Zap: Masters of Psychedelic Art 1965-74 is up until this weekend at Andrew Edlin Gallery in Chelsea. Curated by Gary Panter and Chris Byrne, the show selectively presents work by the magnificent seven original Zap artists: Robert Crumb, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Williams, and S. Clay Wilson. The original drawings feature hand lettering, Ben-Day transfers, collage, and meticulous white-out: signs of insistent, obsessive, and precise craftsmanship that remain unrivaled in the gallery world. They are relentlessly critical of the surrounding culture, defying the censorious, repressive status quo that made them necessary.
To learn more about Zap and its legacy, I talked with Gary Panter, the legendary artist behind Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the Jimbo comics, who also teaches at the School of Visual Arts.
MB: When I think of Zap, I think, “Masters of Counterculture,” “of Underground Art,” “of Comix” (vs. comics), and “of Drug Culture.” Of all these ideas, how did you settle on Masters of Psychedelic Art?
GP: The art of ZAP could be thought of many ways. To me the music, the light shows, the posters and hippie comics were the best psychedelic art. Most psychedelic painting was not so wonderful as these aforementioned means of expression. All those guys dropped acid and probably whatever else fell into their hands.
A second consideration was that Victor Moscoso, who was the spokesman of the group, was very insistent that we not call the show ZAP COMICS, because they are working on an anthology, which will have that name. A title is somewhat arbitrary and needs to do the job it is trying to do. The shittiest name for a comic show is ZAP BAM POW.
MB: In your opinion, what is psychedelic about this art? How is it psychedelic?
GP: “Psychedelic” means “mind-expanding,” so challenging the commonplace of the day and having an experimental aspect formally would make it mind-expanding to me. Crumb has written at length about his style evolving quickly even mysteriously under the influence of acid. Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso’s stylistic experiments in comics and posters suggested a mind altered state. Shelton, more than any of the others, made stories on the topic of licentious drug experiementation. To have a glimpse at Williams paintings or comics of that period, and not get the mind-altered aspect, would be pretty hard to miss. Spain was the most traditional graphically, as he was influenced by Wally Wood and Kirby, but he was also the most politically radical of the group. -This is a rhetorical question, right? If you are young, it might be hard to gauge the effect these comics had on the psyche of the 50s, to which they were responding.
MB: I guess it was a rhetorical question, but now that you mention it… When, where, and how did you first get turned on to Zap? How would you articulate the psychic effect of Zap comics on readers from (or around) your generation? I can only imagine the “mind-blowing” culture shock as well as formal/experimental upheaval of the otherwise familiar comic medium. In retrospect, can you compare it to anything else? Like hearing rock bands for the first time?
GP: Anyone in my generation will bore you with the excitement that ran through the 60s, but it was exciting. So many ways forward or new things to explore popped up every month or so that one was looking for the next Zappa, GTOs, Crumb, Oldenburg, Brian Wilson, T Rex,
Beefheart, Martin Sharp, Donovan, Frank Stella, Ed Kienholz, Eduardo Paolozzi…whatever would come out of the void. I was into modern art which at that time was about breaking new idea and style ground with the idea that design and ideas could make life better somehow. At
first it started with a few weird sound effects on a few pop records like the Hollies “STOP STOP STOP,” then totally went off the normal rails and in those days would somehow go straight to JCPenney. My mother and sister wore OP ART dresses and I was able to find the
paisley shirts I coveted. If I had had money I could’ve bought a VOX Phantom guitar. Records were about $4. Comics were 12 cents. Sold american. Even sold, the excitement wasn’t totally damped.
I first saw ZAP in miniature on the calendar poster that came in EYE magazine. Even at one square inch, my hair stood up and at the same moment a much younger Matt Groening was experiencing a similar effect upon seeing the same tiny image. Remember: back then, you could get arrested for saying “pregnant” on TV. There was a real battle to be fought for free expression or freer expression.
MB: What happens to women in this show? I don’t mean the absence of women artists in this show, because that seems circumstantial. But in the work exhibited here, they are either menacing drug fiends or they are dispensable casualties. Is that a fair assessment of the show – and of the Zap series in general? Were 1960s and 70s feminists responsive to Zap? Or were drug-addled comic visionaries off of their radar?
GP: I think that the behavior of hippie guys helped kickstart Feminism, because though they talked about revolution and formed communes, they still wanted women to cook and do the dishes. The ZAP guys were trying to break rules, mainly inspired by the insane intensity of SC Wilson, who seemed to have a lot of support form his family regardless of what he drew.
Some women cartoonists, for example, Trina were very offended by ZAP and hippie guy art. Other women like Aline Kominsky and Diane Noomin were at one with the guy’s rule-breaking and taboo-smashing and did equally “inappropriate” work. Personally, I am not pro-insensitivity, but don’t mind barriers taken down or challenged. I grew up with too many rules and so did a lot of my generation.
MB: And for part of the time Zap was underway, you were abroad, right? I’ve read that you lived in Belfast for a while. Did you get a sense, at the time or later on, why Zap happened in the U.S.? And not in the U.K. or France or whatever?
