As films featuring superheroes from Marvel and DC comic books continue to dominate box offices around the world, a less heralded group of comic characters and their artists from the countercultural Underground Comix movement of the 1960s and 1970s are still redefining graphic arts, comics, and cartoons.
Robert Crumb was among the most famous and prolific artists associated with the “comix” movement – satirical, self-published, and focused on content forbidden by the mainstream Comics Code Authority – with his role as a founder of Zap Comix; creator of counterculture characters in comic strips including “Fritz the Cat,” “Mr. Natural,” and “Keep on Truckin'”; and illustrator of album covers, most notably “Cheap Thrills” by Big Brother and the Holding Company, whose lead singer was Janis Joplin, and “The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead.”
An exhibition titled “R. Crumb: Drawings, Prints & Books,” is on display at The Contemporary Art Galleries, located in the Art Building, through March 6. The works by Crumb are from the collection of Dale AJ Rose, professor emeritus of acting, and the director of performance training and associate artistic director for the Connecticut Repertory Theatre, who has collected Crumb’s art for more than 50 years.
Crumb’s work was influenced by earlier cartoonists such as Disney’s Carl Banks, the cross-hatch pen-and-ink realism of the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer, and Harvey Kurtzman, founder of Mad Magazine, the humorous and satirical publication that started as a comic book in 1952.
Rose says he discovered Crumb’s comic art in 1967 while visiting friends in Berkeley, California, a time and place where America’s counterculture in music, politics, art, and social behavior was gaining national attention.
“I liked [Crumb’s] philosophy. I liked the kind of stuff that was social-political and it interested me in the way I was interested in Dylan and listening to Marvin Gaye at Motown,” Rose says. “I found that Crumb was on that parallel, too.”
Rose collected signed prints, individual comic books, compilations of comic strips and sketches, filmed interviews with the artist, and sculptural items depicting Mr. Natural. While teaching at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, students he advised came to know his interest in Crumb’s art. They presented him with the coffee table book “The Art of R. Crumb” as a gift, saying they wanted to encourage his interest in collecting works by the artist.
“I began to think I was becoming a collector,” he says.
At one point, Crumb began a dialogue with collectors of his work to determine whether to use one panel or two panels for a drawing of the unreliable holy man Mr. Natural and his neurotic disciple, Flakey Foont.
“The one panel piece ends, kind of OK. The second panel piece ends with, ‘But I don’t want to die.’ Mr. Natural says, ‘Get Over it,’ ” Rose says. “I loved that so much. I voted for the second panel. I was in the minority, but Crumb created 20 of them for those us who voted for the second panel. That’s as close as I’ve gotten to meet him.”
At the exhibition, the framed cover art of “Cheap Thrills,” in vinyl and compact disc versions, is prominent as visitors enter. Rose says Crumb’s original design for the album cover was a portrait of Joplin performing with a microphone and displaying a tattoo on her right arm saying, “Southern Comfort,” but the singer did not like it. She told Crumb to develop another idea by the next morning or she would seek a new artist.
“He stayed up all night and created that iconic cover for Cheap Thrills,” Rose says of the famous work, which also served as liner notes for the recording that includes all the song titles and credits for musicians, songwriters, and production.
Rose notes that by the 1980s, Crumb felt his work was being seen as limited because of his close association with the underground comix style and his themes of graphic sex, sexism, and violence. However, a 1994 documentary film by Terry Zwigoff called “Crumb” revived interest in the artist, who has subsequently produced acclaimed work like a graphic novel biography of Franz Kafka, and an unabridged, illustrated edition of the Book of Genesis.
Rose says the exhibition has provided him with a unique opportunity to enjoy his collection of Crumb’s art.
“It’s kind of giddy to see the pieces together like a family,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve seen everything on a wall. I can’t fit everything I have on my walls at home. It’s kind of joyous to see the pieces.”
Among the items on display:
• An array of Zap Comix, including a serigraph of Zap #1
• Covers of “Weirdo” magazine
• “The Book of Genesis: All 50 Chapters”
• A serigraph of Fritz the Cat
• Portraits of blues musicians from “R. Crumb’s “Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country”
• “Let’s Talk Sense About This Here Modern America”
• “Keep on Truckin” poster
• Portrait of Franz Kafka
• Video interview with Dale AJ Rose, discussing the collection
“R. Crumb: Drawings, Prints & Books,” is on display at The Contemporary Art Galleries, 830 Bolton Road, Storrs, through March 6. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit the Contemporary Art Galleries website.