Robert Williams on the Seeds of Modern Art, Mona Lisa’s Mustache, the Trouble with Lichtenstein, and How to Succeed in the Business of Fine Art

This is one of a series of follow-up interviews with each of the four participants in our Fine Art and Cartoonists Roundtable. There will also be follow-up interviews with Marc Bell, Esther Pearl Watson, and Joe Coleman.

“A kid that follows the comics has got a better chance of knowing how to draw than one that’s gone four years to art school.” — Robert Williams

More than a half-century later, the comics community continues to heatedly engage in the Roy Lichtenstein controversy. The debate is significant enough and rich enough in its complexity that it will neither die nor “…Call Brad For Help.” And each side is convinced that it’s correct.

One camp — here I’m using the term in the old, pre-Sontag sense — believes that Roy had altered and re-contextualized his source material to create something new, with its own set of aesthetic effects, an art that foregrounds social and cultural issues that were merely latent in the original comics images. And the other camp believes that he unfairly appropriated that work and treated it very condescendingly when he removed the source material from its original context. Still, the more the arguments are rehashed, the more layered and nuanced they become. For example, in Robert Williams’s interview, he sees Lichtenstein's comics-based art as lacking the quality of art as organic and spontaneous personal expression. Yet he also uses words like “poetry,” “charm,” and “virtue” when describing that art.

Maybe the issue will never be settled, even if it’s given another five decades. But then, maybe the journey to some sort of definitive resolution will always be what’s really important.

Moving on, here’s an update on Robert’s discussion toward the end of our interview, about Jeffrey Deitch. Turns out he didn’t quite make it through his full five-year tenure as Director of MoCA. Instead, he resigned in 2013, two years before his contract was to expire. The reasons were complex and are even now somewhat vague, but it did involve the fact that the museum was experiencing budget deficits and revenue losses at the time.

— Michael Dooley

ROBERT WILLIAMS: The last time you interviewed me, you left off at the gallery world.

MICHAEL DOOLEY: Yeah. And maybe now is a good time to talk a little more about what led to today’s gallery world and art scene. You had mentioned your fondness of Dalí, and I was thinking, at the time of Surrealism, about a hundred years ago, there was also Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Expressionism, all those movements were pretty much happening at that —

WILLIAMS: — that burst of different art movements before and after the First World War.

DOOLEY: Exactly. But it was Surrealism in particular that stood out among those different movements.

WILLIAMS: It was because that was cartoon-oriented. And I think you still want the emphasis on the cartoon world in this, too, so I can try to help keep you on track there.

DOOLEY: OK. And Surrealism in general …

WILLIAMS: Surrealism came out of Dadaism.

DOOLEY: Right.

WILLIAMS: And this is kind of a nihilistic art movement that was like punk rock a hundred years ago. It was a very negative thing, Dadaism. And it was revolution on the back of a revolution on the back of a revolution. At first, you started out with Impressionism, where you did a blurry picture and it was supposed to be an emotional expression. And then Expressionism came along on its back, and it was a little harder and a little more abstract. The politics that were starting up, those two movements, Impressionism and Expressionism, were French, and they happened around the period of the Franco-Prussian War. And out of the ashes of the Franco-Prussian War, communism really got a stronghold. Communism got its first real ignition point during that series of revolutions from 1848 to 1850, and it was in every capital in Europe except London. You know what I’m talking about? Are you familiar with history enough to know that?

The grand opening for the first Dada exhibition in 1920, Berlin, Germany.

DOOLEY: Oh, yeah. I teach Design History and I get into the foundations.

WILLIAMS: There were a series of revolutions all over the capitols of Europe in the late 1840s and early 1850s. So, by the time the Franco-Prussian War came along, there was a commune because Paris blockaded in a siege with the Prussians. So communism had its real start there. And the art was very akin to that because most of the communists were bohemians and most of the artists were bohemians, and that was kind of a tight association there. These early modernist art movements were designed to destroy the art-academy stronghold on art just like communism was designed to throw off royalty and capitalism. So you can’t really examine those early art movements without taking the political situation into consideration.

DOOLEY: Sure. And of course, after the October Revolution, 1918, 1920, the Russian Constructivist movement really hit its stride in terms of abstraction.

WILLIAMS: Well, that Constructivist movement was not strictly a Russian movement. It had real power in Germany, too, and Austria. It was a real modernist graphic thing that first got its foothold in the leftist world. But it was very strong in imperial Germany, which was right-wing. But you can see that there was a confused identity there. Anyway, the Dadaists — I’m hesitant in saying that they were anarchists because the term anarchy originally had a virtuous thing to it. It only came out to be thinking of a mad bomber later. Originally, it was kind of utopianist. It had this false ideal that you could have a world without government. That was the original anarchists. And these were the sympathies of the Dadaists.

DOOLEY: Yeah, they were anarchists against the art establishment. All those groups, like you say, they were tied into the politics. I mean, Cubism, Picasso at the time, wasn’t that politically involved, but you had Léger, who was a socialist, and, of course, futurism was fascist, and expressionism was pacifist.

Fernand Léger’s 1953 piece, Grand Parade with Red Background. Donaldytong

WILLIAMS: Well, Picasso was a communist.

DOOLEY: Yeah, and his work didn’t reflect that during the earlier days of Cubism.

WILLIAMS: Picasso was involved in a theft ring that was stealing African art out of the Louvre. And he had a suitcase of masks and whatnot that he was going to dump into the Seine, but he didn’t do it at the last minute.

DOOLEY: The African masks were the basis of his Cubism.

WILLIAMS: Right, but he wasn’t alone in that. He was just the most prominent.

DOOLEY: He and Braque were working —

WILLIAMS: — and these people were hung up in this. You look at Matisse’s limp-wristed art, and then you wonder how come he was the premier influence on Picasso. You know, Picasso was the Matisse with balls. [Dooley laughs.] And with guts. Anyway, this Dadaist movement was a reactionary, revolutionary movement. And it really didn’t have an intellectual core, but a group of writers, especially André Breton, started pulling Freud into the thing and coming up with what was called automatic art, where you did art from your subconscious. And it wasn’t necessarily an art of detailed craftsmanship, but it was more spontaneous, from your deep, inner, sexual soul, your libido and id and whatnot. But anyway, it swung over to more professional artists like Dalí. Dalí’s coming into the Surrealist movement late. It had already established itself, and he came in and kind of rode it to the top, exploited it all he could, and then they threw him out. They had a mock trial — they would have mock trials — and then they threw Salvador Dalí out.

