Seconds #27, 1994 interviewed by Steven Cerio
From the sweat stained pits of Left Coast comes Robert Williams, a lone hot rod runnin’ on the swamp gas of popular culture. You’ve sucked up his drippings from the pages of Zap Comix. His paintings read like the diary of a teen speed freak raised on Wonder Bread and model airplane glue whose life is spent giving or oral favors to death in the backseat of a Hot Wheels car, with one hand full of titty and the other scraping the last speck of meth from the foil. Williams sends you barrling through a never ending hell of Freudian slips where nickel and dime whores writhe before you on marzipan hot dog buns while their bad tit jobs and chop-shop features shine like the prettiest Playboy dreams but reek like the towel hamper in a men’s gym.
Our cum-drunk savior of Rock& Roll iconography stirred up dick-envious feminists with his Appetite for Destruction, a painting leased by Guns N’ Roses for their debut release. After almost half century of sodomizing the art Establishment, ol’ Hieronymous Bob can still send seekers of arcane knowledge and their benny fueled woodies back to their holes – but, more impressively, he can always have them out.
SECONDS: Now that you’ve become an established entity, how do you feel about your fans and the crowds that come to your shows?
WILLIAMS: Well, I don’t know how established I really am. Blackballed in a lot of shows for one reason or another, a lot of people just don’t care for my work. You see me from a while different side. If you were in my shoes, you’d see me continually trying to get ahead and not getting anywhere. Go over to the Museum of Modern Art and try ot get in there and see how you feel. You feel like nobody’s at the door.
SECONDS: A lot of people see you as an icon of underground culture – you don’t fee like that?
WILLIAMS: I do. I feel hundreds of young artists behind me trying to figure out where I’m going so they can go there too – and there’s no place to go. There’s just no academic acceptance of us, it’s just in very small quarters. We had a show out her in ’93 called Custom Culture at the Laguna Beach Art Museum. It was very successful and it was made up primarily of underground artists. That was the first real big underground art show. That went to Baltimore and Seattle and was very well received. I think that was a real breakthrough. Then again, everyone involved with it was totally categorized as some kind of car nostalgia situation with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. WE have to take the good with the bad.
SECONDS: Who are the Art Establishment and what do they want?
WILLIAMS: It’s made up of different factions and you have to examine each faction. Let me try to describe them: First you’ve got a giant amount of art students that aren’t very talented and they have to go with what they’re capable of doing. They’ll find heroes that aren’t very good, heroes that are abstract and minimalist, stuff that doesn’t require years of technical training. You’ve got that large amount of students that go to schools, and schools will teach these people what to know because these kids have money. So they’ll teach them this retarded formal art generation and the teachers in there are students who’ve been taught the same crap. You’ve got a recycling of students who have no other way to make up a living but to become teachers. On top of that, you’ve got a museum system that’s got to kowtow to this giant amount of art students and art schools. They have to mediate between what the public wants and what these students are capable of doing. What they do is promote material that goes along with an already established storyline of what art is. This is based on the social trends, what’s hot in New York right now AIDS, gay rights – you have to consider all these elements as what’s gong to make your art. The more the thing goes down the line of success in museums, the further it gets away from actually being able to draw, think and have an imagination. You’ve got a lot of performance artists that are throwing together stuff that deals with social issues and it’s heralded as great art. The third element that dominates the art world is the foundations that fund all this stuff. Foundations in reality are nothing more than tax write -off factors that think they’re doing a charitable thing with this excess money that the have to get a tax write-off on. So they start stabbing it into art and what the further do is underwrite blue chip artists because it’s the safest thing to do. They’ve ventured into younger experimental artists and invested really highly in the 80’s, millions of dollars, and this whole house of cards, the art schools, the art students, the museums, the foundations, the galleries, collapsed in 1987 with that collapse of the stock market. Prior to that you could just have a room with a two railroad ties chained together and paint it day-glo and call it “Composition #14” and get $25,000. The average art in the 80s was making millions of dollars. Everyone feared there was really no value for this crap, and when the collapse came, all these foundations and museums were left with warehouses full of shit they paid fortunes for. It wasn’t worth the fucking materials they were made of. Japan took it in the ass to the tune of a couple billion dollars on these wild investments. You’re in a period right now where there’s kind of an open window if you’re a good artist. If you’re capable of producing good oil painting you can always ell that somewhere even in the face of these hard times. It’s awful hard for academic artists everywhere.
