The room was full of fans and devotees of Robert Williams, iconoclastic idol of the West Coast underground scene, so they might have loved what he was saying anyway. Regardless, the artist and illustrator was speaking at the Museum of Modern Art at the opening night event for a film series based around Juxtapoz, an art magazine he founded. That didn’t stop Williams — who looked like a cool uncle, or the art teacher who turned you onto rockabilly — from taking potshot after potshot at the New York art scene in “the cathedral of modern art.”
Williams’ desire for acceptance, but acceptance on his own terms, is one of the major themes of ROBERT WILLIAMS: MR. BITCHIN’, which was the aformentioned opening night event at MoMa. The documentary, started in the eighties and recently completed, also functions as a primer to the underground and alternative art movements of the post-World War II era. There’s not a ton of hand-holding — the movie summarizes the history of hot rods but expects you to know who Robert Crumb is — but Williams is a great guide through his career. He’s funny, insightful, wickedly smart, and always entertaining, even when — especially when — he’s talking about how theoretical physics inform his work.
Since the long production of the film accounts for an annoying, inconsistent filming style — scenes will shift from video to film to digital to MTV News clips that show just how much the network doesn’t care about its archives and back again — Williams remains the one consistent, whether he’s reading letters from prisoners, responding to critics about his “misogynistic” work, describing how he painted Anthony Kiedis and Debbie Harry, or looking pretty awkward as Axl Rose gives him a platinum record. (Williams provided the original, controversial cover art for Appetite for Destruction.)
And what Williams has to say resonates. The movie ends on an up note, with one of Williams’ many fans comparing him to The Beatles (a bit much), and gallery shows in New York and Los Angeles, but the key quote in Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’ comes earlier in the film.
Williams, while discussing one of his larger, more esoteric paintings, refers back to his formal, art school training, and how even though the work he does today is as far from that as you can possibly get, it’s important to him. His training taught him the rules of art, which allows him to break those rules, to find his own way from those rules. Once he’s mastered the rules, he can go off on the flights of fancy that set his work apart.
But because he knows those rules — because he knows how it’s always been done — you know he’s got command of his craft and art. And while it’s hilarious and iconoclastic to see him bash the New York art scene at MoMa, Williams’ advice, and other advice like it in MR. BITCHIN’, resonates for all struggling to create art outside the mainstream.