DOOLEY: Breton being the ringleader.

WILLIAMS: And Breton being an extreme communist. He was very close friends with Trotsky.

DOOLEY: Yeah, he probably would have been a Communist, Breton, if he was able to follow rules better. He wasn’t that dogmatic, and the Communist party had a difficult time with him.

WILLIAMS: The Communist party didn’t want to have anything to do with him.

DOOLEY: With Surrealism, yeah.


DOOLEY: And if we’re keeping on track here with the idea of comics, there were other Dadaists outside of Zurich that were actually using print media. Kurt Schwitters pasted up comic strips.

WILLIAMS: You’re exactly right.

DOOLEY: John Heartfield, another Dadaist, but he was also a communist, who was doing those photomontages for print. That definitely relates to editorial cartooning. But back to Surrealism.

WILLIAMS: Anyway, Dalí gets this Surrealist thing looking like a Realist movement, and this encourages a number of really talented people. There was an artist named Pierre Roy, and Magritte and a few others with capable craftsmanship skills. So Surrealism got bigger and bigger, and it got to be in the vocabulary of the average person before the Second World War, especially after. The ad agencies picked up on it really quick. It got to be really big in New York; the Guggenheims pushed it. Peggy Guggenheim married what’s-his-name … Dorothea Tanning’s husband … the German Surrealist … Max Ernst.

DOOLEY: There you go.

Portrait of Salvador Dali. Philippe Halsman

WILLIAMS: So, Surrealism got really, really popular after the Second World War, but something that came along and stifled it was Abstract Expressionism. And so that’s where American modern art came in, and Abstract Expressionism, there was just no stopping it. It had a powerful reign for close to 30 years. But anyway, I got interested in drawing and painting at a very early age, and I loved comic books, the drawings in them. I could deal with the stories, but I preferred the drawings. Prince Valiant was the best. I liked Disney to a certain extent, but the ECs were killer. The ECs were the killer comics. Of all those that I preferred, of course, it was Wallace Wood. I didn’t have much of an understanding of fine art other than I like old Renaissance art and I liked Surrealism, especially Salvador Dalí. And I had no idea of the manifestos and whatnot, the pressures of the Second World War and stuff like that.

DOOLEY: Yeah, Dalí actually considered Disney an American Surrealist in his way [laughs]. Looking at Fantasia, that sort of transformative —

WILLIAMS: Disney started out on the right foot. He snorted coke and his buddy Iwerks created Mickey Mouse, and if you look at the very early Mickey Mouses, Mickey Mouse is making out with Minnie, and there’s stuff in there that wasn’t family rated. And that would have probably stayed that way. Early Disney would have probably had really good quality to it like Max Fleischer if they hadn’t gotten rid of Iwerks. Iwerks attempted to come up with his own studio and lost his ass and had to go crawling back to Disney and got a safe job with him. But he lost all his stock and his power and whatnot. His partnership was broken off. Iwerks’s [grand-]daughter is going around with a documentary about him. It’s really good. It’s in art museums, if you have a chance to look that up on the Internet.

DOOLEY: I didn’t mean to derail you. You were transitioning from Dalí to Abstract Expressionism.

WILLIAMS: There’s a couple of points of power with Abstract Expressionism. One, it was truly an American art form. Number two, of all the arts, it lends itself better than all the rest of the schools of art for architectural decoration. For modern art, it could not be beat. It was the best thing to go into a bank lobby or whatnot. It couldn’t be beat.

DOOLEY: [Laughs.] Is that the only benefit you see in Abstract Expressionism?

WILLIAMS: No, no, it isn’t. It is not.

DOOLEY: OK, good. [Laughs.]

Willem de Kooning's 1954 abstract expressionist painting Valentine Sharon Mollerus

WILLIAMS: The other, negative point about Abstract Expressionism is almost any idiot could do it. Now the positive point of Abstract Expressionism is it’s pure abstraction. Art had reached a point of pure abstraction where it was not objective, and it no longer depended on any form of representational object, say. So in that respect, it was extremely pure. And that’s the way it was touted: that art had finally reached that pure state of virtue and intellectuality, that you had to be really intelligent to understand the blobs, that these were art free of anything. But, as I said, the negative point was that any idiot could do it.

DOOLEY: Do you really feel that the intellectual component was essential because, in a way —

WILLIAMS: Yes, because that’s the only way I could defend it. That’s the only way I could defend Abstract Expressionism, was that art was getting more abstract and more abstract, and it completely had to do away with any kind of objectivity and become non-objective. It was like a world that had to be explored, an avenue that had to be explored. The next step after Abstract Expressionism is Conceptualism, that you can just grab anything and do anything or point to anything —

DOOLEY: [Laughs.] Can we finish up with Abstract Expressionism a bit, because I think what we’re describing here is, you said, a purism. So it’s more like a pure color experience. And colors have their effect on people in a visceral way that evokes emotions without them really having to understand it, or to be a textbook scholar. I mean, you don’t want to judge a movement based on the jokers who stick it in a [laughs] bank lobby.

WILLIAMS: We can theoretically discuss the virtues of Abstract Expressionism till the sun goes down, but everything I would discuss and defend on the point of abstract expressionism was what was shoved down my throat for 20 years. [Dooley laughs.] You understand?


WILLIAMS: And I was sitting class after class in art school, and had friend after friend, and peer group after peer group of idiots that could neither draw nor think that took a great deal of pleasure in Abstract Expressionism.

DOOLEY: Got ya.

WILLIAMS: They found a lot of solace and refuge in Abstract Expressionism. Now I will defend Abstract Expressionism, and I see virtue in it. But I see that it opened a Pandora’s box of legions of helpless, sensitive people thinking they’d found their inner self.

DOOLEY: Yeah, you got yourself into a shitty art school, it sounds like. [Laughs.]

