Feature

R. Crumb’s Underground

A new exhibition of Robert Crumb's work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia aims to “take the measure of” this most unusual and controversial artist.

R. Crumb’s UndergroundInstitute of Contemporary Art PhiladelphiaThrough Dec. 7

The “self-loathing father of underground comics” has finally been welcomed into the artistic mainstream, said Dan DeLuca in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Robert Crumb first gained notoriety in the late 1960s for creating “acid-trip inspired characters like the devious Mr. Natural” and the hypersexual Fritz the Cat. Such comics have both “been criticized as racist and misogynist, and praised as critiques of racism and misogyny.” A new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, the largest gathering ever of his works in the United States, aims to “take the measure of” this most unusual artist. “He’s been compared to such social critics as 19th-century French artist Honoré Daumier as often as he’s been labeled a pathological pornographer.” But a better analogy might be that Crumb’s role in comic-book history is “similar to Bob Dylan’s in pop music”: He threw open the doors of a commercialized art form to “a more inward-looking expression,” capturing the spirit of his times, and inspiring “hordes of imitators.”

“Crumb is not the only artist to cross over from the comic-book ghetto to the fine-art museum,” said Ken Johnson in The New York Times. But, more than most, he has a claim to belong there. “An intrepid explorer of his own twisted psyche,” Crumb chronicles his lust for strong women in scenes of disturbing erotic fantasies, but does so with “curiously old-fashioned draftsmanship” and an eye for satiric detail. Likewise, Crumb can create trippy, LSD-inspired scenes, but just as often his stippled ink drawings are “grounded in mundane reality.” Seeing the original works in person, rather than in reproduction, you can begin to understand how this apparent misfit went “from hero of the hippy underground to toast of the international art world.”

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