Robert Crumb has always been known as the bad boy of the comics world. He has filled sketchbooks with smutty drawings of women, made offensive remarks and still manages to show at a top New York art gallery with fans waiting for an autograph.
Print: Mind Fucks, Kultur Klashes, Pulp Fiction & Pulp Fact by the Illustrious R Crumb is his latest exhibition, which runs until 19 April at David Zwirner gallery in New York. Showcasing old comic books from the 1960s to sketchbooks, a cartoon about Donald Trump and a portrait of Stormy Daniels, it traces Crumb’s path as pervert in chief – which marks the end of an era.
Because Crumb has stopped drawing women.
The Philadelphia-born artist was a key figure in the counterculture movement in San Francisco during the sexual revolution and has now decided to stop showcasing the female form. Perhaps it was the result of the #MeToo movement?
“I don’t even look at women any more,” said Crumb in New York. “I try not to even think about women any more. It helps that I’m now 75 years old and am no longer a slave to a raging libido.”
It’s a marked difference from a time when his work was typified by thick-thighed pin-up women and even in his 2016 series Art & Beauty, he featured a bathroom mirror selfie of a 21-year-old model who voluntarily emailed him nudes.
“When I was young, I was just obsessed with sexual desire, fantasizing about sex, masturbation, trying to figure out how to get laid. It was awful,” said Crumb. “Fortunately for me, I found a way to express this inner turbulence in my comics, otherwise I might’ve ended up in jail or in a mental institution. No exaggeration. I’m better now. I worked it all out somehow. Success and the love of real women helped me a lot. Aline really saved my dismal ass.”
He’s referring to Aline Kominsky-Crumb, his wife of 41 years, a cartoonist in her own right and collaborator. But not everything has changed since the Summer of Love. While pointing out the pretty portraits of his wife, Crumb reveals his other lovers, too.
“There are a lot of drawings in this show of other women I’ve been involved with intimately, both before and during my relationship with Aline,” said Crumb. “We have a kind of ‘open marriage’, bohemian artists and libertines that we are.”
This exhibition, curated by Robert Storr, focuses on Crumb’s sketchbooks from the 1970s. There are drawings of acrobatic women with Kardashian-sized rear ends, sleazy businessmen smiling behind cigars and one sketch of a rabbit man slapping a woman across the face. Another has a woman with the words “Sex Object” floating above her head. When asked to elaborate, Crumb doesn’t recall drawing it.
“I’m sure I must’ve used the term ironically, a sort of self-accusation,” he ponders. “Yes, I’m guilty of looking at women as ‘sex objects’, I’ve done it thousands of times over the course of my life. I could not help it. The sight of a woman with a large ass and strong legs instantly electrified me. It was not something I could stop myself from feeling. I could only stop myself from acting on it, and therein lies Freud’s Civilizations and its Discontents.”
Crumb’s superwoman-esque drawings were not always meant to empower. “When I was young, I had a lot of anger towards women, as well as towards men and toward human society in general,” he says. “I vented my feelings in my artwork, in my comics. I was crazy enough not to think about the consequences too much.”
But things changed when Crumb received criticism. “I became more self-conscious and inhibited,” he said. “Finally, it became nearly impossible to draw anything that might be offensive to someone out there, and that’s where I’m at today.”
But there is life after sketchbooks, for Crumb. “So yeah, I don’t draw much any more,” he said. “It’s all right. A lot of ink has gone under the bridge. It’s enough.”
For decades, Crumb carried a sketchbook with him everywhere he went, something he learned from Leonardo da Vinci. It was the 1970s, a time when he drew religiously.
“I drew from life, from photos and from my imagination,” said Crumb. “I also used them as diaries, filling many pages just with text; long rambling self-reflections. I was socially alienated and had a lot of time on my hands.”
Alongside the sketchbooks on view, the exhibit features Crumb’s Zapmagazine covers, his famed Mr Natural, which was critical to the underground comix movement of the 1960s. There are also his Self-Loathing Comics from the 1990s, drawings of Artie Shaw, a strip based on Philip K Dick and a rejected New Yorker cover of a queer couple from 2009.
Crumb’s comics have often been a critique of modern society, with waves of nihilism to sarcasm and disillusionment, not to mention drug hallucinations and the ongoing battle between 9-5ers and bohemians, many of which were his core readership in the 1960s and 1970s.
Some have called Crumb’s comics a comment on the American condition, but they’re also a snapshot into his personal outlook. His sketchbook subjects ranged from friends to girlfriends, strangers in public places and people based on magazine photos. “Sometimes just types,” he said. “Made up in my head.”
There’s also issues of HUP, a self-proclaimed “comic for modern guys”, including one issue from 1989 where he flushes Trump down the toilet after reading Trump’s book, Art of the Deal, which Crumb found offensive.
“My opinion of Donald Trump has changed a bit since I did that strip about him in 1989,” said Crumb. “Back then, I think I gave him a little too much credit for possessing a bit of class and sophistication. I now have a lower opinion of him than I did then. I now perceive a certain low, thuggish quality in his character, a guy who can say with a totally straight face: ‘Where’s my fuckin’ money? I want my fuckin’ money!’ It’s a quote from Bob Woodward’s book Fear.”
When asked if he feels misunderstood, he said only if his audience thinks he believes everything he draws.
“I only feel ‘misunderstood’ when people react to my work as if I were advocating the things I drew; the crazy, violent sex images, the racist images,” he said. “I think they’re not getting it. I did not draw those images with the intention to hurt anyone or insult anyone, with the exception of the very few times I did strips making fun of specific individuals, like Donald Trump.”
Crumb suggests it’s up to the audience to decide. “I’m just a crazy artist. I can’t be held to account for what I draw,” he said. “Personally, I don’t think they had a bad influence on people. I don’t think it works that way. Conning people, deceiving people, that is what is harmful to them.”