WILLIAMS: No, Mike, all of them, all over the United States, Canada and parts of Europe. And Europe still hangs on to Abstract Expressionism.

DOOLEY: Hmm. OK. And speaking of which, you mentioned in the roundtable interview that you and Ed Moses had the gallery show —

WILLIAMS: — Yeah, an Abstract Expressionist.

DOOLEY: Yeah, and he became a fan of your work. Is there anything about his work that you were able to relate to?

WILLIAMS: Well, he become tolerant of my work and had appreciation for my craftsmanship and labor. See, he says he likes the stuff, but he calls me, “The Real Painter,” which you can see two ways. [Dooley laughs.] You understand what I’m saying?

DOOLEY: [Laughing] Well, explain.

WILLIAMS: He refers to me as “The Real Painter,” like looking back at some guy in the 1940s that paints landscapes.

DOOLEY: Oh. Ouch. [Laughs.]

WILLIAMS: Now, when an Abstract Expressionist says, “You’re the genuine painter. You’re the real painter,” I know exactly where that’s fucking coming from. You understand what I’m saying?

DOOLEY: Yeah, I do now. [Laughs.]

You said the next step was Conceptualism.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Now you think Abstract Expressionism opened the door for helpless people, fucking Conceptualism broke the dam. Because you have people that don’t even have any interest in any craftsmanship. [They] will bring in a pile of sand on a gallery floor and just do any sorts of things and stretch that name “art” around, which I’m absolutely not against, but I’m sure in a hurry to watch it pass.

DOOLEY: Duchamp is often cited as the father of conceptualism among other things, and you don’t want to blame the father for the sins of his offspring, but how would you look at, say, the mustached Mona Lisa and the urinal?

WILLIAMS: Well, let me try to reference this a little bit.

DOOLEY: OK. Because we’re back to Dada again.

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) Marcel Duchamp 1915-1923.  André Luís

WILLIAMS: The fellow that brought Duchamp to the United States and got him his first show was Walter Hopps. Walter Hopps went over and saved and promoted Duchamp and brought him to brilliance in the United States, and Walter Hopps was a big supporter and pusher of me. Walter Hopps was working on a show called the Imagist show when he died, and if that show had have come about, it would have had comic books in it and hotrod art, and everything I love, and I would have been one of the stars of that show. That would have been a real milestone, but he died before that. And only his name had the clout to put together a show like that. So that would be my distant tie-in with Marcel Duchamp.

DOOLEY: So, how do you feel about Duchamp’s work itself, in that respect?

WILLIAMS: He was way far ahead of his time.

DOOLEY: In what ways?

WILLIAMS: Well, he was just very daring. He did very daring things, and he opened the road for Conceptualism, and he said that the time will come when all an artist he has to do is point and predicate something as art and it will be art. You declare it, and that will be it. And that has come to pass. That started happening in the ’50s and early ’60s with Pop Art. You just had a big thing, a Campbell’s soup can or something, and you declare that art. So that came to pass. That came to pass in his lifetime. Now it’s gone into Conceptualism, where any kind of shit you sling together and write about will certainly pass as art. The door’s wide open.

DOOLEY: So he’s the father of Pop as well in that way, but when you, say, confront Duchamp’s work in a museum, what’s your feeling, what’s your take?

WILLIAMS: I wasn’t around in the ’20s, so I don’t know how I would have reacted. I would have been very open to Modernism. If he did it now, it would look like every sophomore in art school. He did that thing on that piece of glass  [The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923)], and then the art haulers dropped it and broke it, and he said, “It even looks better broken.” Now, you’re on your own there, you know.

DOOLEY: Right. And have you seen these pieces?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I’ve seen them in New York.

DOOLEY: So your reaction to them was favorable?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, just looking at them you can’t do that. You have to understand their history, their provenance, and what they stood for when they were done. That’s much more important than just looking at them. You know what I mean, of course.

DOOLEY: Well, now you’re talking about the same thing you were criticizing the Abstract Expressionists for, that you have to intellectualize about them. Is that …?

WILLIAMS: Listen, you can’t beat Abstract Expressionism, de Kooning or any of those guys, for putting art in the lobby of a big bank. It’s the best, it’s the best. I love de Kooning’s stuff. It’s just big, strong, bold stuff, you know? But it gets weary really quick when people start copying it. You realize everybody’s got a big, four-inch brush with black paint on it. That gets worn out real quick. So you have to put yourself in that time, in that context of when he was doing it, understand that. And, of course, there’s a beauty you see now, but when it was really great was when it was first done, and it dared you. You know what I’m saying.

DOOLEY: Astute people still go and look at de Kooning and Rothko and get a certain spiritual —

WILLIAMS: In Houston, there’s a chapel dedicated to Rothko, and I think Walter Hopps had a lot to do with this, and there’s four or five gigantic Rothko paintings in this building dedicated just to these paintings, like a chapel. And you go in there, and it’s black, but just the light on these very dark paintings, and there’s people in there meditating, and I can understand this, and I can see a little bit of appreciation for it. It’s great that it exists, and it’s great that it exists for the people that appreciate it, but to me it’s like a fucking yawner. It’s like a big, capital Yawner. But I don’t set myself up as a judge that would throw weight. I’m just a guy that comes in there. I think one Wallace Wood panel would blow that shit completely off the wall. You understand what I’m saying?

Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. Charlie Vinz

DOOLEY: Yeah, I get it. So we’re about to hit Pop Art. You were talking about Warhol and the soup cans. So we can talk about Pop Art in general, and then we can get into that other guy in particular after that. But your overall take on Pop is what?

WILLIAMS: Well, my take on Pop Art turned out to be very disappointing. When I was in art school in the early ’60s, I thought Pop Art — Pop Art was originally called Neorealism.

DOOLEY: And Neo-Dada, too.

