The world of Lowbrow Art was shocked and saddened on April 22, when 59-year-old Juxtapoz publisher Fausto Vitello died suddenly of a heart attack while riding his bike in Woodside, California. Vitello was, of course, best known for his High Speed Productions flagship skateboard publication Thrasher (which disseminated its own unique punk aesthetic vision — call it Gnarlism), but when he decided in 1994 to band together with Robert Williams, Craig Stecyk, Greg Escalante and a handful of other Lowbrow luminaries to launch a magazine to chronicle the amorphous post-punk stew of hot rods, tattoos, comics, commercial illustration and other unacceptable fringe elements of visual culture, he tapped into a global vein of art-world frustration and catapulted Lowbrow from a local subculture into an international phenomenon.
Intended, as Williams wrote in the first issue, “to stay below everyone’s dignity,” Juxtapoz has gone on to staggering success, out-circulating Artforum and Art in America and spearheading the enormous popular commercial success of Lowbrow — which arguably prompted the mainstream art world’s conspicuous recent embrace of quirky figurative work and the whole Alleged school of graffiti artists. “In a world of rebels, freethinkers and the arty fringe,” says Escalante, “Fausto was a beacon of focused business sense that made the coolest ideas work.” In spite of its tremendous cultural impact, Juxtapoz wasn’t even mentioned in Vitello’s rather snarky New York Times sports-section obit. This probably comes as a relief to the Lowbrows, as it proves that their outsider stance remains more than just a pose.
But they’d better watch out. Even as the N.Y. Times ignores Lowbrow’s existence, other signs of legitimacy are springing up closer to home. One is the 420-page coffee-table tome, published by L.A.’s Tornado Design, devoted to the life and work of the movement’s most central and idiosyncratic progenitor. The Art of Von Dutch is beautifully designed, incorporating over a thousand photos alongside essays and remembrances from dozens of contributors chronicling the exploits and influence of the painter, gunsmith, inventor and “originator of modern pinstriping.” While Von Dutch (born in 1929 in Huntington Park as Kenneth Howard) will probably perversely remain best known for his signature — reproduced without context on a million T-shirts and trucker caps — Tornado Design’s tribute furthers the canonization of the antisocial genius who first applied the baroque decorative line work to automobiles. It’s a process Tornado began (along with Escalante and gallerist Doug Nason) with the “An American Original” exhibition at Cal State Northridge in 2002, which compiled a bewildering array of artworks and memorabilia drawn largely from the collection of the Brucker brothers, art patrons and proprietors of the MovieWorld: Cars of the Stars tourist destination in Buena Park.
At one time the Brucker collection was home to more than a thousand cars, including Bonnie and Clyde’s Death Car, the Beatles’ psychedelic Bentley, an eight-cylinder Horch given to Eva Braun by “Adolph” Hitler (whom the MovieWorld signage also helpfully identified as “Infamous Nazi dictator responsible for the torture, death and grief of millions and who himself died miserable as a coward” — in case you didn’t know), and several of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s revolutionary cartoonish kustom-jobs such as the Surfite, the Beatnik Bandit, and his 1962 hovercraft prototype, the Rotar. Roth was, in fact, the artistic director of MovieWorld, introducing the Bruckers to the work of Robert Williams, Ed Newton and Dave Mann, mainstay artists of his recently collapsed Rat Fink mail-order empire, whose work they began to collect. Three years on, Von Dutch parked his bus on the property to begin an extended term as artist in residence, which, in addition to expanding the Bruckers’ art and gun collections, resulted in the above-quoted Hitler biography and a plethora of equally oddball institutional signage.
It’s easy to see why MovieWorld has, in retrospect, taken on a reputation as ground zero for the Lowbrow and Kustom Kulture movements. After closing its doors in 1979, much of the MovieWorld collection was put into storage in an 80,000-square-foot warehouse and forgotten for decades — until now. Working with RM Auctions, the Bruckers are selling off their collection in two large events, the first of which takes place this Saturday at the Petersen Automotive Museum. It’s a first for RM, which specializes in cars, not vintage Rat Fink sweatshirts and custom-made black powder pistols. But since it’s a first for the Lowbrow movement as well, there really aren’t any specialists. Which probably accounts for the wild inclusiveness of the auction and the almost random estimates assigned to many of the items. While the handful of vehicles — including a multiple-winning Howmet experimental helicopter-turbine-powered race car ($350,000-$450,000) and a 1940 Messerschmitt warplane ($250,000-$350,000) — are undoubtedly priced accurately, how do you assess the value of Von Dutch’s personally engraved yellow screwdriver ($200-$300), a one-of-a-kind (but unattributed) papier-mâché mask of Gilbert Shelton’s underground-comix hero Wonder Warthog ($300-$500), or a chain-mail vest crafted from wire clothes hangers by Robert Williams ($2,000-$3,000)?
In a sense, this auction is a sort of test of the Lowbrow market — sure, you can unload any number of SHAG’s tiki-flavored lithographs and Bettie Page Zippo lighters, but is someone really going to step up and pay a cool half-million for Robert Williams’ 1968 psychedelic masterpiece In the Land of Retinal Delights? Are there more than a dozen collectors willing to put out several Gs for one of Dave Mann’s thrift-store visionary biker paintings? On the other hand, many of the items created by Dutch and Roth for the MovieWorld displays seem underpriced, as if their utilitarian function undermined their skewed Pop sensibility or historical significance, when, in fact, it is their inextricable relationship to an authentic and original underground aesthetic that gives them the quality of relics. The abundance of Von Dutch memorabilia in particular — apart from his Surrealist paintings, kinetic sculptures and demented cartoons — benefits from the aura imbued by his cultlike status. Dozens of tools, large and small; items of clothing; his flute, a toilet, a water fountain, a wall clock — nothing passed through his hands without being modified — were simply branded with that iconic signature or completely reconfigured into something new and strange. This is the essence of art — the act of designating something as special, of standing apart from conventional mundane reality and pointing to a deeper, wilder, sexier and more dangerous order of reality where being human still has some possibilities. Von Dutch knew that, Fausto Vitello knew that, and, to a great extent, the Lowbrow art world knows that. Even if the N.Y. Times doesn’t.
THE ORIGINATORS: THE BRUCKER COLLECTION | RM Auctions at the Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles | Preview May 9-13 | Gala ?reception May 12, 6-9 p.m. (invited and ?registered bidders) | Auction May 13, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. | www.rmauctions.com ?(online catalog and bidding)
THE ART OF VON DUTCH | Compiled by AARON KAHAN, DOUGLAS NASON, AL QUATROCCHI and JEFF SMITH | Tornado Design | 420 pages | $75 hardcover