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Artist’s work goes from comic books to museum walls

By ELAINE SCIOLINO April 23, 2012

PARIS R. Crumb, an American cartoonist, is said to be a timid, reclusive soul who doesn’t like visitors, photographers, reporters or even fans.

But here he was last week, dressed in a smart black sport coat and trousers, posing for photographers and holding forth with journalists about fame, fortune, art, politics, music and death.

The occasion was the impending opening of Crumb, From the Underground to Genesis, an exhibition covering nearly five decades of his work, at the Musee d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and his first comprehensive museum retrospective.

Crumb, 68, called himself “confused,” “impressed,” “flattered” and “bewildered” to have moved over from the gritty comic-book world into a fine-art museum in Paris.

“Seeing this on the walls is very strange,” Crumb said at a news conference. “The sheer quantity. It’s like going to the dump and seeing the sheer quantity.”

The exhibition, on view through Aug. 19, brings together more than 700 original drawings and more than 200 underground magazines, many from Crumb’s private collection. It opens with greeting cards that he created for the American Greetings Corp. in Cleveland and illustrations made in Harlem and Bulgaria in the early 1960s.

There are the psychedelic Zap Comix; his graphic renderings of sex, obscenity and drug use; and intimate photos, including one of Crumb sitting in a wicker chair in his living room and strumming a banjo.

His memorable cartoon characters are here, including Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, Devil Girl, Flakey Foont and Angelfood McSpade. The exhibition ends with his illustrations for Genesis, the opening book of the Bible.

There is also Marriage License, a work commissioned — and rejected — by The New Yorker in 2009 that shows a couple, whose genders are ambiguous, as they are about to get married.

“They had it for a few months,” he said. “Finally I got it back in the mail one day with no explanation. I never did find out why they didn’t want to use it.” (He called the treatment “insulting” and said he could never work for The New Yorker again.)

Early in the news conference, Crumb took the lead in questioning, turning to Fabrice Hergott, the museum’s director, to ask how the show came about: “Was there an argument? Was there resistance?”

“It was not so easy,” Hergott confessed. “The team of curators was not so sure that you were an artist for this museum, that you belonged to the classical world of art.”

Crumb did not seem distressed. After all, he admitted, he is not a museumgoer.

“I went to the Louvre once,” he said. “I don’t really like museums. You get too close to the art, and the guard is going to yell at you.”

From a seat in the first row, an American woman in a black minidress with flaming orange tights and lipstick to match, a ring in her left nostril and long, curly hair streaked ruby red cheered him on and filled gaps in the conversation. It was his wife, Aline Crumb, also a comics illustrator and Crumb’s sometime collaborator, as well as a yoga instructor.

“I’m impressed,” she said of his work’s being shown in a big museum. “You’ve moved up in my esteem.”

The Crumbs have lived in Sauve, a village of fewer than 2,000 people in the south of France, for 21 years. Asked why they moved to this country, Crumb blamed his wife.

“She wanted to live in France, and one morning I woke up and I was living in France,” he said.

Crumb acknowledged that age, along with fame, had changed his approach to his art.

“I don’t draw as much as I used to,” he said. “I’m too self-conscious now.” Perhaps, he added, “that’s just the process of getting older.”

Crumb was asked about fear of death.

“Death? Afraid of death?” he said. “When you get older, you dry up. You die. That’s it.”

He added: “I’ve lived my life. I’ve lived it out. I’ve left my mark. I’ve had great sex. I got a great record collection …”

Aline Crumb finished the thought. “You’re shown in a museum,” she said.

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