WILLIAMS: And I thought, “This is going to be a return to Realism.” In the late ’50s and early ’60s, the fine-art world was not tolerating any Realism, maybe with the exception of Andrew Wyeth, but that’s a long stretch. But they weren’t tolerating anything like Realism. And I got in so much trouble trying to do Realism, and my friends said, “You’re the illustrator, you’re the illustrator,” and it just went on and on, and that was a derogatory remark, so when Pop Art came out, I thought, “Ah, this is the doorway. This is going to come back.” Especially when I started seeing the comic-book panels being enlarged, but then immediately, I started realizing the comic-book panels were way off from the comic books, and they were kind of a crude slam on the panels. And I just lost faith in it after a while. I watched Andy Warhol gain enormous success, had all that following in New York, the Factory and whatnot. A lot of those people I later became very close friends with. And it was just really a letdown to me. What I had hoped to be a whole new return to the very enlarged and powerful vocabulary just turned to nothing but copying stuff, just appropriating shit around you. It was just heartbreaking to me.

Andy Warhol’s 1975 piece, Ladies and Gentlemen. Andrew Russeth

DOOLEY: Who have you hooked up with from Warhol’s Factory?

WILLIAMS: A lot of those guys, Ronnie Cutrone and people like that. You’re familiar with Ronnie Cutrone, right?

DOOLEY: Yeah, he was in the later Factory era.

WILLIAMS: I knew a number of the gals, Mary Woronov and people like that, and of course, Tony Shafrazi was right in the middle of it. The one thing about Pop Art is you’re referencing something. So half the promotion’s already been done previously. It’s very difficult to do something that hasn’t been done that people can’t reference.

That’s my problem. I do stuff that’s just not referenceable. I’m in that dark, dangerous forest exploring myself with a sable brush, and I just can’t reference things back to people. They just can’t stumble on it and say, “Oh, well this means such and such.” That leaves me kind of at a disadvantage. But Pop Art, man, that’s nothing but referenceable. It’s all fucking referenceable.

DOOLEY: It’s interesting that you’re not only anti-Abstract Expressionism, you’re also anti the movement that came along and gave a ‘fuck you’ to Abstract Expressionism, as well. [Laughs.]

WILLIAMS: I’m not anti-Abstract Expressionism, and I’m not anti-Pop Art.

DOOLEY: OK, good.

WILLIAMS: But when an art movement comes along and it fucking dominates all the art schools and museums and galleries for three and four decades, where you’re suffocated. Instead of three or four art movements, there ought to be 20 or 30 fucking art movements. But there’s not. People move like a school of fish, like fucking cattle. They’re safe. And artists live so desperately that they have to find security, you know. There’re so many fucking desperate artists that have to get under a wing of something. Do you know what I’m saying? Now you might not agree with me, but I would like you to know what I’m saying.

DOOLEY: Yeah, I do understand. And I can’t speak for however many different art movements there are at this time, but it seems to me like it’s one of those things that’s happening with the Internet, that there is more of a diffusion, and there is more of a variation, just because people have this immediacy about exchanging art. It used to be you’d wait until somebody got around to sticking art up in a gallery, and now you can just be surfing the Internet and find out all sorts of variances of art and digital art and the rest of it.

WILLIAMS: I told Ed Moses, “When Abstract Expressionism is totally dead, I’m going to start pushing it again in Juxtapoz.”

DOOLEY: [Laughs.] The contrarian ever.

Franz Kline's 1954 piece, Painting Number 2. Sharon Mollerus

WILLIAMS: Not so much the contrarian, not the reactionist at all, but it was a valid art form and it should be known and respected. Not fucking blindly dominating like a steamroller over M&Ms or something. I don’t know how old you were back in the ’50s and ’60s, but it took over everything. It fucking took over everything.

DOOLEY: I was born in 1948.

WILLIAMS: OK. You didn’t see that then. It was just unbelievably oppressive. And I had art teachers that just painted in big, sloppy strokes and whatnot and tell me to loosen my wrist up. And I knew artists that could not handle a painting that took longer than two days. [Dooley laughs.] They couldn’t do it. They had no sense of strategy, of laying the drawings out. They had to do everything spontaneously with a lot of thinned-out fucking paint. And some of them went on to make good livings doing that. But everyone in art school was like that for such a long, long time.

DOOLEY: A couple of things about Pop: First off, Roy Lichtenstein, he was only doing the comic-book paintings for, like, two years before he moved on to other stuff. Do you pretty much have a blanket anti-Lichtenstein feel for all his work?

WILLIAMS: No, not at all. I think he was very important in bringing that imagery to the public eye. That was in sharp contrast to Abstract Expressionism. Pop art and all these different art things, I felt were keeping the thing moving and changing and interesting.

DOOLEY: And another thing is, he was doing portraits of people in a way that was very much about the early 1960s. ’62 to ’64 he did his paintings from the romance and war comics, and it made sense at the time because the comics had become such a big thing in the ’50s that it didn’t make sense to paint a portrait of a woman the way they were painting them in the pre-Impressionist days. It was like this is how people were seeing things. People were seeing things with the flat benday dots, but they didn’t even realize it. And so in that respect, he was speaking to his time, right?

Nurse, 1964 Roy Lichtenstein

WILLIAMS: I agree with you. Have you ever been to the Capitol Building in Sacramento?

DOOLEY: No, I haven’t.

WILLIAMS: If you go in there — it’s worth going in there — there’s every governor’s portrait painted in this dry, academic style. Real tight, detailed style. Except you come to Jerry Brown, and it’s this flipped-out, abstract picture you won’t fucking believe that they even let be put on the wall. [Dooley laughs.] And it was such a refreshing thing to look at. You understand what I’m saying?

DOOLEY: Right.

WILLIAMS: But it only existed in contrast. It’s energy only existed in contrast to the rest of the boring brush strokes in those big halls.


WILLIAMS: If every one of those fucking pictures had been in an Abstract Expressionist style, it would have just given you a headache.

DOOLEY: Yeah, and Lichtenstein went on to make fun of Abstract Expressionism. He was doing these big comic-book brush strokes that weren’t out of a comic book, but they were basically just poking fun, ridiculing that whole “Loosen up your gesture” stuff that you were being taught. Loosen up your wrist sort of thing.

WILLIAMS: When he painted things off a comic-book panel, either he was indifferent to what he was doing, or he was loosening it up a little bit to show the ignorance of the artists, but there was an alteration in it that showed an indifference that I know he put in there on purpose.