GP: I was in Texas in the 50s and 60s. I was a missionary to Belfast for a few weeks in the summer of 69. There were posters in Belfast for Pink Floyd and Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Incredible String Band. In Texas, I saw the Rolling Stones, Soft Machine, Jimi Hendrix in concert. Texas turns out misfits who move away usually, in that time to San Francisco. It just happened to be happening in SF. A million kids ran away from home and traveled to California, including the ZAP artists. Moscoso was from NY. Crumb from Cleveland. Shelton from Austin. Rick Griffin from southern California. Williams from New Mexico, then LA. Wilson from Kansas. Spain maybe from Oakland.
Psychedelia spread rapidly worldwide (England, France, Japan, Holland, Texas, etc) in a couple of years, then fizzled. Nixon was elected, Mary Tyler Moore came on TV: kind of a future shock combined with hard drugs. The initial vision is still interesting to me. Not free love or heroin or back-to-the-land or panhandling. There is a book called SPACED OUT about hippie environments and architectural ideas which captures some of the excitement of the era that most books miss.
I work on light shows with Joshua White of the Joshua Light show and it is still a powerful improvisational medium.
MB: Why was it important to exhibit the original pages?
GP: I have always had as much or more interest in fine art as popular arts. Reading a comic in bed is a very different experience than standing in a quiet room with a drawing hung on a wall with space around it. I was interested in hanging a show of ZAP cartoon art that was purposely a small show, so that the drawing would be emphasized over the stories, because I think that this group of artists and their confluence was miraculous. They were extremely talented drawers and their drawings worked well together and can easily stand to be hung
next to masterful drawings from any period. And their vision is as strong and valid as any that came before. It would hang better with some work than others because of the intensity. I wouldn’t hang these drawings with delicate light works, but they would work well with
Blake or Picasso or Dali or Leger or Klee or Grosz, etc.
MB: Yes, they were extraordinarily skilled. Though Crumb has talked about how LSD drove out his technical skill – which he identifies as a good thing – making his work more iconographic. I can’t imagine that being true of Robert Williams, whose drawings in this show look supernaturally precise and insistent. Was draftsmanship really important to the Zap revolution? I mean, could Zap still have been Zap, even if the artists weren’t so good at drawing? Maybe the subject matter would have been sufficient?
GP: Williams’ work is totally perverse and deranged — DRUGS. Well, there were a lot of neat underground comics. There were shitloads of underground comics – hundreds of titles. Some were well drawn and some were drawn lousy and some of the crap ones were still cool. The ZAP guys were extra good and early and somehow their work looked good together. Most comics look like shit anthologized. Most comic shows today look like shit and are confusing and overwhelming. Zap was overwhelming and still looked neat.
I would love to see more shows featuring aspects of hippie comics; the second group of artists that emerged apart from ZAP; or shows that are focused on one title, such as BIJOU, INSECT FEAR, Gothic Blimp Works, YOUNG LUST, AIR PIRATES etc. There is a lot to explore and I would prefer it in small doses as opposed to giant crowded shows.
Back to psychedelic drugs for a minute. Doing a lot of powerful psychedelic drugs definitely has diminishing returns. One trip that undoes the filters is plenty and not for everyone. Psychedelic drugs were shattering and not so recreational. More drugs and more hippies
making comics didn’t make for a wonderful ever-evolving unstoppable comic history, but the first and serious visionaries, did have something to offer, if art has anything to offer humans.
MB: So hippie comics shows are best in selective, small doses; just like LSD trips. But for the pioneers – and their readers – the psychedelic, countercultural revolution in comics came out of nowhere, and then it was everywhere. Worked its magic and then it was done. And that coincided with poster design, music, and then fine art. But fine art gets a revolution with almost every generation, right? Has that been true of comics, too? Where do you see it happening now? And if you don’t, then what would it need to do? “Going digital” isn’t enough, right?
GP: Art is interesting to me, but idea-wise, it dead-ended a bit in the 70s, after which postmodernism came about, which was a movement more of combining the isolated ideas into mutant forms (that’s my own take on it); which is interesting still, but a kind of recapitulation. These days, Duchamp is king, which is fine, but people aren’t innovating as intensely as Duchamp — staying too close to home. Going digital in comics is another thing and not a lovely delivery method to me.
I don’t know where it will go. The French have been drawing like insane people, partly influenced by me and my experimental drawer friends for 20 years now and hardly anyone has noticed, maybe because the dose is too big.
This year has been something like the 60s as so much has happened this year. A cultural revolution might not be noticable anymore, only continually transformative, but I am still expecting some visible cultural breakthrough. There are scattered triggers from the past
laying around like benign landmines. Examples: Keiichi Tanaami, Bazooka (France), Shigeru Siguira, Donald Barthelme, Gilbert Sorrentino, etc.
All the cultural modes hang around. Punk is still about beginning. Hippie is still about looking for a new track. Who knows. Make it happen.