do you go from Hot Rod magazines and underground comix to the 2010 Whitney
Biennial? Essentially, Robert Williams just let the rest of the world catch up
with him. Frankly, his psychedelic cars
and naked ladies are probably more aesthetically conservative than the rest of
the Whitney event. Of course, Williams
was not there to see it. He had his own
show at Cal State Northridge, drawing a more Williams-esque crowd. Mary C. Reese surveys the artist’s life and
work in Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’ (trailer here), which releases
today on DVD and VOD platforms.
did not look like much of a car guy when Ed “Big Daddy” Roth hired as the art
director for his magazine and t-shirt business, but he had a naturally affinity
for the company’s Rat Fink character.
Eventually, Williams’ work became too out there for Roth, but it was
perfect for ZAP Comix. Yet, Williams always considered himself a
painter first and foremost.
work has an almost baroque level of detail that is quite impressive. Nonetheless, his choice of subject matter often
generates controversy. In the past,
feminists have objected to his depictions of scantily clad (or outright naked)
women lounging on giant enchiladas. Guns
N’ Roses got an earful of such sentiments when they used his painting Appetite for Destruction on what became
their CD of the same name. While their
label initially moved Williams’ love-it-or-hate painting to the inside flap, the
band has since moved it back, without anyone seeming to notice.
Williams largely defined the look of the 1960’s (especially for those who held
to the notion that reading naughty comics was a political act in and of
itself), neither he nor Reese (and her battery of co-directors) get terribly
sidetracked by political discussions in Bitchin.’ Instead, we watch the artist’s old school canvas-stretching,
which is a rather telling moment. He
also is clearly devoted to his longtime wife Suzanne, who also happens to be
both an artist and a hotrod enthusiast, as well.
would have thought the late, great Artie Shaw of “Begin the Beguine” fame was a
Williams collector, but he indeed turns up here, perfectly willing to discuss
the painter’s work in an extended interview segment. Reese also talks to other colleagues and
fans, such as Slash, Axel Rose, Deborah Harry, Don Ed Hardy, and Williams’
gallerist, Tony Shafrazi.
Even if the not-so-counter-culture-anymore is
not your cup of tea, it is fascinating to hear Williams dissect his large scale
work, such as his portrait of the high-living King Farouk, A Life of Delusion. Reese
never really challenges the artist to take stock of the unintended consequences
of the era that made his reputation, which is hardly unexpected, but still leaves
a conspicuous hole in the film. Still,
Reese gives the audience a good sense of Williams’ personality and oeuvre. Recommended for the artists’ fans, Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’ is now
available on Cinema Libre’s home viewing platforms and screens tonight (7/30)
at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles.
Labels: Documentary, DVD, Robert Williams