For an exhibition consisting primarily of black-and-white line drawings, Aline Kominsky-Crumb & R. Crumb: Drawn Together is surprisingly colorful. Including more than 30 framed works, in addition to over a dozen comics displayed in rows along the walls of David Zwirner gallery, the sheer volume of text and image can seem overwhelming. But the works’ humorous nature and enthralling narratives make them challenging, accessible, and immediately captivating, keeping the audience slowly moving along the walls reading and laughing out loud — not a common occurrence in a Chelsea gallery. With titles like “Aline & Bob in Botox Enlightenment” (2012) and “Aline & Bob in Should Oddball Types Have Kids?” (2011), the pages recount the private stories of artists Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Robert Crumb’s family life.
The narratives are intimate, presenting the artists’ sexual and emotional desires alongside inner monologues that take the form of thought bubbles and asterisked sidebars. Pioneers of graphic autobiography, as well as the unique form of collaborative narrative, the artists provide moments of individual narrative asides within their shared stories, capturing the dynamic of a lifelong partnership.
This revisionist style is present in both the content — as each character asserts her or his version of the events on the page — and the visual styles. Kominsky-Crumb’s solo comic, Dream House (2016), on view in the first gallery, tells the story of her early childhood, specifically her family’s move away from her grandmother’s home to a new neighborhood. There are visible erasures and whiteouts throughout, as well as the insertion of her authorial voice via the asterisk. Starting off the exhibition with unpolished material creates a formal openness that echoes the openness of the stories being told. Kominsky-Crumb’s authorial voice is brutal in her criticism and characterization of her younger self. Dream House recounts Kominsky-Crumb’s early career in art school, where Aline was “working on my two addictions … male attention and alcohol.” After mentioning her various affairs with professors, in the final bottom right panel of the page, 45 years later, the older Aline chastises her younger self: “Ooh ghod … I hope you can forgive me for being such a needy slut!! I was out of control … Believe me …And don’t worry, I’ve been on the other side of this situation since then.” Not only does Kominsky-Crumb emphasize her youthful indiscretions and insecurities, but she clearly distinguishes the past selves depicted on the page from her current self, the author, and the reader who is consuming the material at an altogether different time.
This double narrative, that of Aline the character on the page, and the meta-narrative of Kominsky-Crumb the author, is present in the co-authored comics as well. In Aline & Bob in 50 Shades of Crumb (2012), she laments her flaws, whining to Bob, “You should get a medal for putting up with me!” claiming that she is like Joan Rivers, next to whose name appears an asterisk that leads to a note: “Joan Rivers: Obnoxious Jewish female comedian/showbiz personality in USA.” Kominsky-Crumb plays up the worst stereotypes about Jewish women to mock herself, leading to corporal punishment, which both enjoy. Aline excitedly says, “Oboy, I get to draw myself being degraded now!” Her authorial presence reminds us that, even though this is confessional autobiography, it is still a constructed narrative selectively divulged.
The same is true for Crumb’s use of self-deprecation. The majority of Crumb’s work in the first gallery, hung salon style on a single wall alongside Kominsky-Crumb’s artwork, depicts strong, athletic women lunging, stretching, and in other sexually suggestive positions drawn in tight, neat, cross-hatched lines. I was raised to be to a Christian, but … (2006) shows a goofy-looking, drooling man climbing the waist of a thick, muscular woman with devil horns. The caption reads, “I was raised to be a Christian, but somehow the Devil got me. I don’t know how it happened. Lord help me!” Crumb’s desires manifest themselves as an insatiable obsession with the buxom female form, such as that of Kominsky-Crumb, leave him feeling inadequate and weak in comparison. This is a large part of the comic Self-Loathing Comics #1: A Day in the Life (1994). After trying to exercise with Aline — who tells him: “You shouldn’t try to keep up with me, Bob … You’re too weak …” — Bob cries: “It’s too humiliating to drop behind … I can’t let you get too far ahead of me … .” Crumb’s self-condemnation is just as extreme as his wife’s, yet pushed to such extremes, his comic mocks the very stereotypes of masculinity and femininity to which his characters strive to conform.
The artworks along the walls surround several vitrines in the center of the gallery that hold sketches, copies of the finished Dirty Laundry comic series, and family photos of the couple hugging, laughing, playing in a band, and spending time with their daughter, the artist Sophie Crumb, who also makes select appearances in their graphic narratives. Just as the strong editorial voice within the comics serves to remind the reader of the real people behind the stories, these photos both contrast and confirm the lives the artists present on the page. While the photographs are beautiful and nostalgic, they almost feel too intimate. In the comics, the pair maintains control, choosing to share and exclude, writing versions of themselves for mass consumption (actually selling themselves), but the photographs give the power to the viewer, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about the husband and wife as real people.
One thing that the narratives and photos both make clear is that beneath the satire, self-deprecation, and baring of insecurities, lays an immense love of one another. In sharing these pages and sharing their lives, the artists’ collaborative comics display — as the exhibition’s title suggests — two lives literally drawn together, a marriage of pen and ink.
Aline Kominsky-Crumb & Robert Crumb: Drawn Together continues at David Zwirner (525 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 18.