Robert Williams: The Culture Brats Interview

If you're searching for a definitive image to represent the roaring life of Robert Williams, you will grow weary with indecision and will be hard pressed to come up with something that won't be tossed out for not fully capturing it all. Luckily for you, the newly released film Robert Williams Mr. Bitchin' comes about as close as you can get to the sustained burst of the prolific and important artist as well as a compelling inside look at the astoundingly groundbreaking work and contributions of the trailblazer to whom so many owe so much.

If you've never seen his work, my suggestion would be to immediately remedy this by feasting your eyes on this compelling documentary that is fierce, funny, and strangely sentimental. With all of life's tedium and banality, everybody needs more Robert Williams in their day.

I just watched Mr. Bitchin' and I loved it.

Yes. I was a little floored actually. They've unleashed this thing on the populace and it provides a pure escape into the fringes of your galaxy. It was like whiplash and a bit of an artistic history trip, with so much packed into one film I felt I'd been gone for two years but I suspect it didn't even scratch the surface of all the places you could've gone. How far were you willing to let the filmmaker delve into your pool and did you want anything off limits for the viewer?
That's very kind of you, I appreciate you saying that. For me and my wife Suzanne, this was really torturous.

Yeah, it took three film crews over twenty years and they boil that down for well over two hundred hours of footage. So it was an ongoing thing that just kept going on and on and on. I am so happy with the result, but I couldn't do it again. I absolutely couldn't do it again. Here's the problem: to be an artist or a writer or an actor, you have to perpetrate yourself as a celebrity and you have to push this on people. That isn't my makeup. I'm not trying to feign humility here, but continuously trying to push myself as somebody special is more than I want to do beyond the artwork. You understand what I'm saying?

It's an interesting slice of the whole pie in that you have to become a certain something that you are not in order to get what you are doing in front of people.

That's exactly right. Continually trying to be a nice guy and being humble and you know I'm just as much of a jackass as anybody else and I have an ego and I just really don't want the bad side of me to come out. I'm just all the time trying to watch myself, and I see myself in the film and I get so tired of myself. After seeing rush after rush, year after year, and thinking well, they got this far, I've got to keep this thing going. I hope what you saw, you appreciate because it was fresh. I don't have that luxury. I can't see that thing fresh.

Yeah, and I also had no idea that this was an ongoing neverending culling of your life for a twenty-year span. That's like making the world's longest movie. I thought this was put together from found historical footage, your personal stuff, and the work the filmmakers did.
No, it took three different film crews over more than twenty years and one film crew would pass it on to the other.

That is a long time to have someone watching you.
Not so much about me and Suzanne, but I think what's really interesting and important about this film is you get to see the underground and alternative art world that no one gets to see, and you get to see it over a long period of time. It's a window into underground comics and the psychedelic posters and the hot rod and gallery world. There's really no other way for a person to get a glimpse of that.

It really was a bit of a history lesson... I'm looking at Artie Shaw alongside of Von Dutch, etc. and I'm still astounded at the number of incredible people that they packed into this film about you. Also, you provide an interesting link between two unconnected worlds: commercial success and absolute artistic freedom. You seemingly never had to worry about playing it safe. Looking closely at the film, you are driven to work your ass off and leave some mark on the world but you say that off-the-wall paintings are the hardest way to success. Could you have chosen an easier way?

Well, the thrust of my life is to take enjoyable visionary work and shove it into the real art world. Now, the art world is not the friendly place you think it is. For my whole life, I have made a direct assault and entry into the real art world. It even started out in art school as an enormous amount of criticism during the abstract expressionist period when I tried to do realism. Realism was absolutely forbidden, and it still is to a certain extent. To come in with enjoyable cartoon artwork that has disregard for political correctness and to completely do away with the boogeyman of sophistication and just say "Look, this is what is really interesting, let your eyes do the looking." Your intellectual powers seem to fail you. I've been through some very important galleries and had very very important connections in the art world and I've tried to play the politics of the whole thing. I've come to the table with this off-the-wall stuff that's really been a struggle. That's what my life is really about, that's my essence. People interpret that movie as a relationship between a man and a woman, in fact when that film was showing at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York, one guy said I should have never gotten into art, I should've been a marriage counselor. I don't know, the film is for your judgement now, I think I've worn myself out on it.

