, and the institutions and the academic authority of modern art that exists not only in the United States but in Europe. So there isn't going to be a turning over or dislocating of this power. What we're trying to do is, we're trying to weasel our way in so we could modestly co-exist, so that we can get into those big art museums and sustain ourselves and feed and take care of our own, and propagate our ideas.
It's kind of a revolution-in-the-making...  
Well, it's not really a revolution, because we're not trying to throw these people out, they can do anything they want. Revolutions in art are burned out. Minimalism and conceptualism and pop art to a certain extent are extensions of Dadaism, and Dadaism started during the first World War as a very legitimate revolution and reaction to the academic art schools of turn of the century Europe. Well, that revolution has been going on and on since the first World War, but there has been no resistance to this since the forties or fifties, so they've had a pretty free hand, see. We're not coming in there to overturn their applecart, we're just weaseling our way in just to hold our own.
Has there been a popular upswelling for this style of representational art?  
There certainly has been. And I might add, it has not been instantaneous, it's been spontaneous, and it has not had any of the characteristics of being a stylish fad. This has been a slow-moving thing, it's been going for a long, long time. And if you look at cartoon painting, you can see that it's got roots back into comic books, underground comix, B-movie posters, tattoo art, hot rod art, biker art, skateboard art--a lot of things which are crudely referred to as "Low-brow" art make up the characteristics of cartoon painting.
What would you say the definition is between "High-brow" and "Low-brow" art?  
Well, I really want to avoid these classifications. I guess if I had to answer that, "High-brow Art" is art that is accepted and embraced by large foundations and museums that will underwrite this sort of stuff, and is supported by this clique of critics that seem to run the art world. On the other hand, the kind of art that I'm predicating seems to not be allowed within that world. I have a large following, I make a very good living, and I'm not the only artist that does make a good living, but to get the official accolades that these museums give out, that has been almost impossible up to now.
You don't see that changing anytime in the future?  
Well, it has in a certain respect. In 1992, the new curator for MOCA in downtown Los Angeles, Paul Schimmel, he introduced one of the most well-visited shows in the history of Los Angeles, the "Helter Skelter" show, it had the highest attendance of any art show in the history of Los Angeles. And it was made up of artists much like myself, including myself. After an intelligent survey of the entire show, you would see that the majority of the artwork in there by the sixteen artists was cartoon oriented.
Is this style of iconography... What is the effect that we are supposed to get from viewing these types of primal icons, like you have the Disney-esque funny animals, or corporate logos. Why are we so easily seduced by such simplistic forms, that immediately transfer a message in a certain very compact form...  
Okay. Your appreciation and your gravitating to this sort of thing is not a simple matter of gratification. Drawing and painting, rendering art, goes back way past the time of the Lasceaux caves some fifteen thousand years ago. And it evolved as a language, with characteristics and vocabulary of its own. Through the period of Egypt and Greece, and the dark ages of Europe, it was used as forms of heraldry, it was used embellishing ancient religious manuscripts, and the drawing styles evolved over a slow period of time. You come up to the fifties, where abstract expressionism has dominated modern art, and all of a sudden, for the first time in history, you have a break in this verbal-visual tradition that's been evolving for all this time. Now, I'm not criticizing modern abstract art, I use a lot of it myself, but in the fine arts world it is almost a complete clear-cut separation of the draftsman from the more emotional abstract painter. So consequently, you have a large amount of artists in your society that are born with the propensity to draw and paint and engineer pictures made up of draftsmanship... these poor people are excluded from the fine arts world and have to find their calling in situations such as comic books and doing B-movie posters and advertising and one thing or another like that. So what's happened is, you're slowly having artists that have this capability coming back into the fine arts fold, or attempting to do that.
Perhaps that's even more primal and the emotions are rawer and more immediate than someone who's gone through the prerequisite training that they didn't have or they were excluded from. Perhaps the art world benefits from this type of cross-collateralization.  
You mean the friction that's evolved from this disenfranchising?
Yeah, someone like R. Crumb, who didn't have any real training...  
Well, R. Crumb did have art training! I had art training, all the artists in Zap Comix had had formal art training, and they went through the very same thing I did, that in art school, they were considered nothing but illustrators because they gravitated toward draftsmanship. I was referred to in art school as "The Illustrator." This was a derogatory term. And I felt bad for years until later I got involved with the underground cartoonists and realized I was not alone. There was a large body of very talented artists that were disenfranchised from academic curricula and fine arts.
What did they want instead? The academics, the critics, the fine art world, the gallery buyers, what exactly were they looking for instead?  