DOOLEY: Oh, there’s certainly a coldness about the feeling that you get standing in front of the work, seeing those giant benday dots.

WILLIAMS: Now, see, if I’d have done it, I’d have gone to a machine shop and had a big piece of tin drilled with the right ways that benday dots would be.

DOOLEY: [Laughs.] And he eventually did that.

WILLIAMS: He just had some industrial shit that he sprayed through that wasn’t right.


WILLIAMS: And it just gives you the crudest, coldest interpretation of what those dots were like.

DOOLEY: Yeah, but in that sense, it’s still retaining that gestural, Abstract Expressionist stroke …

WILLIAMS: But it was an obvious indifference. He didn’t want to fuck with it any other way, and he says, “People won’t notice; I hardly notice myself.”

DOOLEY: You know, what I’ll agree with you is that he had an indifference to the story. One of the conversations we were having was about the painting that he took from the romance comic that I was saying was a piece of crap, Drowning Girl, the Tony Abruzzo comic from the Secret Hearts DC comic back in 1962. And if you actually read the story, it’s like, yeah, you should be indifferent to that story. It was the most god-awful story in the world.

WILLIAMS: I understand that. In certain instances, it did work, and that was the charm of it. I agree with you, that was the charm of it. There was this indifference to it. But that indifference is the coldness that’s in all modern fine art. The artist is showing his strength by having no emotional weakness toward the work. Abstract Expressionism is just a perfect example of it. “I’ve got to express myself. I ain’t fucking around. If you don’t understand it, that’s because you’re a philistine.” [Dooley laughs.] You understand what I’m saying?

DOOLEY: Yeah, well you don’t want to judge a movement on its critics.

WILLIAMS: The critics ate that stuff up. Modern art really likes indifference, and I’ll tell you what it’s from. It’s from an early period when abstract art in the ’40s and ’50s wanted to show its honesty. It wanted to show how honest it was, and that honesty turned into being a cold indifference. That honesty was: if you paint, you make it look like paint. You slobber it on there with a big bristle brush, let the thinner run down off of the brush. If you’re sculpting, you get a hammer and a chisel, and you whack at it, and you show the chisel marks to show your strength, to show the truth of the medium, how the stone breaks. If you’re carving wood, you cut big hacks out of it so you can show where the carving knife cut it. Because you’re true to your medium, wood should look like wood. This is what I was taught, see? If you got in there and finely sanded it, then you’re lying. You’re cheating. You’re trying to make something that isn’t made out of that material. That’s what I was taught. That was the basis of Abstract Expressionism, was the honesty and purity of the media.

Helen Frankenthaler's 1976 painting Crusades. Sharon Mollerus

DOOLEY: I don’t want to get back to Abstract Expressionism too much.

WILLIAMS: I don’t give a shit if it looks like oil paint or not, I have an idea to express, and a certain degree of resolution is required in that expression. Then, if later the canvas shows through or whatnot, or you find brush strokes, OK, but it isn’t like I’m getting a big bristle brush and slopping the paint on or watering it down using earth colors — well, maybe blue — like Abstract Expressionism ended up turning into.

DOOLEY: I know for you, craftsmanship, workmanship, is very important.

WILLIAMS: I think so. I like to speak with not perfect diction, but good diction.

DOOLEY: There you go.

WILLIAMS: And it might have an accent. [Dooley laughs.] Comic books were so underrated. Now they’re just starting to be realized. You look at those great cartoonists out of the ’40s and ’50s. Those are some of the best artists in the world. Now you know that.

DOOLEY: No argument there.

WILLIAMS: You know that. And those poor bastards, they were just considered hack illustrators. Meanwhile, all these oversensitive, pretentious pricks were making it in the art world, slapping shit together, and winning their laurels at cocktail parties. I’m going off on a tangent here, but anyway. The thing we were going to talk about was galleries, the gallery world. Remember that?

DOOLEY: OK. But before we do that, I just want to wrap up with Lichtenstein. I think maybe where we have a point of disagreement is what I was starting to say about how Roy was taking the comics out of their context. So if all it was was appropriation, it would be pretty hollow. But if you walk into a gallery 50 years later, and you start looking at, basically, the two things he was doing in the early 1960s, which were the romance comics and the war comics. And I think he was picking up on that kind of 1950s conservatism — whether he was doing it deliberately or not — but you go back, and not knowing the history, or knowing which DC comic it was coming from, you look, and here are these women in these romance comics that are just in pathetic shape — the “I’d rather sink than call Brad for help” — and it’s a portrait of 1950s pre-feminist woman, and then you say, “This guy was on to something.” And just like in 1962, whether he was antiwar or not, I don’t know, but still, you look at these things, and they do look ridiculous, the drowning woman looks ridiculous, the rat-a-tat-tats of machine-gun combat, it does look ridiculous. And then you go, “Hey, this was painted during the Vietnam War, but before people were really hitting the streets protesting about it.” And it’s like, in retrospect, it seems pretty smart, and it comes around because here we are stuck in another war, and women still aren’t as equal as they should be. So that’s what I was saying, just to wrap up the Lichtenstein. I do want to go on to the gallery talk too.

WILLIAMS: Well, I remember seeing pictures that he did of the P-51, and he copied the guy’s P-51, and the artist that originally did the P-51 had very little interest in the P-51, and so when he copied the P-51, he had even littler interest in the P-51. So he didn’t get the book out and reference a P-51. It was the indifference to it that was the poetry. It was the cold, seeing in from a distance, mocking it sort of thing.

Roy Lichtenstein’s 1963 painting, Whaam. cea+

DOOLEY: Exactly.

WILLIAMS: I understand that’s poetry, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t see anything wrong with that. I see the virtue in that. But the point I’m trying to make is the music he’s playing is an indifference on top of an indifference. The first cartoonist ain’t gotta bust his ass to get the P-51 right. He’s gonna look at some little quick picture and then he’ll draw a P-51, and then Lichtenstein comes along, and he copies the copy. And then he’s two generations away from the P-51. Comic-book art is now reaching galleries, and it’s starting to face the art world that all the artists have been facing for a long, long time. You’ve got the big Crumb show at the Paris museum and whatnot, and it’s become a big thing now. About five or six years ago, there was a gigantic showing of comics down here in two major museums.

