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Robert Williams: Hyena at a Dog Show

PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON

If you are traveling in contemporary creative circles, the work — or legend — of painter Robert Williams has likely influenced you in some way.

In the '60s, Williams realized that hot rods could be art via his car collection and his work with Ed Roth.

In the '70s, Williams saw that comics could be art through his work at Zap Comix.

In the '80s, he was on the cover of Thrasher magazine, blending skateboarding and art, then a new concept.

In the '90s, he created Juxtapoz magazine.

That history will be included in a documentary that premieres at LACMA on June 16. Mr. Bitchin', Robert Williams features early footage shot by friend and famed photographer CR Stecyk.

But Williams isn't done yet.

Now 67, the restless artist celebrates 2010 as an inductee of the current Whitney Biennial, the prestigious international showcase in New York, which chose to include Williams' series of sublime and beautiful watercolors, a bit of a departure from his aggressive, intricate oil paintings.

"I'm so grateful and honored to be in it; I wonder if they know my significance," Williams says. "I'm like a hyena at a dog show."

Additionally unprecedented for Williams this year is his collection of wily, colorful, 7-foot-high fiberglass sculptures, showcased only at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York, with a short stop in an impressive solo exhibit at Cal State Northridge.

Sculpture seems a natural evolution of Williams' artistic process, because he has built and collected hot rods for years. "A hot rod has an abstract art ethic that's really exciting. It was very much like building a car, but the cars have a rational conclusion. I was in the forest on this. I hope there will be more of these [sculptures] in the future."

Visiting with Williams and his wife, Suzanne, at their house in the Valley is a bit surreal. Their ranch and its surrounds are eerily immaculate considering it's the home work space of two prolific artists/grease monkeys. Save for the classical music playing and the soft lapping of the water in the backyard pool, it's also almost completely still.

Their home looks like a perfectly re-created set for a movie in the early '70s, with a white carpet, popcorn ceilings and a wet bar.

However, instead of traditional rooms, the house features two huge studios — his and hers — and a floor-to-ceiling library, with two wingback chairs recently upholstered in textured red velvet.

Not a TV or a computer is in sight.

After being schooled by Williams on the obtuse nature of abstract expressionism and getting the lowdown on the evolution of Lowbrow, I was offered a coveted ride in his '32 Ford Coupe.

"I have a feeling that art is really on the verge of a big change," Williams predicts while driving fast. "Even the stuffiest people are gonna have to come around. It's just going to be flipped out.

"I've got so much hope for the West Coast, it's not going to be long before Los Angeles will totally dominate the world of art.

"L.A. has a free power. I can sense that I'm popular in New York now because of the culture in L.A. They see it coming.

"I don't know that it's jealousy, but it's concern," Williams adds. "A storm front on the horizon."


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