SECONDS: Do you consider cartoons as Americana?
WILLIAMS: Because of the movie industry in the 20s and because of Thomas Nast after the Civil War, it is probably more dominant in the United States. Of course Europe’s always had a lot of good cartoonists. It’s just a thing that’s happening now and it’s happening all over. There’s a couple of bad effects of it. One bad effect is becoming a thing in itself on its own. It’s not trying to force its way into the art world, it’s trying to keep itself separate and be an art form itself. I think artists make a very critical mistake when they do that.
SECONDS: A lot of your work is a parody of White culture.
WILLIAMS: Coming from a middle-class family in the 40s and 50s, that’s my take on the world. There’s a certain sarcasm in what I do, so I’m very careful not to elaborate on other people’s cultures because it’s sure to be misinterpreted. I just stick to with the observations from my White Mans’ world.
SECONDS: What do your naked cuties represent?
WILLIAMS: The naked cuties is my appreciation of women. I’m fascinated and preoccupied with women and I know a lot of other people are too. One of the first things you do when you learn to draw is draw a naked lady. I know the very first thing that was done with a camera was to get some girl to take her clothes off. Pornography is one of the early uses of the camera. Of course I get into a lot of trouble with feminists and progressive liberals about my use of women. In my mind’s eye, I’m not hurting anybody.
SECONDS: Unlike your older work, the women in the newer paintings look like mannequins.
WILLIAMS: One natural thing is, when you draw women, you tend to draw stylized imagery. It’s been worked out by a large consensus of other artists. You tend to stick to those stereotypes unless you get a model.
SECONDS: Do you use reference?
WILLIAMS: I use references and sometimes I use models.
SECONDS: How did the Appetite for Destruction scandal affect you?
WILLIAMS: That blossomed off of Guns N’ Roses. They’ve sold fifteen million records that either had that on the cover or had it on the sleeve inside. There was a tremendous reaction to that by a number of feminist groups and church groups. The PMRC bitched and moaned about it but the loudest cry was from feminists in Northern California and they picketed those Tower Record stores. About six or seven women’s groups Northern California jumped on that and first they hit Santa Cruz and said they were going to picket all the record stores that had it. So all the stores pulled it off the shelves except for Tower Records and they stood up against them for three or four weeks. Then the same thing happened in Berkeley. Some woman came to my defense in Santa Cruz. These feminists found some private business about her and pulled some ugly fucking techniques. Tower Records never gave up and the feminist groups ended up switching from Guns N’ Roses to pornographic video games.
SECONDS: It must have been fun watching that happen.
WILLIAMS: It wasn’t fun for me because I had to defend this thing in the newspapers because Guns N’ Roses weren’t very articulate. I had to have some pretty sharp answers because I was on the firing line with these broads. It’s kind of nerve-wracking; there’s nothing fun about it. You don’t know if these women are going to file a class action suit against me. You don’t know what the fuck’s going to happen. It’s not a thing where you say, “Oh boy, I’m getting publicity.” You start thinking, “Am I not going to be able to draw women anymore? Are the bitches going to work on me to the point I can’t even represent their breasts?”
SECONDS: Could you imagine a type of music to go with your work?
WILLIAMS: I could see a lot of Punk Rock music. I could see a lot more polished music like the Chili Peppers, Butthole Surfers- music that’s got movement. Your ear listens because there’s going to be a change but at the same time there’s a driving beat that keeps your blood flowing.