DOOLEY: Hey, I put you on the panel at the Hammer Museum as the elder statesman of the L.A. comics scene. The whole Masters of American Comics. 

WILLIAMS: You could have done a lot worse.

DOOLEY: [Laughing] You were fantastic! I also love your reaction to when I showed the Felch comics on the screen. “What do you have to say about this, Robert?” All the dignified Hammer Museum’s people in the audience were [laughing] … taken aback.

WILLIAMS: Well, the art fraternity is made up of six different facets. There’s the artist, there’s the gallery, there’s the buyer, there’s the foundation, and … I can’t remember what the other ones were … oh, there’s the school, the education. And all of these are kind of interlocked. Now the foundation is the money that underwrites the museums for tax write-offs, see, so they’re pretty important. Then there’s the critics.

DOOLEY: That’s six, then with the critics. Critics make six. We got it.

WILLIAMS: OK. Now the first big hurdle for the artist is the gallery. He’s got to get a gallery. And there’s a lot of people that say, “Well, no, you don’t need a gallery. I can sell this, I can do that, I don’t want to give them 50%.” And a gallery gets about 50%. Now I’m going to give you the negative points of the gallery first. I’m gonna give you all the bad stuff, and then we’ll look at it a little more objectively. OK?


WILLIAMS: Now, if you’re not heard of, the gallery can get 60 or 70%, see.


621 Gallery, Tallahassee, Florida. Ryan Hovatter

WILLIAMS: So you pretty much have to have a gallery, and the reason for that is, if you sell out of your garage, or you sell to your friends, there is a very little chance of your price increasing. It doesn’t have that tendency to go from one step to the other and progress. Everyone knows you’re selling the shit out of the garage, and they want a cut-rate deal. And I know a lot of people that do that. Now, the dealer of the gallery … I have been in a lot of galleries, and my initial thoughts about galleries was that there was a sacred fraternity of people that were educated at a used-car-lot-salesman school.

DOOLEY: [Laughing] OK.

WILLIAMS: Kind of elite shysters. And I’ve had some of them that have raked me over the coals and have cheated me blind, and they treat you with a great deal of indifference, unless they see that they need you. And it’s in their mind’s eye that they’re making you. See?

DOOLEY: Right.

WILLIAMS: So the first thing they’re gonna want to know is what you went to them for: buyers. They want your list of buyers. So this is just an easy fucking job for them. Now they’re going to attempt to be dictatorial, because they know what their buyers want, and they generally have a large number of buyers that are idiots. These are people that see art as decoration. And I would say, about half the people or more that involve themselves in art or deal in art, have never really gone beyond the point of seeing art as decoration.

DOOLEY: Or an investment.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, but at worst a decoration. They’re not interested in any new movements, they’re not interested in your expression, they’re not interested in your thrust or your direction. They’re interested in “Will that look nice over the couch?” no matter what the fuck it is. So if this is clientele, the gallery owners try to turn you into that form that will cross that bridge to their buyers. So you have this problem that you not only have to placate the gallery, but you have to placate the goofuses they bring in there that see themselves as connoisseurs. They see themselves as dilettantes. A large part of people that get into the arts do it for high-class style. And they want that to reflect to people that come over to their house, that they’re a person of a certain class. So the art that you do that makes that gallery dealer happy has got to look acceptable. Maybe a little edgy, maybe just a little dash of pepper, you know. [Dooley laughs.] So the gallerist will be nice to you at the beginning, and the opening night is the most important. I tell people that get drunk at their own art openings that’s the worst thing you can do, because 80% of the sales is that first fucking night. It’s just like anal sex. All the action’s at the door. [Laughter.] So I tell these people, no, get the people that come in the door drunk. Don’t you get drunk.

DOOLEY: This is news we can use.

WILLIAMS: Well, I’ve written all this in Juxtapoz years ago. I laid all this down in a codex of conduct. So, the thing is — if you’ve got a little bit of art, if you’re new, and you’ve just got a new gallery, it’s to your advantage to bring in your own buyers to blow these people away, and the way you do that is you don’t sell out your door when someone says, “Oh, I like that painting. Would you sell it?” Say, “No, but you’d help me out if you’d buy it at this gallery.” And if you’ve got about eight or ten people doing that and you have that opening night, and you come in there with strange faces and sell that work, the gallery’s going to end up in your hands. You understand what I’m saying? It’s going to cost you a big loss, but it’s a small sacrifice, because once you do that, and you win the confidence of the gallery, you have a certain control. You go in the door and they say, “Hi, Mr. Williams!” They treat you with respect.

From Conceptual Realism by Robert Williams

DOOLEY: Right.

WILLIAMS: It’s not like you’re there sucking on the goofballs they pick up along the way that decorate stuff over their couch. So you have an independence and a power. A lot of people don’t understand that. They don’t want to get rid of that money. But the galleries, most of them will finagle, and they will finagle at the artist’s expense. At the beginning, they’re really nice to you. At the end of the show, and they see you going out the door, you’ll be good to get a hello out of these people. You have 30 days. That’s your allotted time at an average gallery show to perform, and you’re on the griddle, unless you’ve really brought in the people. And how you did, that reputation will follow you to your next endeavor. 


WILLIAMS: I’ve had galleries cheat me so fucking badly, you cannot believe it. I’ve had eight sold-out shows in a row, and I’ve brought in my own buyers, but it’s got me clear up to the Tony Shafrazi gallery, see. I’ve gone from the shittiest underground galleries all the way up to the top galleries in Chelsea if not in the world by making sacrifices and doing what I wanted to do, because I would load that gallery up with people that wanted to buy the stuff, and I made them wait and I would take the loss. But galleries along the line have been cheats, real cheats. And I’ll give you examples. At one time, I had 350 people on a waiting list to buy art from me. I had movie stars on that list, and I would tell the gallery, “Do not jump people in that list. Go by the number on that list, do not go ahead,” and invariably, these assholes would go to the movie stars. They’d cull down that list and go to the movie stars so they could try to sell them their other goofball art. You understand what I’m saying? It’s just crude, crude. No ethics. When I go to a show, I tell the gallerist, “Listen, pick one piece out for yourself to buy.” And sometimes they do, but one gallery told me, “Oh, we don’t buy from the artist.” And then the show opened and the gallerist comes back and says, “You know, my wife wants this painting. You did mention you’d sell it.”

