R. Crumb: Lines Drawn on Paper

I was a teenager of many posters. In addition to the likenesses of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, and the Beatles, a central place on my wall was adorned with R. Crumb’s masterpiece, pictured above. The poster came to me via my brother, who also had special cabinets made for his kitchen decorated with old Barney Google Sunday funnies. (This is the same brother whose first band was named “Universal Rundle.”) This brother was, in a word, A-O.K.

I was all of three years old when Crumb made the drawing, much more concerned with Felix the Cat than Fritz (Crumb’s libidinous feline creation) at the time. The masterworks of Crumb’s heyday (including that famous “Cheap Thrills” album cover) thus are like so much “history” to me, tantalizingly close to my own lifetime, but dwelling in a shadow realm. Granted, Crumb has  remained insanely productive (as well as productively insane?) every decade since he first came on the scene in the late sixties, but the zenith of his influence is roughly 1967-73, the years chiefly represented in the new exhibition at the Society of illustrators.

Perhaps it goes without saying that this is a guy with a very hyperactive and weird imagination. It’s not just that he revived the old school aesthetics of comics of the teens, twenties and thirties, and then updated it to chronicle the counterculture that was exploding around him. It’s also that, in “letting it all hang out” he lets all kinds of TMI demons escape. All sorts of bodily excretions, for example, make it to the page — generally more than I hope or want to see, but I still laugh heartily out of sheer shock. His most heinous racial representation is undoubtedly “Angelfood McSpade”, a sort of Ubangi pinhead woman who speaks in a patois lifted from minstrel shows by way of old school porn.  Like comic geeks since time immemorial he delights in drawing his dream girl — the famous Crumb Woman, the “healthy” female with the enormous hips, ass, legs, and chest but narrow shoulders. They kind of look like buxom ostriches.

When he’s not putting women down (“A Word to You Feminist Women” in Big Ass #2, 1971), he’s apologizing (“You Can’t Have Them All” in “My Troubles with Women”, 1992). As revealing as the comics are, they can’t hold a candle to his notebooks, represented in the exhibition on a large video screen. Here his doodles and fantasies come to life, without the justifications required by narrative. Let’s just say they contain a lot of cartoons boinking a lot of other cartoons.

But let’s not forget one small detail. His work in general is screamingly funny. In one Fritz the Cat comic (all ten pages are on view), the eponymous tabby picks up three cat-chicks, takes them back to his crash pad, and then they are rapidly joined by about a hundred other critters for a very furry orgy — A Night at the Opera’s “stateroom sequence” as re-imagined by Al Goldstein and George Herriman. Crumb’s also as brilliant with words as he his with images, drawing largely from the language of hype one finds not only in comics but above all in advertising.

The real treat is that we are mostly looking at Crumb’s originals. Display cases contain some copies of his comics and record covers, but the walls mostly contain the artwork itself. The original version of the image below is especially hilarious — it would have made a nice graphic for Willy Nilly – in addition to the hippie Svengali and the teenage girl he seems to be mesmerizing, the original art shows a pair of square parents, their eyes bugging out of their heads as their daughter “goes bad” right in front of them.

“Minds are made to be blown”

— R. Crumb.

You have roughly a month to take in this mind-blowing show. It will be up through April 30. Full details here.

Also you can see some of Crumb’s work in the Museum of Sex’s Comics Stripped exhibition.

And another treat! My good friend MAC of WFMU”s Antique Phonograph Music Program actually has Mr. Crumb as a guest. Tune in tonight April 5, 2011 at 8pm to hear the show, 91.1 on your dial in the NYC area, streaming online for outliers, podcasts available for latecomers.  And here’s a youtube teaser of the program.

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