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Comics’ Filthy Grandfather and the Woman Who Loves Him

A new show displays the work Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Robert Crumb have made over the decades of their partnership.

As a woman with a big ass, I’ve always liked Robert Crumb. Those who are familiar with Crumb’s art only in passing will know him for the big, sturdy, sexualized women he drools over in his comics. “Nice big legs!” one drawing reads, next to an arrow pointing to some nice, big legs. Crumb draws himself as a paltry little nerd, sometimes clinging to the legs of an enormous woman, his eyes hidden completely behind bottle-bottom glasses. Flecks of saliva tend to fly across the paradigmatic Crumb page.

Although he is the better known of the two, Crumb has been married for 40 years to the equally talented comics artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb. A new exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in New York City (previously on view at the Cartoonmuseum Basel) displays the work they have made together and separately over the decades of their partnership.

Key to the show is Aline & Bob, the collaborative comic that represents the scenes and stories and romances of their life together. The pair met in 1972, in the Bay area; they have lived in France since the early 1990s. The comic covers all of this. We see domestic scenes, sex scenes, banal conversations, glorious fantasies. We see them deal with French villagers, eat dinner. We see their daughter Sophie grow up. We see Sophie’s children as babies.

A number of other great comics titles are also represented at the show. Kominsky-Crumb drew for the landmark series Wimmen’s Comix, producing autobiographical material about her experience in bohemia as a young woman. The alt-anthology Weirdo, which she edited, is also here. Crumb’s famous comics Fritz the Cat, Keep on Truckin’, and Mr. Natural are also neatly laid out in the gallery’s vitrines. Bigger paintings are up on the wall.

Although there’s much they have in common, Kominsky-Crumb’s line is different from Crumb’s. Most critics describe Kominsky-Crumb’s style as cruder, less delicate. (The show’s press release calls it “more rough-hewn.”) But Crumb’s frantic cross-hatching can feel dense, crowded, somehow wet. Kominsky-Crumb’s line has a freshness and energy that make her strips feel more honest and closer to autobiography than self-mythologizing. In one comic, she narrates a breakfast spent with an elegant German couple (Kominsky-Crumb is Jewish and has complicated feelings about the Germans). The woman of the couple is lithe and perfect. Cramped down in the bottom of the frame, Kominsky-Crumb has written, “Her father wrote operas—mine sold aluminum siding.”

There are some problems intrinsic to showing comics in galleries. A comic should be held in the hands. The pages should turn and the object should sit on a table or in the lap. The intimate nature of Crumb and Kominsky-Crumb’s work makes it an odd fit for a bright white wall in Manhattan’s Chelsea. It was a little embarrassing to make eye contact with a cute fellow gallery-goer after looking at those butt drawings. The domestic stuff feels weird here. Kominsky-Crumb finds a decapitated bat head on the staircase at home in one panel. She can’t decide what to do with it. I wanted to cradle the page, own it.

But the David Zwirner gallery (the show is at the 19th Street location) is a big and warm space, made of interconnected generous rooms. There is nothing uppity or unwelcoming about the gallery, which makes it the right home for this show. The humanity and the vulnerability in this portrait of a marriage make the show high art, anyway. Kominsky-Crumb draws and draws and draws her body as the years pass. The couple draw each other’s bodies, draw each other seeing each other’s bodies, draw each other thinking about their own bodies while touching each other. The pages are flat on the wall but they are of many dimensions.

Best of all, perhaps, this exhibition lets the viewer see out of the eyes of one of Crumb’s women. The Crumb woman, maybe. Crumb’s comics are, to be frank, kind of sexist. He has also at times used racist imagery in his comics, to satirical but nonetheless unpleasant effect. The goddesses he manufactures are powerful but they’re not human. They’re iron buttocks, straining shirts. But Kominsky-Crumb is a person, and she draws through the experience of being desired by and desiring Robert Crumb. In this sense, the show is engaging and delightful but also, in a mutual kind of way, redemptive.

Aline Kominsky-Crumb & R. Crumb: Drawn Together is on display from January 12 to February 18, 2017, at David Zwirner.