Robert Crumb is the world’s most famous underground cartoonist. So much so that the 72-year-old doesn’t really count as ‘underground’ any more, having long ago left the countercultural ‘comix’ scene and moved into the realm of art galleries. Along the way, his subject matter has expanded too, from his original, acid-fried strips of the 1960s, through documentary forays into the lives of obscure blues musicians and Kafka, to his recent magisterial, comic-book version of the Book of Genesis.
One aspect that hasn’t changed much over time, though, is his sexual fantasies. Crumb has always been the most lascivious of artists, happy to give full rein to his erotic imagination. And it’s very particular type of woman he goes for: muscular, beefy, posteriorly ample. Think, essentially, Serena Williams. At the start of his career, his fetishistic caricatures were often regarded as misogynistic. But in his ‘Art & Beauty’ series, produced from the mid-’90s onwards and shown in its near entirety here, his vision of women is much more respectful, even reverential.
Williams herself features amongst the 54 works on display, as do other sports stars, their powerful, athletic poses taken from newspapers. Mobile phone snaps are another source – sexualised selfies posted online, or street shots of random, strong-looking girls – while other works depict life models. Small and monochrome, the drawings reflect Crumb’s mature, realist style, using intense crosshatching, and often incorporate appended text – quotes from famous artists, or Crumb’s own, philosophical ruminations on femininity.
The results are complex and contradictory – obsessional and voyeuristic, yet oddly sweet; determinedly tongue-in-cheek (the title, ‘Art & Beauty’, stems from a nudie mag of ‘artists’ models’), yet deeply sincere. In other words, it’s a fascinating, nuanced, multi-faceted body of work – and a testament to one of the world’s most unique artists at the height of his powers.