His LSD-inspired heroes, rampant sex and frontal assaults on political correctness made comic artist Robert Crumb an icon of US counterculture, but why on earth, he wonders, put his work on show in a museum?
Crumb’s cult universe, from hippy-era characters such as Fritz the Cat to his cartoon take on the Bible, is on show — uncensored — until August at Paris’ Museum of Modern Art, hosting the largest-ever retrospective of his work.
Starting with the underground magazine Zap Comix, whose first issue Crumb sold on the streets of San Francisco in 1968, the show traces his career up to and beyond his 2009 reworking of The Book of Genesis, displayed in full.
“Crumb was totally in tune with the spirit of his times,” curator Sebastien Gokalp said ahead of the Friday opening. “A whole world of hippy culture found a visual expression with him, just as rock found a sound with the [Rolling] Stones or Bob Dylan.”
Under the spoof disclaimer, “For Adult Intellectuals Only,” Crumb “dealt with issues that touched everyone at the time, but that no one was talking about: love, sex, drugs, violence,” he said.
Many of the 600 works on display are original drawings shown for the first time, loaned by a handful of private collectors in Europe and the US.
“It’s a big deal, I’m impressed and I’m somewhat bewildered,” the 68-year-old Crumb told a press conference ahead of the Friday opening. “I never thought about being in museums, the book was always the most important for me.”
“But my wife is deeply impressed,” he teased. “She put on her best, most glamorous, outfit for the vernissage last night!”
Crumb and his wife Aline traveled up to Paris for the occasion from the village of Sauve in southern France, where they have lived a quietly eccentric existence for the past 21 years, in an old house by the river’s edge.
They also brought along half their village — about 50 people, from children to beret-wearing old men — who mingled with hotshot art dealers and gallery owners, sipping champagne and nibbling canapes at the VIP vernissage.
Aline Kominsky-Crumb sat front row the next day at the press conference, 64, but looking a generation younger in short black dress, orange tights, with long auburn hair and a nose ring, piping up brightly whenever her husband’s answers fell short.
A cartoonist like Crumb, she teaches a local yoga class, and has converted half the women in their village to it.
Crumb claims not to speak French and still cultivates a distance from French culture despite two decades in the country.
“Most of my work is still referential to America,” said the artist, who follows his country’s “absurd” politics from afar, with a conspiracy theorist’s suspicion that sends him digging constantly for alternative sources of news.
However, Aline suggests he has been changed more than he lets on by life away from the US, where “you are bombarded my media and distraction.”
“He eats really well, he lives really differently,” she said. “He’s gotten into different kinds of long, deep projects. I don’t think he ever would have done Genesis if we’d stayed in America.”
Despite living away from the crowds, Crumb says fame has cost him some of his youthful spontaneity: he had to drop his habit of doodling on napkins once they started selling for a high price.
“Cafe owners would be hovering to snatch them up the moment he finished,” Aline recalled.