Robert Williams stands with one of his sculptures.
Robert Williams stands with one of his sculptures.
Courtesy of Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum

10 Questions with Juxtapoz Founder Robert Williams

Robert Williams, founder of art magazine Juxtapoz, is one of America's most renowned contemporary artists.

He's considered the father of the lowbrow art movement, which grew out of alternative art and underground cultures of the 1960s and '70s. But the California artist uses the term "conceptual realism" to describe his own work, which often layers dark, satirical images with sexual, religious, or political themes.

Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum is showing four exhibitions that explore fantasy or alternative realities this fall, including an exhibition of Williams works titled "Slang Aesthetics!" On view through January 21, 2018, the show includes two- and three-dimensional works, and each one has a panel mounted nearby that features text written by Williams to convey the ideas behind the pieces.

Phoenix New Times talked with Williams by phone in August, and these are some of the insights he shared.

Is your work autobiographical?
Only rarely. But on the other hand, obviously all of my art comes from me, so it has the trappings of my life and memories.

Do you work in a traditional art studio?
My studio is filled with antiquated art supplies and artifacts, in contrast to standard art studios for contemporary artists. It’s a like a pre-World War II studio. Most studios are larger and messier, and lend themselves to production.

Are you part of a specific art movement?
I belong to an arts movement that’s kind of undefinable. It’s kind of a feral art movement of realists that have been scourged and put themselves back together over the past 30 years. It’s been difficult to be a realist since World War II, because abstract expressionism has cramped realism, and pushed it towards illustration.

When I was an art student in the early ‘60s, you were either an abstract realist or you weren’t anything. But a lot of mangy characters have come back to realism through surfer art, hot rod culture, skateboard art, and tattoos. The art world put its foot on the neck of those things, and I’m an evil product of that.

I’m considered the father of lowbrow art, although it’s not a great term. A lot of young artists prefer the term pop surrealism, but that’s not applicable to me. I’m just left in the bushes, in the wilderness on my own.

Robert Williams, Purple as an Inexplicable Poetic Force, 2015, Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches.EXPAND
Robert Williams, Purple as an Inexplicable Poetic Force, 2015, Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches.
Courtesy of Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum

Why did you start Juxtapoz magazine?
I had always done paintings on my own, but could never get any shows. Along came the punk rock movement, and underground art shows in L.A. and New York. You could do anything you wanted, but it had to be pretty fucking flipped out and anti-social.

Music got write-ups. Surfing got write-ups. Everything but the goddamn art world got written about. So, I came up with the idea of doing an art magazine that would just have the stuff that was really far out there. At first it was quarterly, then bimonthly, before it went monthly. Everyone had to have them. This shitty little magazine was changing culture.

I started with a list of 125 possible names for the magazine. The publisher ran eight of them by their lawyers, and they picked Juxtapoz.

How did you first get interested in art?
I was told that when I was in diapers, my parents sat me down on top of butcher paper with a bunch of crayons. When I got older, I thought the bitches would be all over me because I could draw, but I was wrong.

Where do you get ideas for your work?
I sit down with books and other objects, and I have a lot of ideas, including bad ones. I see if there’s poetry in any of the ideas that link to one another, or the lyricism of anxieties. I come up with dumb ideas and then think about how they could be tied together. I’ve been writing my ideas down for years.

Robert Williams, Veil of Paternity, 2017, Oil on canvas, 33 x 29 inches.EXPAND
Robert Williams, Veil of Paternity, 2017, Oil on canvas, 33 x 29 inches.
Courtesy of Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum

What should people know about your “Slang Aesthetics!” exhibit?
I think the academic world is going to be put off a bit by it. And some people will think they can just walk in and spend 15 minutes with the exhibit. But the show was done for people with investigative imaginations. It’s not interior decoration. I’d rather be a wild idiot with imagination than a sophisticated idiot in a tuxedo. You might not like my work, but you will see an intrigue in it.

Any advice for young artists?
I never encourage people to become artists. But if you’re going to make art, never copy anybody else. And don’t do the same thing over and over again. Art is the only place in our whole society and culture where you can be as free-thinking as you want. I come from the comic book world, where there’s free rein of the imagination. If your works becomes too popular or profitable, it will be stale. As long as you’re struggling, you’ll keep the vitality.

How will the Trump era influence art?
The policies of the new administration could easily lead to a ‘60s-style revival in the art world. A lot of artists and young people might realize they have a dog collar on and decide they need to free themselves.

How do you spend your free time?
We have a library with thousands of books on topics like literature, religion, astronomy, anthropology, and the history of art. My wife has it neatly organized. Neither of us have a computer, so we’re living in the Stone Age. I watch learning and history channels, and way liberal comedy, on TV. And I watch Fox News to toughen me up.

I love the pathos of life. I’m not a violent person, but I am an animal and I have sexual needs. I give a lot of energy to working on old hot rods, and I like driving fast cars, especially my ’32 Ford Roadster. If it had a vagina, I’d fuck that car.

"Slang Aesthetics!" continues through January 21, 2018, at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum. Museum admission is free. Get details on the museum website.

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