There was a show in 1991 that I saw at the MoMA that altered significantly my perceptions about the difference between high and low art. What struck me most forcefully was how much better the low art looked than the high art. For example, seeing the original strips that Roy Lichtenstein had plagiarized/altered made me aware of just how the original work was vivid in its own right. Making “art” from it with the ironic detachment of the by then completely ennervated art world did little more than show just how void the contemporary art world was of any really creativity. So void that pilfering American culture in at showing how vapid it was only served to indict Pop art with the same kind of puerlity. The difference been that the low art had no pretentions to being high culture and could thus be enjoyed on their “low” merits.

But the biggest surprise was seeing Crumb’s pen and ink drawings next to Philip Guston’s. Guston either appropriated Crumb’s style or they arrived at it simultaneously. But I’m inclined to think the former, because Guston’s pen and ink drawing from the 50s wasn’t remotely what he was doing when he entered his comic figuration phase. His drawings don’t resemble any of his other work, but the bear a clear resemblance to Crumb’s.

An early 50s zen-influenced Guston ink drawing;

A 1971 Guston pen and Ink drawing at the time when Crumb’s drawings were already well established all over American pop culture.

R. Crumb East Village Other cover 1968

I find this one of the most interesting intersections of two artists from the high/low camps and want to try to look to see what I can find on who said what. I’ve heard the influence offloaded to Bud Fisher and George Herrimann. But the Guston is far closer to Crumb than he is to those two. Where do we get the hairy arms and hair around the crotch of the shorts and political parody from? Not Fisher and Herrimann. Herrimann, Fisher, and Eli Segar were Crumb ifluences as well. But to me that bad faith involved is that Crumb isn’t being acknowledged by Guston.

There’s a lithograph where Guston’s imagery pulls right alongside crumbs borrowing simplifed city buildings and the big shoes that are the Crumb trademark in this Guston litho. The imagery relates to Guston’s early works but it’s impossible for me to look at the image below of Guston’s without thinking of Crumb as well:

I’m not meaning to imply that Guston simply borrowed Crumb’s style. I’m merely wondered if he’d been aware of Crumb and the underground artists and there was some unacknowledged influence. I’ll have to try to find more sources to get closer to the truth.

Among some of Crumb’s stated influences as I’ve run across them are: Reginald Marsh, Walt Kelly and Fleischer Studio, Segar, Basil Wolverton. And it’s had not to see the influence of Mad artists like Elder and Kurtzmann, but I don’t know if Crumb himself noted them as influential.

Guston talks about Bud Fisher and Herriman in the new book of his intereviews. I need to get that out and find the references.

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11 Responses to Crumb/Guston

  1. trueoutsider says:

    Page 22 of the Clark Coolidge book of Guston interviews:

    Well, when I started I wanted to be a cartoonist, in fact. I like cartoons very much. Especially some of the older ones. I mean Bud Fisher and Chic YOung, and of, course, Sterrett. Those people. Well, those are the masters. Bu they’re marvelous. Cartooning now is nothing, but in the old days it was great. I used to love them. They were great draftsmen. Herriman, you know, Krazy Kat?

    It’s hard to believe he’s oblivious to the marvelous drawing of the artists in Mad Magazine, as well as Crumb and others in the Underground. Perhaps he hadn’t seen any comic books?

    • Steve says:

      First looking at the Crumb ink drawing here, of the cartoon characters in the street with the buildings in the back ground, I was initially at a loss as to figuring out whether it is high or low art. But after dwelling on the image it dawned on me that it is both at the same time. I love how the buildings on the city block sort of turn down the street almost imperceptibly, they don’t all face directly forward, and they become increasingly lighter as they go toward the left until the last building is an outlined white structure against a white cloud,…a very nice touch and one that I won’t forget. The sky, clouds, and street pavement are beautifully rendered as well. But I want to wipe out the cartoon characters from the scene completely. I’ve never liked bubble-thoughts in a drawing, they always intrude upon the art and upon my own thoughts, as if I’m being made to think a certain way. This is where so-called low art comes into play for me. I’m not judging Crumb’s reason for making this cartoon ( and thousands of others like it ), he needed money to live and this was his job. But it is fair for me to evaluate the result of his work according to my own sensibility. The street characters could have been as sincerely done as the background, not as a joke with a message, but with genuine parody of the human condition, which can be very comically portrayed without resorting to Hee-Haw charicatures or flat symbols like the sun. And probably this mix of low with the high is intentional on Crumb’s part. Maybe all art is a mix of low and high, with varying proportions. I’d rather look at a Crumb ink drawing than an extremely refined Gerome history painting. At least Crumb lets one breathe, with plenty of air and freedom, but some of that smug glorifying academy art smothers me and I can’t wait to get away from it. That supposed ‘high-minded’ junk actually crosses the line for me and ends up being ridiculous parody,…it can scrape the bottom sometimes. I once saw a Gerome exhibition with a friend, and as we moved through room after room of exquisitely proportioned forms and very studious realisim, we became increasingly frustration, and finally mad. By the time we finished we were both angry and needed air, as if we’d been caught in a labyrinth of lies. And confused, because the artist was so great at the craft of painting. So intentions matter very much, and it is on the basis of intentions that I ultimately discern between low & high. But intentions aren’t always blatantly clear, so a great deal of honest looking is required to understand just where the artist is really coming from.