And I say, “Yeah, sure, sure.”

And then I find out they turn around and sell the fucking thing for the full fucking price to some other idiot that lives in L.A. on my buyers list. And I call up and talk to my buyer and he says, “Yeah, I’m looking at the painting right now.”

And I call up the gallery and they go, “Oh, yeah, we still have the painting here in the gallery.” They’re snakes. They’re fucking snakes. [Dooley laughs.] And what they want, they want to get enough out of you that they can carry it onto their next couple of shows and promote their own artists. So it’s a desperate, so desperate situation. Now, that’s the negative thing about the galleries. Now, let’s go on to the positive things about the galleries. To begin with, the gallery has enormous overhead. And for them to function, they have to be in an expensive location to maintain their reputation, and they have to sell. They have to socially and culturally involve themselves with people that have money. Their greatest dream is movie stars and foundations, especially foundations that will buy big hunks of art. The flood of artists that are coming to their door, and I mean a flood of desperate people that see themselves as geniuses is never-ending. It’s never-fucking-ending. So these people are stuck with trying to cull out what they can pay their rent with. It’s very sad business to be a gallery. It’s very desperate. Galleries are almost all fly-by-night except the very top ones. And the way they do it, the way I’m told is: It’s not what they sell in the gallery; it’s the deals they make in the back room with artists they’ve had all along. So it’s a very snake-y business just to pay the rent. And these people are under the gun all the fucking time. So you have to have a certain amount of sympathy and understanding for the gallery, and in that respect, I’m very, very supportive of the gallery system. They’re stuck with promotion, the publicity, the advertising, the paying the lights, the rent, paying the help, getting out the invitations, and taking a chance that your shit will sell, and having to put up with you being a finicky son of a bitch that has to express yourself. So I think I’ve given you both the pros and cons on it. But it’s a very, very disappointing situation. It’s a very disappointing world. And you have to be hard-boiled to take the knocks. And a young artist, when he goes to a gallery, and he makes his agreements, he has to state his position in the very beginning how much percentage he’s going to have to give up, what he’ll tolerate, what he won’t tolerate. In that respect, you have a chance. I think I’ve about shot my wad there. [Dooley laughs.] You understand what I’m saying?

DOOLEY: [Laughing] Yeah. I appreciate it. That’s good. Especially about the used-car-sales dealer. And galleries, I guess that extends to museums as well.

From Conceptual Realism by Robert Williams

WILLIAMS: No, a museum’s a whole different deal. To a certain extent, but a museum has to got to bring people in the door. The point I didn’t make originally was every one of the six different factions, with the exception of the artist, all members of those other five different factions are failed artists. You understand what I’m saying?

DOOLEY: Oh. Yeah.

WILLIAMS: Every one of them went to art school and couldn’t make it as an artist, and have resorted to museum work, resorted to galleries and whatnot.

DOOLEY: And teachers and critics.

WILLIAMS: Right. [Dooley laughs.] So you have teachers that have failed at art, that were taught by other teachers that have failed at art, that have in turn been taught by teachers that have failed at art. You’re looking at five and six generations of Abstract Expressionists that can’t draw.

DOOLEY: So what would be your advice to people who want to take your path starting out in comics and making a transition, or maybe even going another way?

WILLIAMS: Mike, it is the openest time in the period of art in my life to become an artist. The opportunity’s there.


WILLIAMS: But there’s some enormous hardships, and the thing is, there are so many people trying to be artists. It’s just a stampede of very sensitive people that think they can express your genius, and the art schools won’t say, “Hey, you’re just another idiot.” They will not say, “Are you sure you’re not just another idiot?” They will not dare say that. They want that money paid to them, to hold those doors open. But the artist’s best friend, the best friend to the artist, if he’s a serious artist, is hardship. The harder it is, the more chance a good artist has, because it gets rid of the slag. The other people cannot handle it. They’ll go a couple semesters and fall out. Because being an artist is so difficult. If you’re capable, and you have tenacity, and you’re gonna be, “Hey, this is the way it’s gonna fucking be; it’s be an artist or nothing,” you have a good chance of making it. You have to have an imagination. Everything in the arts tries to kill the imagination. Everything in it. The sensitivity, the political correctness, the time it takes to do it, all these things are working against imagination. And to have the strength and convention to say, “I’m gonna go blow some fucking people’s minds, and I’m going to do it with hard work,” you have chance. You really have a good chance. But other than that, man, you’re just joining the parade. You’re just joining the parade of losers walking down the end of the street.

DOOLEY: I remember when I did that interview with you a while back for The Education of a Comics Artist, one of the things that had been irking you at the time, you were saying there’s a way to do it, and the way you didn’t advise doing it was by making Tiki paintings.

WILLIAMS: Well, people get hung up in these ruts and they follow each other. They’ve got children now. It’s this Pop Realism bullshit that’s taken the country by storm. And it’s for sensitive young girls that want to do children with a little punk-rock edge to it. And when this thing falls, it’s going to fall big.

DOOLEY: So are these, like, neo-Margaret Keane painters?

WILLIAMS: Margaret Keane was the beginning seed, the seminal beginning of that, yeah. And this is timely, you’ll like this: I got a call about three months ago, and this guy said he had an art deal for me, and was I interested, and I said, “Well, yeah. What is it?”

And he says, “Well, I can’t tell you now, I just want to know if you would be interested in a real important art deal that has high visibility.”

I said, “Yeah, I’d like to talk to you about it.”

And he says, “When I get some more information, I’ll call you.” He called me back in a month and says, “Are you still interested in this?”

And I say, “Well, I’d like to talk about it, sure.”

He says, “I’ll call you in a couple of days,” and he called me back in a couple of days, and he says, “Well, here’s the story. We’re working on a reality show, and we’re working with Thomas Kincaid, and we’re looking for an artist, and you’ve been recommended to be his foil, his anti-artist.”