Well, for a long time the fine arts... And I don't mean to just openly attack the fine arts world, because I am indirectly part of it, and I aspire to be part of it, and I want to live with these people. But one thing the fine arts world has really emphasized is sophistication. Everything has to be sophisticated, and to make something sophisticated, you make it as minimal as possible, so that you emphasize its simplicity. That is what sophistication has been boiled down to here in the last thirty years. If something is dramatically simple, then it is sophisticated. So immediately you just cut your language right out of art. You can't dribble off into tributaries of explanation in your art, because that's too gobbledy-goop and too many little Ju-Ju Bees of involvement; you want to simplify everything. We live in a period of history, now, this century, that has been dominated by the philosophy of the Bauhaus, and when I was a young art student, I came to appreciate the Bauhaus. Later did I learn that there was other architectural styles such as Antonio Gaudi's Art Nouveau that was extremely beautiful. What the Bauhaus has promised you, it has promised you that in the future, we'll all have a place to live, but we'll all be living in ice cube trays. So the romance is just completely gone out of architecture.
What have been the reactions that you have received to your own work, from academics and from the populace?  
It has been getting better. I used to just be flatly rejected, but I've kind of wormed myself a cubby-hole in the fine arts world. Tony Shafrazi accepting me, put me in the league of being a blue-chip artist. So I've gone from being the top of the bottom, to the bottom of the top. So I am marginally tolerated in the real fine arts world.
What do you think they're scared of, if they accept you too whole-heartedly?  
Well, they really shouldn't be afraid of anything, because I would defend whatever they do, I think freedom in art's primarily important. But what I seem to offer them is a horrible change in the direction of curricula, and knocking the house of cards down, and that's just not the case. In other words, if I come in with a large number of artists that are doing a new style of art that is not taught in art schools, that there is not already an established market structure, and foundations and art museums for, that I'm going to dislocate the people that are already there, and that may happen to a small extent but I don't think so.
If you could encapsulate a philosophy in your work, and if there is any kind of message that you hope the viewers of your work are going to come away with, what would that be?  
Before I do that, let me simplify this: in a hundred years from now, art historians and cultural mavens may look back on this century and say the music of the twentieth century was rock 'n' roll, the art of the twentieth century was cartoons. Because if you take a large over-all survey of all the animated cartoons and the comic books and items like that, it really out-swells the products of the fine art world, just like rock 'n' roll way out-swells classical music and big band-era music and whatever. Okay. What I am doing personally is I am trying to take a cartoon style and all the iconography and emblematic power that we have in cartoons and comic books and movie posters, and I'm trying to learn to make a graphic language out of this that has the nature of an abstraction, that can evolve further. And as it evolves a following, observers and supporters of this kind of art can kind of grow with this as it evolves, never really losing touch with the general public, but making it more interesting and more engaging.
Was that comic book style of iconography developed organically, how did it accrete piece-by-piece and bit-by-bit? Did it start out incredibly simple and get more complex and involved, or...?  
Well, let me explain this to you. I am only one character in a larger game, and I represent a facet of this game that likes the tighter draftsmanship, beautiful color passages, contrast... I fancy myself something of a draftsman, a storyteller and a colorist. But there is another side of this that's more abstract, and for me to describe that I would set the example of punk-rock cartooning. If you look at the punk-rock art that came out of the eighties, which was initially started by the artist Gary Panter, he started punk-rock art that immediately caught on in Los Angeles and New York and then became an international art form just among punk rock musicians and artists and fans of punk rock. He is very much in the same school of art I am; he is trying to endorse cartooning as really a true fine art. So, there are artists that are beyond me in technical skill, and then there are artists that have this rich, romantic adventure like Gary Panter with this very fast, breezy, brisk style, like Picasso, but they're all cartoons. So all the spectrums of draftsmanship and craftsmanship exist in this situation. And there's certainly a lot of room for many other kind of art forms to fall under this coat of arms.
So it can all be included...  
That's right. There's an awful lot of room for innovation here. We're just a handful of people that are scratching the surface, here, and we're not accepted. What's things going to be like when we get accepted?
What is it that drives you?  
Well, it's compulsion. You know, it's like a dog has to wag its tail. I could be pretentious and say well, I'm gifted with this great desire to talk to mankind, but in reality, you know, it's a compulsion just to noodle a work out, and be productive.
"We are as according to our natures."  
Yeah, that's exactly right.
I see in your work so much density of images, such a multi-layered gestalt, I was wondering, is that truly how you think reality is, because in most painting, you're just looking at one thing, and that's so false, because reality is an entire explosion of event and time. Are you trying to represent that in your work?  
Uh... No. No I'm not at all. I'm using reality exactly like I'm using abstraction, to do my thought-bidding. Now you make mention of the painting-panel as being crowded, let me explain this to you. People refer to it as horror vacui, in other words, I have a mental illness that I can't control to fill every inch of it. That may be true to a very small fraction. A modern oil painting today has to compete with video games, with computers, with television. It has to compete with so many technical devices that rob people's attention. So consequently, an oil painting virtually has to have an energy within itself. So consequently, I use devices like sex and violence as emotional devices to charge you up. I use a whole plethora of cheap devices that you would get off carnival ballyhoo banners, exploitation newspapers, all sorts of cheesy things, like thirties pulp magazine covers, to charge you up while I try to hold your attention, and work you through this painting. I want this painting to have as much energy as a twelve-volt automobile battery, with me not there, standing there explaining it to you.
And you may not like it, but you'll never forget the experience.  
