10 Questions with Juxtapoz Founder Robert Williams

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

click to enlarge Robert Williams, Purple as an Inexplicable Poetic Force, 2015, Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches. - COURTESY OF MESA CONTEMPORARY ARTS MUSEUM
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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble