Icons of 1960s counterculture often fizzled or self-destructed even before their 15 minutes were up. But not underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. Like his most famous creation, Fritz the Cat, Crumb seems to be running through multiple lives, as a wickedly dark commentator on America with an apparently inexhaustible supply of ideas all of which are on display at the exhibition "Robert Crumb: A Chronicle of Modern Times" at London's Whitechapel Art Gallery.
Crumb's brilliant, savage but also truly comic strips earned him immediate cult status when they were first published in the U.S. in the late '60s. His creations suited the mood of the time an ebullient rejection of the preceding conformist, suburban decades. He drew and wrote whatever came into his mind, including fantasies of bizarre sex and physical disintegration, delineated with meticulous strokes of the pen.
Visitors to the Whitechapel show, which runs until May 22, can trace the genesis of Fritz the Cat in pencil frames, interspersed with doodles of the large women Crumb adores. Fritz bounces down lovingly detailed streets, speaking in long, melodramatic balloons: "My Gabrielle! That you should deem me worthy of you fills me with an indescribable joy!" Crumb is not above making fun of himself, either. In San Francisco Comic Book No. 3 (1970), he imagines a TV interviewer pontificating: "Even in your most twisted, deranged ... uhh ... sick drawings, there is definitely a deeper significance that goes beyond the crude sadistic surface level." Though there are just 164 images at the Whitechapel, it takes some time to get round the show, because you just can't resist reading hilarious dialogue like this.
"A Chronicle of Modern Times" covers a good stretch of Crumb's career, from his early formative years to his recent autobiographical work. If it all gets too much, there's a chance to drop out, or at least drop off, in a chill-out zone with Crumb's music on the soundtrack. He plays the banjo, composes his own music, and is into early jazz.
Crumb's wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, is also a cartoonist and sometimes they produce his-and-hers strips he draws him, she draws her. A Day in Our Beautiful Life (2000) shows them after they moved to a French village in the early '90s. She's appalled that it's so hard to shop, but eventually the couple conclude that the French, by having concerns other than making a buck, have left a lot of good stuff alone if it ain't broke, they don't fix it.
Unlike Americans. City of the Future (1966-67) shows impossibly curvy, port-holed buildings, mocking a postwar attitude that led the country to destroy and deface too much of the past for Crumb's taste: "There is a big wonderful future tomorrow full of monumental achievements!...Everyone will be tuned into everything that's happening all the time! No one will be left out. We will all be normal!"
Crumb's family was anything but normal. His father was a "sadistic bully," his mother an amphetamine addict. In 1962, aged 18, their talented, self-taught son was taken on by a greetings-card company. Five years later he left his steady job to join the hippies in San Francisco. But he was too embarrassed to sport velvet and ringlets, and never felt like he belonged. O.K., he took drugs, but he carried right on working. Hallucinations actually helped to create his distinctive style. In the throes of a "bad trip," he recalled images he used to love and copy as a kid and realized cute cartoon animals were actually "grotesque and nightmarish," says Peter Poplaski, longtime friend and co-author of The R. Crumb Handbook (MQ Publications; 442 pages), published last month.
Crumb has recently begun to confront his personal history in his work. In the strip Walkin' the Streets (2004), he shows himself strolling at night with his older brother, Charles, locked in intense mental exchange. Charles killed himself in 1995. Crumb has also drawn their addicted mother, who tried and failed miserably to maintain the facade of normal family life. "There's a strong confessional element," says the Whitechapel's Anthony Spira. "He's constantly confessing his sins, his deepest urges, desires, fantasies." Says Crumb's wife, "As he's gotten older, he's questioned his spiritual center, his self, more and more." He has castigated his native country for its ugliness and greed, but, she says: "I don't think he has ever hated America. He longs for an America that once was, or never was." Revisiting the past his own and the wider world's, real or imagined should ensure his future remains worth watching.