SECONDS: Would your work change if you weren’t worried about sales and public sentiment?
WILLIAMS: The reason I haven’t gotten very far is because I do what I want. I never get big write-ups in big magazines because my stuff’s offensive to the vast majority of people.
SECONDS: Do you find it healthy to witness violence and depravity?
WILLIAMS: I don’t know how healthy it is and I don’t know how bad it is for you but I do know it’s a starving demand that everyone has. You take the most clean cut conservative self-righteous woman who goes to church and she’d just be happy to death to see a rapist beat to death. It’s in all of us. One thing we all have to distinguish between is our thoughts and the reality around us. We have to be able to think things that are wildly imaginative but not carry them out in reality.
SECONDS: What do you consider a weak point in your work?
WILLIAMS: I’ve got an awful lot of shortcomings in what I do. I look at my body of work and in reality, compared to a lot of artists in history. I’m kind of mediocre. But compared to artists today, I come off like Titian or somebody. I do have a lot of shortcomings but on the other hand, I got tenacity and I keep working. Unhappy as I am with it sometimes, I look at other people’s work and I get back home and I’m just tickled pink.
SECONDS: What’s a working day for you?
WILLIAMS: Between 1985 and 1992, I used to put in about ninety hours a week. I’d get up at 4:20 every morning. I produced a tremendous body or work. I worked seven days a week but that pooped out after a show in New York. I had thirty paintings in there and that just burnt me out. I’m still working pretty good now but I work eight to ten hours a day now instead of fifteen hours a day.
SECONDS: How fast do these things come out of you?
WILLIAMS: I produce a painting a month now. But I’m doing a lot more detail in the paintings. I reached a situation where there’s a large waiting list of buyers and I’m just trying to level out to a nice work place to keep going for a long time.
SECONDS: In Freudian terms, your work could be viewed as product of deep-rooted sexual problems. What’s your viewpoint?
WILLIAMS: One of the big influences on me, and especially on comic book artists, even if they don’t want to admit it, is the Surrealist movement of the 20’s and early 30’s. That had a tremendous effect on modern society, especially graphics. You don’t see that much in buildings, but it had a tremendous effect on cartoons, animation, abstract thought. Surrealism had an effect on everybody. One thing that was key to Surrealism was the use of the imagination and the deep search of the subconscious. A lot of experts now believe there isn’t really that much to the subconscious. I’m kind of inclined to agree with that. I have a goal to pursue a system, or attitude, or philosophy to figure out what makes up imagination and what are the powers of imagination and how to develop an abstract thought and synthesize pure imagination. I don’t think anyone has really sat down and tried to figure out what is imagination. What are the facets of imagination that have to deal with the manic notions of something being desirable? I just think there’s a new for imagination to go in. I’ve always been fascinated with looking into some kind of new mental stepping-stones into a depth that hasn’t been plundered yet. We’re all endowed with this gigantic amount of imagination. It’s so bothersome to people because it’s so Freudian, anal and sexual and they put it in the Bible. The Bible’s a good place if you have a lot of imagination. You could just go through the Bible and drain your imagination off into these four-thousand-year old stories. That’s primarily what the Bible is for, a place to put your hungry imagination. A lot of people aren’t that hungry for The Bible because they’ve got other places to put their imagination, like in the movies, in comic books, video games, all the other entertainments that weren’t available two hundred years ago. Right now we’re supposed to be in the most enlightened time in history, yet you’ve got more fucking idiots involved in astrology and occult and witchcraft and crap like that and they’re drawn in because of the romantic imagination involved.