WILLIAMS: And I said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” [Dooley laughs.] I have respect for the guy, and I’ve had to defend him in Juxtapoz, and he’s an artist, and I’ll come to his defense, but I can’t stand his shit. His stuff is innocuous, and it’s created for a certain audience. The stuff’s been designed to go well with colonial revival furniture, and I’m just not the right guy for this thing.

A Thomas Kinkaid painting  Glen Dahlman

DOOLEY: [Laughs.] Well, to bring back a positive note, wrapping things up, the Masters of American Comics show and things like that that are happening. You got to see the exhibit at MOCA downtown and the Hammer?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I saw both of them, yeah.

DOOLEY: So what was your take on that?

WILLIAMS: That was wonderful. And I’ll tell you, when I was at MOCA on Grand Street, and I walked by a bunch of Robert Crumbs and a few other artists, and then I accidentally went into the next room, which was the museum’s permanent collection, I about shit. [Dooley laughs.] I about shit. It looked like a bunch of helpless children were in there. It looked like some helpless children got in there as a therapy. The first thing I came to was a [Bruce] Nauman, and I thought, “Oh god damn.” How do people tolerate this stuff? [Dooley laughs.] I’m looking at this fucking thing. One minute I’m looking at this bitchin’ fuckin’ comic-book thing, and the next thing, I’m looking at this Nauman. And it’s not the artist’s fault, it’s the idiots that tolerate it. [Dooley laughs.] There’s people that are as fucking blind as Colombian fruit bats. They’ve got the retinal sensitivity of Colombian fruit bats. They just go by what’s a name, you know?

DOOLEY: Branding.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. They can’t see one thing from a fucking ’nother. And it’s on the highest level, the highest level of the arts. It’s people in the most powerful positions that push that shit.

DOOLEY: Meanwhile, you’ve certainly paved a way. You were mentioning Walter Hopps and the Helter Skelter show and all that stuff. I was talking about this with Esther. She was appreciating the ground you were breaking that, like you say, it’s no longer that hard for curators to think about giving them wall space.

WILLIAMS: That’s right. Well, Jeffrey Deitch is over at MOCA now, and he’s from New York, and he used to read Zap Comix, and he put on that incredible street show down there that was an enormous success. They’re gonna throw him out. He had a five-year tenure, and he’s been in there two and a half years, they’ll throw him out.

DOOLEY: Oh, really? Why?

WILLIAMS: Because he’s doing too good, and he’s going against their grain. [Deitch resigned as MOCA’s director in 2013, two years before his five-year contract was to expire, when the museum was experiencing budget deficits and revenue losses.] I talked to him about it, and I said, “Well, when they throw you out, you still gonna stick around L.A.?” And he says yeah, he likes it out here. That institution is so entrenched in that crap, you can’t kick it out. It has to die out. I was told that they’ll never let me back into MOCA. I was 86’d out of MOCA.

DOOLEY: [Laughs.] Official.

WILLIAMS: Jeffrey Deitch got me in there with two paintings, and there was a shit-fit over it.

DOOLEY: I know his street-art show had Vaughn Bodē and Gary Panter.

Work by Jeffrey Deitch-endorsed artist Swoon.  Rani777

WILLIAMS: Sure. That’s right. But it’s an established situation. They have to buck foundations, and a lot of powerful people. I’m about as good as I’ll ever get. Well, I’m so fortunate to be with Tony, and Tony’s such an asshole. [Dooley laughs.] Tony understands, but he’s an asshole, but he knows. He has a good understanding of my position.

DOOLEY: In what way is he an asshole? I don’t know that much about him personally.

WILLIAMS: Well, he’s very, very difficult, and he wants the best. And the best has to swing with the powers that be. And I don’t. But he understands what I’m doing, so he has this inner conflict of being behind me, but having reservations about me. He’ll have very powerful people come in to see my work, and they’ll just not understand it. It’s too cartoony; they can’t reference it, you know. And I’m just a thorn in a lot of people’s sides. One critic for The New York Times, his every review in the last 20 years has just cut my balls off, always. He knows who I am, and he just clips ’em off every show I have in New York.

DOOLEY: New York Times … Kimmelman?

WILLIAMS: No, Ken Johnson.


WILLIAMS: This little gentleman has just got a thing for me that will not let up. He just sees me as the problem that is starting to corrode the art world.

DOOLEY: What’s his take on your work?

WILLIAMS: He runs it down in whatever direction he can. He said I’m Norman Rockwell’s evil twin. He just runs it down whatever way he can. He says it’s just bad-boy art, and he’s vitriolic about it. There’s no way I can protect myself with it. But on the other hand when I had my last show in New York with Tony … there’s a magazine called New York magazine, not New Yorker, and one issue, it had my show with Tony Shafrazi as the premier thing in all of Manhattan. That had to ring a bell. That had to fucking ring a bell. I was so fucking proud of that. Everything in Manhattan. That’s the big shows on Broadway, that’s fucking everything. It was the pick of the week, for one week.

DOOLEY: You talked about feeling like an old hillbilly in the way you’ve been around a while, and another generation’s coming up.

WILLIAMS: You know, Juxtapoz magazine started a whole thing of art, and as soon as a trend starts, it starts diluting just as fast as it starts, and it just gets hundreds of thousands of people in it, and it becomes this calm, pathetic thing. And I’m watching this happen to a thing I started. And the more I bitch about it, the more enemies I make, and that’s something. Instead of the wonderful opportunities of the use and expansion of the imagination, it’s just this tender crap.

DOOLEY: Well, I think we’ve covered a whole lot of territory there. Are there any other thoughts on comics and art?

WILLIAMS: I’d like to end on a positive note. There’s a lot of young artists now that are coming up, that are drawing, and the restrictions on draftsmanship are not there like they used to be. And the future really, really looks good. It’s just a matter of tenacity and sticking with it. Developing a rich imagination. And it’s hard for people to develop a wild imagination, because of their peer group inhabitance and things like that, but the opportunities are there, and they’re there because a lot of people laid on the barbed wire.

Transcribed by Kara Krewer