So many worlds, people, and even endless facts and side stories collide in your paintings and other work that you actually have to invest time to really look. It's like getting hit with a technicolor bat. Do you ever have someone purchase something and you feel like they'll never fully appreciate the amount of furious spectacle and detail you put into it all?
Yeah, of course. But you know, I have to sell them because that keeps me alive and pays the mortgage and lets me have a future to do more of them. You know, there are always certain people who have investigative skills. And you come to find out that people in the arts aren't the ones who have them. So there's always a disappointment, a guy will say, "Well I bought the painting because it had a number six in it."

That guy might have missed something.
I mean, well, I sold a painting, it paid for its time, it will keep me going. I just have to live beyond the disappointment.

In the film there's talk of rule breaking, causing offense, and the burden of being not pleasant but accurate, and I found myself rewinding and continuously laughing at the section where you plainly spell out that horses actually don't like people and the only thing keeping your house cat from devouring you is its diminutive size. Do you think people's projecting their own crazy fantasies of what they want the world to be versus what really lies beneath is part of the appeal of your work? That maybe it opens your eyes to something you knew, but didn't necessarily want to acknowledge?
Well, for every three supporters I pick up, I pick up six or seven people who can't stand me.

You are not without your critics, that's for sure.
Yeah. The New York Times is always waiting for me, you know? I'm a prime target for them. Back when William Wilson was the head critic for the LA Times, he would always ride me. He said my art was like bad country and western music. They are always laying in wait. When the very few people come up and appreciate my work and I can make a living at it, it's justified. It's really justified.

Critics love to make sweeping generalizations about the future of art but it's always some rogue upstart who comes out of nowhere to shake things up from the unlikeliest of places. I never thought the playing field would become level enough for all kinds of different artists to compete and become known for telling a new story with a completely unique thumbprint. Now, thanks in large part to the trail you have blazed, they have somewhere to go, they can show work, they are taken seriously and enjoyed by people who may not have seen them otherwise. I know that's like an albatross around your neck saying everything before you was one way and everything after was different. But it's true.
I'm the guy who laid down over the barbed wire so they could walk over in comfort.

Exactly. Sorry to make you the Moses here, but you sort of parted the Red Art Sea.
There wasn't a lot happening for these type of artists before you.

You are exactly right. I want to be modest, but in that respect I can't be. Because I just had no support for years. I had no peer group for a long, long time.

That's got to be a lonely place, is it not?
It is. It really is. When I had so many friends that were in the arts, and they were all abstract expressionists and later conceptualists and minimalists, and they all referred to me as "The Illustrator". I haven't made it yet! I'm in one of the biggest galleries in New York, Tony Shafrazi, and I've got in the Whitney and all, but man it has just been an uphill climb like swimming up a waterfall or something.

Yeah, but it's also been constant forward motion.
I've had some very important support and let me explain some of my support. In that film there was a shy guy that only showed up a couple of times in the movie, his name is Walter Hopps, and I'm sure you didn't remember him.

No, I took notes. Got his name right here. Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes, right?
Walter Hopps, okay. Walter Hopps made Ed Ruscha and Ed Kienholz and all the artists on the west coast in the fifties and sixties. He made them. He was the director of the Pasadena Museum, started all the west coast art. He tried to get Von Dutch to be an artist in the mid fifties. He had a Zap Comix show at the Corcoran Museum in Washington DC in 1970. Before he died, he was in charge of the Menil Collection in Houston and head curator at the Guggenheim in New York. Shortly before he died, he was not only nominated but elected in Europe as the world's number one museum director and curator. Walter Hopps was one of my biggest supporters. Before he died, he was working on a show at the Guggenheim, but his passing from illness caused that show to die out. But that would have been an enormous turning point in art if that show would've come about.

