What is this art that defies convention and is nearly impossible to label?

Think back to the sleek customized hot rod cars seen in 1960s Southern California. Consider the intensely personal “comix” of MacArthur genius (and Seattle native) Lynda Barry and those of her colleague Matt Groening. Look at the X-rated comics of R. Crumb and the hugely controversial cover of the Guns N’ Roses debut album “Appetite for Destruction,” created by Robert Williams.

These are bold and complex works. They engage some viewers — and upset others. They were so challenging to the traditional fine arts world that in 1994 a group of artists and collectors had to found a new magazine, Juxtapoz, just to ensure that these burgeoning scenes got the coverage they deserved.

Today, Juxtapoz boasts the largest circulation of any art magazine in the U.S. Works from what was once an underground art scene now grace major museums and private collections.

Now Seattle can get a look at the recent works of one of the founders of the alternative art movement. The Bellevue Arts Museum exhibition “Robert Williams: The Father of Exponential Imagination” offers more than 40 paintings and two striking sculptures by the California-based artist. The exhibit coincides with release of a coffee-table book of Williams’ complete works from Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books.

Fine art meets hot rods

Alternative art emerged from a dramatic collision of lowbrow media with fine arts technique. Williams, for example, sought a career as a fine artist but became frustrated with his art school’s focus on abstract expressionism. He veered into new territory in the 1960s when a job hunt landed him a position as art director in the studio of hot-rod builder Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Roth was at the center of the Southern California “Kustom Kulture” made immortal by Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism piece “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…” Stanley Mouse, co-creator of the iconic skeleton-and-roses artwork of the Grateful Dead, also came through Roth’s studio.

While Roth’s cars and his “Rat Fink” cartoon character were transforming art in South California, psychedelic art was taking hold in the San Francisco Bay Area. Williams, who does not hesitate to mix erotic images and political commentary into his art, soon found a home at Zap Comix along with Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin. While many of the artists involved with comic books, movie and concert posters, trading cards, surfer art and hot rod illustration in the 1960s and 1970s remained working in those media, Crumb, Williams and their colleagues broke boundaries and eventually propelled alternative art into mainstream galleries and museums.

“The Specter of Comeuppance,” Robert Williams, 2011
“The Specter of Comeuppance,” Robert Williams, 2011

“Today you have Robert Crumb as highbrow art and you have the works of psychedelic graphic artist Jim Woodring at the Frye,” says Benedict Heywood, executive director of BAM. He references the street art of the political activist known as Banksy and the satirical sculptures of Maurizio Catalan, who created the notorious gold toilet titled “America” for the Guggenheim Museum. “You can see this direction reflected in contemporary art.”

Shock and fascination

“People’s reaction to this type of work is a mixture of shock and fascination with the ideas and admiration for the craft,” Heywood observes. “With Robert Williams, there is a starting point of each painting, which is then built upon with self-referential and self-destructive imagery. He is not painting what is in front of him, he’s painting what he sees in his head. He calls it “exponential imagination” — the idea that imagination will feed back on itself, getting bigger and bigger until it self-destructs.”

“Creation Trumps Creator,” Robert Williams, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Fantagraphics.)
“Creation Trumps Creator,” Robert Williams, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Fantagraphics.)

Eric Reynolds, associate publisher of Fantagraphics, has spent the past two years working on the Williams’ retrospective book. Still, the paintings and sculpture in the BAM exhibition had an impact when he encountered them in person.

“Stepping into the museum and seeing these canvases for the first time — well, they do have visceral power over me,” he says.

Reynolds is excited about the appearance of artists from the exponential imagination becoming available to the public through museums. “This was transgressive 20 years ago,” he says, “but I think people today are very much open to it.”

The Robert Williams exhibition at BAM runs through March 8, 2020.

Bellevue Arts Museum provides a public forum for the community to contemplate, appreciate, and discuss visual culture. The Museum works with audiences, artists, makers and designers to understand our shared experience of the world.