“ZAP: Masters of Psychedelic Art 1965-1974” at Andrew Edlin Gallery

Artist:  Zap Comix Artists, Title: Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson, Art 'n' Artists cover, December '69 - click for larger imageRobert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson, cover illustration for Art ‘n’ Artists (1969), ink on paper, 12″ x 10″; courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery

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This exhibition at Andrew Edlin Gallery is reminiscent of nothing so much as Wild Things: The Art of Maurice Sendak, a show mounted by The Jewish Museum in 2005. What do the author and illustrator of venerable children’s books like Where The Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen have in common with the scatological fantasies of the men who invented underground “comix”?

Visionary integrity and stylistic surety; maybe even clarity of purpose. But mostly they were creating images intended for reproduction. S. Clay Wilson no less than Sendak (or, for that matter, Norman Rockwell) expressly geared their pictures for mass consumption.  The original drawings are, in a pivotal way, beside the point.

Fans of the genre will appreciate seeing, in the flesh, the meticulous craft that went into, say, Robert Williams’ Masterpiece On The Shithouse Wall. But doing so doesn’t improve upon reading it in Zap Comics #6. Given Williams’ tendency to overload each panel with textures and patterns, it is, in fact, a relief to encounter the cartoon in print. Williams’ all but impenetrable drawings are difficult enough to parse without having to take in the myriad corrections done on the original.

Stylistically, the majority of ZAP artists—Williams, in particular, but also Wilson, Spain Rodriguez, Victor Moscoso and the late Rick Griffin—favored excess over clarity, energetic clutter over legibility. In terms of line, shape and form, the work can be hard to decipher. Rodriguez’s muscular riffs on superhero comics and Wilson’s folkloric cornucopias of dismemberment and base sex gain crude vigor from pictorial overabundance. Moscoso and Griffin—the former studied with Josef Albers—erred on the side of meticulous, migraine-inducing elegance. Notwithstanding the all-inclusive exhibition title, Moscoso and Griffin are the only true psychedelic artists on view.

As for Gilbert Shelton and R. Crumb: they are, in their reliance on comic strip norms, the most conservative artists of the bunch. (American Greetings hired the young Robert Crumb because his rubbery, cutesy-pie style fit their corporate aesthetic.) As such, they offer the clearest ties to vintage comics like Krazy Kat and Thimble Theater, to Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD Magazine, drag-racing cartoons, sight gags and character continuity. Here the comics underground lovingly poached upon mainstream convention.

Of course, any underground phenomena over the course of time becomes mainstream, becomes the litmus test and not the experiment. And so it is with the ZAP crew. The Chelsea-fication of Crumb & Company points as much to our culture’s ability to absorb the outré as it does to their inescapable contribution to the art of the comic strip.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 14, 2011 edition of City Arts.

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