SECONDS: Do you read a lot?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I read a lot. I’m very interested in history and taking situations that happened and trying to reinterpret them in another view that is not a popular view. It’s seeing things through my own eyes. Like taking someone out of history, reading everything about him and imagining if you knew this idiot. Napoleon would be a good example. He occupied a power vacuum when there was a need for a strong man. Things would just of his way because he was a lucky man. He wasn’t a brilliant son of a bitch, just strong like Hitler. If Hitler wasn’t born, Hermann Goering would have filled his spot. If Hermann Goering wasn’t there than another idiot would have filled his spot. You look Hitler and you see this poor retarded idiot who tried to be a house painter, tried to be an artist and had a real constipated imagination. He was a fairly good renderer – good dexterity and hand eye control – but he would not allow himself any luxury in imagination and he hated anyone who did have imagination. He did everything he could to persecute any of the modern artists. I guess I said enough about al that.
SECONDS: What’s your view of the New York art scene?
WILLIAMS: All these young artists try to live the romance of disparity. It’s kind of a pathetic scenario. You’ve got a large amount of artists that end up being role models for people that can’t do things. You have to give artists as much longitude as possible, you can’t stifle the arts. On the other hand you have this giant amount of people that cant’ do anything that are filling the art schools. There was a hundred and fifty thousand people on the island on Manhattan representing themselves as fine arts artists. Can you imagine that number of people? Have you got the scope of that? It’s unbelievably brutal. There’s nothing really wrong with it but you’ve got this giant work force that’s not working.
SECONDS: It’s to the point that they accept that their lives and their art are masturbation.
WILLIAMS: When I was young, they didn’t come to that reality, they still had all this fucking hope and it was even worse then. When I was an art student in ’63 and you’re in a class of forty people, two of those people had a chance of making a living in the arts and they’d probably be teachers. Now when you’re in an art class of forty people, you’ve got maybe eight people that can make it. So things have quadrupled. You have this giant amount of success in thirty years but you’re still looking at thirty-two people that are sucking wind. They’re sure as fuck not going to like what I do because what I do requires at least a decade of training and artists are not going to take on a decade of training in this modern age because everyone wants to hand loose because some opportunity might come their way. They don’t want to bog down and learn how to draw, how to do landscapes or nothing like that, they want to be ready for that computer job that comes up, they want to be free to become a performance artist. They have to be loose and ready to go so they never learn a fucking thing.
SECONDS: How will computer animation affect the art world?
WILLIAMS: Yes I do. I think there’s more opportunities in art now than there’s ever been before. But you have to be capable and dedicated. You have to develop a rich imagination. Because museums are starting to have these collectors try to dump art on them so they can get a tax write-off. This stuff isn’t worth the fucking stuff it’s made out of. These big artists that were big in the 80s, if they’re lucky, they’ll get a third of what they were asking in the 80s. So the art world has come down to reality. People are looking for something solid and interesting to put their money in. People have not given up on the arts. I hear people say all the time in the galleries, “ People aren’t buying anymore.” Well, what the fuck is there to buy? If I gave you a half million dollars, what the fuck would you buy? I sure as fuck wouldn’t invest money in that crap. I’d buy German helmets or hot rods or I’d buy fine old artwork. The market on good old Renaissance artwork hasn’t dropped at all.
SECONDS: Your work moves faster than MTV.
WILLIAMS: When I put a painting together – remember, a painting is a static two-dimensional thing. People already know that when you represent three dimensions it isn’t really three dimensions it isn’t’ really three dimensions. They were on to that trick five hundred years ago. So when you have a painting, that Renaissance style of entertainment has got to compete with video games, good modern pornography, sports, television, radio, so you’ve got to have energetic visual devices in the painting to lock people in there. Part of locking people in is coming up with imagery they don’t necessarily like but will hold them. Of course this requires gratuitous sex and violence, use of children in unpopular ways, things like that hold to people. If you can hold a person on one of your paintings for forty-five seconds, there’s a good chance he’ll look at another one of your paintings. If you can get him to look at three or four paintings, you’ve got the guy by the nuts. He’ll remember you, he’ll hunt up more of your work, he’ll talk about you to people that will buy your books, buy your prints and encourage people with money to buy the paintings. So you’ve got to come up with interesting devices – the use of color, graphics, contrast – you’ve got to use every fucking thing in your arsenal to get attention and hold people.