  2. trueoutsider says:

    The words and balloons bother me as well. I picked up a copy of Crumb’s book of Genesis and had the same feeling you describe. The words and balloons are visually irritating but they’re of course necessary for comic books and comics in general.

    I can’t imagine Hogarth or Daumier with word and thought balloons adorning them without it looking like some kind of vandalism.

    Picasso doing comic format- Dream and Lie of Franco.

    Saul Steinberg doing comic format:

    Note, neither artist using word balloons.

    I saw the Gerome show at the Getty and had an identical reaction to yours. I started out mildly enjoying it… but as I moved along it was tedious and tiring. The technique strangled all the life out of the work. I also got tired of how contrived and formulaic the compositions were. What I always come back to is that there’s little of the artist’s emotions or vision in academic work. It’s didactic. It’s message painting.

    Actually, the artist who came to mind when I saw Gerome was Frederic Remington. The rocks in the Lion painting reminded of the kind of painting Remington does when painting rocks.–all those lavendar-purplish shadows. It’s hard to see in the digital images, but you can get the idea. Of course, Gerome’s painting is far more refined and sensitively painted. But the effects are just as calculated and coldly illustrative.



    Gerome and Remington are alike in that they’re both painters of romanticized fantasies. It’s fantasy illustration art. Fantasy illustrators love Gerome’s work. They have no use whatsoever for Cezanne.

    But getting back to Guston. Here’s a good quote that indicates just why he turned away from abstraction. And this gets at what you’re mentioning above about getting at the artist’s intentions. And why craft isn’t what is at the heart of painting. Sometimes craft is what artists hold onto and try to employ with absolute assurance in order to cover the absence of any meaningful human content in their work.

    What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything–and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue. I thought there must be some way I could do something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was waiting. A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid.

    • Steve says:

      A great Guston quote! Most artists reach a break-out or die point, but not all artists do something about it. I know from experience how those facing-the-mirror times can feel so critical, it seems like everything’s riding on the decision. But it’s also inexorable what must happen. Go back to safer territory? Stay in one place? As Guston realizes, what good will it do to “…adjust a red to a blue…” when his inner life is at stake?
      I also appreciate the examples of ‘comic strips’ without words, especially Picasso’s, which of course is anything but comic. I was hoping that Crumb’s Genesis drawings might be different, maybe have less words & possibly place them in a letter-box style below the image,…but it sounds like that’s not the case. I realize that it’s a dilemma for ‘strip’ illustrators and many of them probably abhor the text part of it, after putting so much work and feeling into the drawing. Well, I guess my answer to that is: don’t do it. From what I see of Guston’s work he did not succumb to the temptation , and for me personally he attains a ‘higher’ level of art.
      But, as a footnote to our discussion here of high & low art, I must honestly say that I purposefully allow low art into my own work, not words or outright symbols maybe, but in the degree of finish and choice of concept I keep some rawness and common quality. I don’t want to get too far away from basic life experience, (which for me) isn’t always cute or fun or sweet or sentimental or high-minded. I can’t give a percentage of the low art that I integrate into my paintings, but I’d say a fairly good-sized chunk is put into the mix.

    • johnk823 says:

      Picassos comic strip, whether word balloons or not just has me lost, it makes no sense to me, he would have to explain it so I would understand where his mind was coming from. I like the drawing. but it leaves me blank, but then I may be blank anyway!

      And Steinbergs strip leaves me just simply empty totally. Is there some kind of title that might give me a hint as to the story line? It starts out empty, has something going on kind a in the middle and ends emptier than it began. Maybe thats the whole point!!