You may not like it initially, you'll be attracted to look at it, your eyes will follow it through, you'll get some kind of gratification. Even if you don't like it, you'd like to see another one, so that you can verify your disdain. That's when I have you, that's when I know I've hooked you. When you have to look at more, to make sure you hate this type of art.
I have read interviews with you, where you have given an outline of a philosophy of "The Dictatorial Power of Vision," I believe...  
Right, Visual Addiction was the book.
Yeah. When you think about it, why are we so readily susceptible to believe what we see, although, as anyone who has taken psychedelics knows, there's an enormous amount of reality that is not perceived, and our eye can betray us. And yet, when we look at something like your paintings, we're seeing something that we know can't actually be happening, it can't really be representational reality, but our eye still wants to resolve it as being real. We still have this compulsion to see this as something tangible, when we know better.  
You virtually, psychically eat through your eyes. You take on energy through your eyes. There's no other sense in your body, of all your other senses, that takes on direct radiation like your eyes do. If you simplify looking, and why you look, and how you look, the reasons for looking can be boiled down to two or three things: you look for food, and you look out for things that would make you their food, and then you look for your opposite sex to propagate with. So you've got three of your most incredible drives as visual drives, see. So, using shocking material, granted is sensationalist and cheap, but nonetheless, it does cause a reaction in you that is a gratification.
Perhaps if we weren't so susceptible to this dictatorship of this one particular sense, do you think things would be any better?  
Well, I wouldn't think so. You can get books on good photography of astronomy. And you can visually look at something that the camera captured light on for hours if not days, like the beautiful workings of the Orion nebula, the Andromeda galaxy, these beautiful, dynamic, giant things, but in reality, they are just put aside in comparison to seeing a beautiful woman's posterior. Your eye works in direct contact with your libido.
I see, there's a connection between the two.  
An extreme connection. All of us are bigots, we're all visual bigots, we don't ever see anything objectively, we see everything emotionally.
You wouldn't think... Let's say if there were an alien being that thought purely as abstract thinking without a connection to a physical body, what might that be...  
To be totally rational, you just see the natural resources around you...
Is "Derived Certainty" a reality, can we by pure thought alone arrive at an abstract thought...  
Okay, now you've accidentally tapped into another situation coming up in these paintings. You're talking about "pure thought"...
As opposed to a physical connection that we're mistaking as thought.  
You know, when I was young and I was a young art student, I tried to really develop my imagination, and I wanted to think in realms no one had ever thought before. When I was young, I was idealistic, and I thought, boy, if I applied myself, and I got in a room alone, could I actually think thoughts no man had ever thought before, could I project myself into a world of mental value that no one had ever dallied with before? And after a long, long period, a couple of years, I came to realize it is impossible to truly come up with an original thought, that all new thoughts are combinations of older thoughts put together in different configurations. So, in coming up with some of the ideas for these paintings, I really pollute myself with some of the most unusual, bizarre research material, to come up with combinations that have never been thought up before. I'm always looking for new devices, new stylizations, new tangents to slip off on, so I can try to get somewhere that nobody's ever been before, and try to bring this back graphically on a canvas.
You're saying throw it all into the kitchen sink. Maybe it's not all going to work, but you'll get a good reaction...  
Yeah, brew a soup and see what comes up...
I'd like to talk about the talk about the titles of your paintings. What is the reason you have the three different titles?  
Well, I want you to see a painting through three different eyes. The first title of the painting describes the painting matter-of-factly. The second title goes into a long-winded, pedantic explanation, it might use a few Greek words or a few Latin words--you're seeing this from the voice of presumed authority, with a little bit of poetry in it. The third title is the colloquial title or the poolroom title, as envisioned by how the lowest human common denominator would appraise this piece of artwork. So you have three different ways to walk around this painting and look at it. Not only do you have all the different characteristics of a painting that's central on one theme, but you have a verbal definition of this same scene in three different directions. And they're not united: the titles sometimes contradict each other. They're just observations.
Yes, they're all just one particular, narrow aspect of the thing that's presented before our eyes. So you have a Rashomon-like effect of all these different perspectives, and it's up to the viewer to make the choice which one they believe.  
What would you say the definition of art, or the meaning of art is?  
Well, art is a social situation that is caught between philosophy and religion and science. Art comes closer to man's heart than anything else, because art will deal with man's expressive anxieties. You can resort to religion for solace, but almost no way to express yourself through religion. In science, everything should be pragmatic and letter-of-the-law. And philosophy, you can go as wild as you want with philosophy, but then all you've got is a literary product. In art, you can encompass all of this. It's a very, very spiritual thing. There's a downside on art. One thing about art is, if possible, everyone in the world would attempt to be an artist. So you have an inflood, a continual onslaught of people trying to be artists. And the economy of any given society can only support so many artists. So you're put in a position of having to judge who will succeed, and of course, there are no rights and wrongs in art.
 Neil Gaiman 1 | Neil Gaiman 2 | Neil Gaiman 3
David Brin | Kenneth Smith | Evan Dorkin