A number of very important people push me and help me. On the other hand, I've had museum directors in town that said they would have nothing to do with me. It's kind of a blind struggle.

Most people would simply throw up their hands and give up after so many obstacles. You seem to have an overabundance of character and drive, which seems hugely essential for success in anything but it strikes me as quintessentially an American trait. The work ethic and the never say die undercurrent that runs through the film gives it its punch. You get up at 4:00 AM and start burning it at both ends.
Look, I'm seventy years old. Let some young people take this thing, I don't know. I need someone to ride the back up now. I'm looking for some young turks to come in here and let me get in their slip stream. I've about had it.

It probably wasn't surprising to learn that people pick up your work from all angles and places and that sometimes people attach it to something they've created to promote what they've done. For instance, the Guns N' Roses Appetite For Destruction album cover. When musicians choose that for their album art, do you stop and take stock, worrying that certain kinds of avenues of exposure put a boot on your throat? Are there mutual expectations from both sides, or does something like that not even cross your radar?
Well, that Guns N' Roses thing was an odd situation. In the eighties, I was doing a large number of paintings that appealed to the punk rock world and they were called Zombie Mystery paintings. I had a lot of garage bands that I was licensing the images of paintings to and I heard about a call from San Francisco about some band called Guns N' Roses. They were fucking unheard of. Absolutely unheard of and I said "Well, that's not a good image for you. Come over and go through my slides and pick something else." So this guy Axl comes over and he goes through the slides and he goes, "Well, I just want the Appetite For Destruction painting" and I told him, "You're going to get in a lot of trouble but if you have the balls to do that man, more power to you. I'll tell you the sequence of events you're going to face. First, it's going to be the parents groups and then the churches and then you'll discover you can't get the thing through the Canadian borders. It's like a whole line of things is going to be your problem."

You actually predicted almost exactly what happened.
Yeah, you know, these people were nobody so I let them have this at garage band, punk rock price, see? I just gave it to them. This thing went on fourteen million albums. Just the t-shirt design they lifted off of there that I never saw money [from]. So they made a lot of money off this and it kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. And then when they started getting in trouble with the feminist groups, I was on radio a bunch of times, I was on MTV a couple of times defending this thing. Newspapers calling me all the time, I was the only one articulate enough to defend an image that I told them not to use.

I remember the MTV one. There was a whole rigamarole about what the image did and didn't represent and you laid it out pretty convincingly.
Well, I guess it all worked out. God, I don't know. I certainly wouldn't do it again. They came to me again for a cover and I just turned them down. I couldn't do that again.

At the end of this film I was actually not expecting for someone to throw out the question, "Are you happy?" And you turn to the camera and say very simply, "I am happy" and it ended on this lovely note. You come off as having a wonderful practicality, married with a warm off-kilter madness, but a controlled guy in full control of his faculties and very likable. You mentioned that you really watched yourself during the long filming. Do you ever want to have yourself an angry creative moment where you don't act so civilized?
Believe me, I'm not as stable as you think. I've worked hard all my life but I've had my fair share of problems. I've got this wonderful wife Suzanne and we both realized that you have to stabilize your life in order to get through it. You have to be very careful with every thing you do, and problems will drag you down. I guess in my neighborhood I pass myself off as a square. Just an old man running children off my yard.

Get off my lawn!
Yeah, so. I'm very very happy. I look back on my life and wonder how did I get to be seventy years old? How do I have a house? A wonderful wife and seven cars? Everything is just great, you know? I just wish that I could've changed the art world, ya know? Made it a little more open.

You know what? I think you underestimate yourself. You actually did. Watching this film left me with a great feeling about what could potentially open up and happen in the art world. It really did.
You've been so kind to me. You just really made my day great. I really appreciate it. I hope we run into each other one of these days.

Robert Williams Mr. Bitchin' is available now on DVD and VoD.

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