Robert Crumb finds it odd that 90 pieces of his work are hanging on the wall or protected under glass at a new exhibit featuring the underground "Zap Comix," "Bijou Funnies" and so many more.
"R. Crumb: Lines Drawn on Paper," on display through April 30 at the Museum of American Illustration at the Society of Illustrators, showcases original comic covers, inside illustrations, posters, even a hand-painted storefront sign urging customers to come in and spend some money. The works provide a timeline of his emergence and mastery of what was then seen as lowbrow vulgarity but has become much sought-after art.
Still, Crumb is mystified as to why anyone would want to see his creations in a gallery.
"It was never intended for that purpose, so it’s always odd to see it on a wall, or under glass; it was intended for printing and books. It wasn’t made as a wall hanging piece," Crumb said in an interview with The Associated Press. "For me, the printed copy is the magic moment. When I see it in print — that was the whole purpose of it."
Crumb strolled through the gallery on a recent afternoon gazing at some of the pieces, which include issues of "Despair" and "Motor City Comics," examples of how he would take illustration styles from the 1920s and give them hippie flair.
"I believe that’s like 45 years ago now? Good Lord, I use a lot of Wite-Out now. These early ones — there is no Wite-Out," he said. "I made no corrections. How did I do that?"
Crumb still uses pen and ink to do his drawings, eschewing the use of computers in favor of a classic crow quill pen with a reservoir for the ink.
"I learned the old way of doing things and I admired the way they did it, and I feel that lineage and that tradition of pen and ink illustrators," he said.
The show is comprised of pieces acquired by Eric Sack, who comes from a family of collectors. His first experience with illustrations was a collection of old newspapers that his father acquired by trading a sewing machine.
"They turned out to be Harper’s Weekly from the Civil War period. I was enamored by the paper, the ink and the captivating drawings of one Thomas Nast. Very powerful images," he wrote in an email sent to the AP.
Jump to 1968, when Sack was in high school, and "a buddy hands me Zap (hash)." That was Crumb’s work.
"The stories were easily satirical, irreverent and downright funny, and I kind of remembered a style similar to my old buddy Nast, but with a story that hit home," Sack said.
Nine years later, Sack was living in New York and went to a comic convention where he found, taped to the wall, an R. Crumb original from a serial in the Village Voice. He bought it and has not stopped.
"There’s more but, for now, the rest is my obsession," he said.
The exhibit is a treasure trove of the work Crumb has been doing since the 1960s. His satiric, surreal and sometimes sexually explicit images helped illustrate the emerging counterculture of the ’60s and chronicled what he has referred to as the "seamy side of America’s subconscious."
His work — once dismissed by critics as unworthy of bathroom reading or worse — is now looked upon with admiration, and he is considered the great-grandfather of underground comics, which are now enjoying a Renaissance in print and online.
And now, the 67-year-old artist who has drawn comparisons to Goya and Brueghel is not such a stranger to galleries and art museums. Two years ago, an exhibition of more than 100 works was held at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Next year, he’ll be at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb, said.
"It’s happening a lot," she said.
Crumb responded, "I don’t know. I don’t get it."
"You come from a background of commercial art, so it’s not fine art," Kominsky-Crumb said to her husband as he questioned his prominence. "You never expected to be appreciated in that way."
Crumb has long been viewed as one of the medium’s masters and his work has gone from comic books and illustrations to graphic novels. That arc, he said, is indicative of how comics themselves have become more accepted now than when he was starting out.
"People take it more seriously now. Graphic art, graphic novels. You don’t say comic books anymore," Crumb said. "When I was young and starting out, comic books were the lowest of the low, held in total contempt. I think people take it much seriously as art."
Born in Philadelphia on Aug. 30, 1943, Crumb began drawing at the urging of his comic-obsessed brother, Charles. He moved to Cleveland as an adult and worked as a commercial illustrator, drawing greeting cards.
In 1965, Crumb started experimenting with LSD, which immediately helped him create some of his best-known characters. In January 1967, he hitched a ride to San Francisco just in time for the full flowering of the hippie movement. His images echoed old-time cartoon styles, first in Philadelphia’s "Yarrowstalks" and later in his own "Zap Comix," and helped define the underground comic stew of sex-and drug-themed surrealism and antiestablishment sentiment.
Flower Power faded, but Crumb kept working, steadily publishing in such magazines as Weirdo and Self-Loathing Comics. He also illustrated many of the late Harvey Pekar’s "American Splendor" accounts of his mundane life in Cleveland, which were adapted for film in 2003.
Crumb still publishes, often working with his wife in a medieval town in southern France. His last major work was "The Book of Genesis," a word-for-word adaptation with his illustrations. Published in 2009 by W.W. Norton & Co. the 224-page book is faithful to the biblical text, along with the fighting, begatting and more.
Paul Buhle, a comics scholar and retired senior lecturer at Brown University, called the book one that has defined Crumb’s career.
"His two great works are his introduction to Kafka (‘R. Crumb’s Kafka’) and Genesis,’" Buhle said. "In some ways, it’s the greatest thing he’s ever done."
Crumb said that he never intended to do an adaptation of Genesis, but was toying around with the idea of a satirical story that focused on Adam and Eve. But a publisher said he could probably get a nice offer if Crumb did Genesis, "and I said, Look into it.’"
Kominsky-Crumb said Crumb spent five years working on "Genesis," exploring every aspect and facet of the verses, the landscapes, the people. When it came out, she said, they were both prepared for a backlash — the book carries the words "Adult Supervision Recommend for Minors" on its cover — but instead received praise.
"More religious people liked it than we expected because it is lurid and sexy," she said. "We didn’t shy away from what actually what happened."
Crumb said he approached the work because of his interest in religion and mythology.
"I read the Torah, I studied Mesopotamian myths … and I was interested in it," Crumb said. "It took a long time to break down that text and make sure you understand what it is saying."
Kominsky-Crumb said that her husband "is a serious guy. He reads and studies all the time. He’s not Mr. Fun and party boy, he never was, either. You think in the ’60s this was ‘Mr. Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll’? Forget it."
Crumb responded softly, "I party, sometimes."