The Shocking Art of Robert Williams

At first glance, the violent and sarcastic universe created by one of the great poineers of independent Art and American Art in general, Robert Williams, may shock, titillate or disgust the beholder but when studied closer one will discover the profound meaning.


Williams, born in Albuquerque, New Mexico on March 2, 1943, grew up in a rather capricious environment because his father and mother married four times, and therefore he was bounced repeatedly between his father who lived in Montgomery, Alabama and his mother’s home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Therefore his only true companion was art, he drew and painted from an early age.

When Robert Williams is twelve, this future Low Brow art genius, failed the ninth grade twice, and was booted out of the public school system for habitual truancy and transgressions against the code of conduct. His only real interest was to be an artist, and while he doggedly pursued this aspiration, he first became involved in gang activity resulting in public drunkenness arrests and getting into fights. Williams tells: “There wasn’t a real bohemian society in Albuqueque for me to follow. There were some people of that style that hung around college that were drug addicts and stuff. I was obviously going to get in a lot of trouble if I stayed in Alburqueque. I was trying to get an art education”.


Because there were few opportunities in Albuquerque he went to Los Angeles in 1963. He was drawn to the movie industry and to the hot rod mystique in Los Angeles. Williams tells: “You know my interest was getting into an art career and associating myself with this hot rod karma that I’d read about for years in car magazines”.

He became an editorial cartoonist for the LACC paper, The Collegiate, and he lost himself in the theory and technique of art. He also tried to announce himself to the prestigious fine arts academy The Chouinard Art Institute but he was refused because of his insistence on mastering the technical virtuosity and pictorial representation, so recognizable in his later Low Brow art work, while they focused on abstract expressionism, emphasizing on unrecognizable imagery.

Ed “Big Daddy” Roth

Then, after a series of fruitless attempts, the manager of the unemployment office offered him a job that would chance his life completely. This job was at a ‘freak’ called Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Williams knew his name and reputation and later told: “They told me that the freak that ran it was some guy called Big Daddy and I said, ‘Wait a minute, would that be Ed Roth?’ They said it was, and I said, ‘Let me at it. I was born for this job”.

In Ed Roths atelier cars were created in a freestyle manner, and he did it faster, more effective, and in an unmatched style. This is were Robert Williams got the inspiration and most of the ideas for his Low Brow Art. In his studio garage, Roth kept open house resulting in a colorful amalgam of people frequenting his spot. Williams tells: “Every day something amazing would happen. In the morning Sam the Sham and the Pharaos’ recording group could walk in and few minutes behind them would be Sonny Barger and some Angels”.

Williams work consisted of creating monthly advertising, graphic design work, working on the elaborate hot rod projects (like The Rat Fink and Peace Fink) and sometimes he also contributed to Roth’s periodical Chopper Magazine. When Roth’s financially rewarding association with Revell Models stranded because of his loyalty towards the Hell’s Angels, he quietly sold all of his inventory and closed the doors of the studio. Most of his show cars, original art and graphic designs were sold to James Brucker Jr. who also purchased many of Robert Williams’ important low brow art paintings.

Low Brow Art

Due to Brucker’s support, Williams was able to work on his paintings for longer periods of time. In his work at that time he already demonstrated that he not only had mastered the intricate underpainting and overglazing techniques of his Renaissance and Flemish predecessors, but also the theoretically based nuances of the modernists.

In 1974 he underwent a complete paradigmatic change when he broke with the general “rule” of the traditional painterly canonizations dictating that the dark edged line which encompasses all shapes in cartoons to avoid at all times. In his vision the exaggerated forms in cartoons were the most true and pure examples of abstraction comparable to the origins of art, found in the Paleolithic cave paintings.

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