  3. trueoutsider says:

    One of Crumb’s most famous and most brilliant. No words needed. A Short History of America:

    • Steve says:

      Bart…out of Crumb’s 12 history snaps of America, I choose the 4th era to live in…how about you?

      • trueoutsider says:

        The 4th era looks nice.

        I just find that strip completely fascinating. So much is indicated through those pictures if you look at each one closely. I like how you see the trolley tracks which were torn up with pressure from the tire, oil and auto companies so that cars could take over. You see where the Texaco station appears when there are still trolley tracks and in the next one the cars have taken over and the former house has been bulldozed to make way for a used car lot. The strip looks so simple and yet it’s clear the detailed drawings and planning had an enormous amount of labor behind them. I recall that in the Crumb film he was showing his stock book of photos where he’d gone all over Cleveland (I think it was) taking pictures of all the lightposts, traffic lights, and powerlines to have that kind of information available and in his memory.

        That comic above is packed with thought and observation, technical skill combined with deep emotion and feeling.

        What do we see of those values in the Contemporary American Art in galleries and museums?

  4. trueoutsider says:

    Another no words needed:

  5. Gus says:

    I think you are totally off in thinking Guston was influenced by Crumb. Look at early Guston, 1930’s, the imagery he used in the 70’s is developed. The drawing style he uses in the 70’s can traced it’s style to the 40’s and 50’s. The sentiments are pure Guston. I think the problem is placing a Guston next to a Crumb. For example if a Pollock was place next to a Picasso you wouldn’t say Picasso was influence by Pollock. Don’t get me wrong I like Crumb but I find him more of a curiosity and Guston an Artist.

  6. trueoutsider says:


    Guston’s paintings and drawings from the late 60s aren’t remotely like his depression-era work, which were all completely conventional for the time. He was influenced by classical drawing/painting, a mix of Piero della Francesco and di Chirico. He also went to Mexico with Ruben Kadish to work with the Mexican Muralists.

    Most social realism was also influenced by Old Master/Classical work–look at Reginald Marsh or Isabel Bishop, for good examples. I think I’ll post them next, as a matter of fact.

    At any rate, Guston wasn’t doing anything particularly radical

    The IMAGERY Guston began to use in the late 60s (the kkk hoods and trash can lids, e.g.) can be traced back to his earlier work, but not the drawing style. His late 60s work and forward from that is directly traceable to the comic influence mentioned above. And some of the imagery, such as the big shoes and knobby legs, are clearly derived from comic drawing from that era, as is Crumb’s. That’s why the work of the two artists is so stunningly close in the late 60s/early 70s. None of that’s questionable. The only thing that’s unknown (to me at least) is whether Guston was aware of Crumb’s comics, which were in wide circulation at the time that Guston hit upon his mature style.

    I suspect that he was playing off Crumb’s ink drawings but until I find some evidence it’s only a supposition. Crumb’s work was far more powerful and fully realized in any event if you want to look at pure drawing ability and feel for the idiom. That’s because he’d been doing it since grade school, and Guston was new to it. I’m just speaking objectively and analytically.

    Whether one considers Guston an artist and Crumb a “curiosity” to me seems simply a matter of social snobbery and/or inflated notions of what is “high” art and what is “low” art that no longer exist in any valid form. It seems clear that Guston was interested in kicking his high art prison and hit upon the one thing that would give him release from it–using a low art idiom.

    I’ll repeat his quote from above again for emphasis. He was sick of the whole notion of high art–that is an art completely detached from current political realities or human realities.

    What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything–and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue. I thought there must be some way I could do something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was waiting. A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid.

    Here’s Gladiator, 1940 where Guston’s work is losing some of the traditional social realist style and using somewhat Picassoesque distortions and pictorial organization. One can even see a funny kind of Stuart Davis quality. What I’m referring to is the flattening for the forms.

    Here’s a 1937 Stuart Davis:

    And of course what is striking here, at least to me, is just how comic-looking the Davis of 1937 is. One could easily see it as a new cartoon series on Cartoon Network. What I’m getting at here is just how arbitrary is the whole notion of high and low art. Particularly nowadays, when Tim Burton has just had a retrospective at the MoMA.

    This link goes to a post on Isabel Bishop/Reginald Marsh:

    The link below goes to Picasso and Comics, which explores the notion that comics were intimately linked to the birth of Modernism in the work of Picasso, and why one would see elements of comics/cartoons in artists like Davis, Guston, etc.

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