R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb Air Their Dirty Laundry
The collaborative drawings of R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb are a lot like their marriage. “They’re both painfully honest,” laughs Kominsky-Crumb, from a back room at David Zwirner’s 19th Street gallery in New York, where the couple’s paintings and comics line the sprawling white walls. Crumb finishes her sentence: “That’s why they work.”
Cult comic artists Crumb and Kominsky-Crumb have been drawing in tandem since a few months after they met, at a fateful party in San Francisco in 1972. The romance was immediate and explosive (Crumb famously made advances on Kominsky—in his then-girlfriend’s bedroom—that very night). It also quickly gave birth to a creative partnership that’s thrived ever since, the spoils of which are on view this month in “Drawn Together,” the couple’s first joint show at a commercial gallery.
“Well, it all started when I got mad at him over another woman,” explains Kominsky-Crumb, with her typical exuberance, as she stands next to Crumb in front of a wall loaded salon-style with their drawings. “I was in a really bad mood, and he was trying to distract me, so he suggested we make something together.” The marital tiff resulted in their first significant collaboration: An illustrated tell-all of their relationship. Crumb drew his likeness, Kominsky-Crumb hers, and they penned the candid, bawdy, and wildly funny dialogue together. It reveals domestic travails, pipe dreams, failed sexcapades, trysts on the side (the Crumbs have always had an open relationship), and more.
At the beginning, the couple didn’t intend to make the work public. “But when our best friend Terry Zwigoff saw it, he said, ‘This is the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever read! You’re hanging out all your dirty laundry,’” Kominsky-Crumb recalls. It was then and there that the Crumbs had a title for their first collaboration—“Dirty Laundry”—an illustrated, serial autobiography, which they’d expand on for the next 30-odd years.
Several of the Crumbs’ “Dirty Laundry” comics hang on Zwirner’s walls as testaments to the unique, prolific, and essential collaborative relationship between the two artists, both of whom came of age in an era when comics “were something you read on the toilet, and that’s about it,” says Kominsky-Crumb. “Working together, we were able to bounce ideas off of each other and support each other. That mutual respect has been really important to both of us,” she continues. Crumb chimes in: “Because it’s not easy to find support as a comic artist.”
Indeed, while the popularity of Crumb’s solo work—intricate, deftly drafted visualizations of carnal urges (buxom women, rampant sex) and American culture (’60s bohemianism, LSD trips, underground music, the hypnotic effects of TV)—was accelerating in ’70s, the Crumb couple’s collaborations weren’t initially met with support. “Since he was already famous and a great master and a wonderful draftsman, and I was crude and mostly unknown, people couldn’t figure it out when they first saw our drawings on the same page,” explains Kominsky-Crumb. “Well, that’s also because my fans were 99.9% men,” Crumb adds. “We’d get these horrible notes that said things like, ‘She may be good in bed, but get her off the fucking page,” or “You do the artwork, and let her do the cooking.’”
The Crumbs saved the notes—“We have a good file of those,” Kominsky-Crumb laughs—proof of the sexism that did and still dominates the comics community. It’s a reality that the Crumbs don’t shy away from. Many of their collaborative drawings feature funny, and searingly poignant, conversations between the couple about the lack of exposure Kominsky-Crumb’s work has received in comparison to Crumb’s. For instance, in one joint work on view at Zwirner, A Couple a’ Nasty, Raunchy Old Things (1997), Crumb’s character asks Kominsky-Crumb: “What about you Aline? Could you live without a man?” Her likeness responds: “I have no idhear...I’ve been with you more than half’o my life…(what a thought!). At least you’re not a big dummy...but do you think I’m less evolved because I’ve been hiding behind you for most of my adult life?”
Like this piece, all of the works hung across “Drawn Together” swing powerfully between hilarity and hard-hitting social commentary, mostly surfaced through the lens of the Crumbs’ long and honest marriage—one that’s nourished both their collaborative and their individual work. “When Robert first read my comics he fell on the floor laughing, so I knew he was a serious fan of my work. Having that much confidence in the fact that the other person respects you enough to work with you is an amazing thing,” Kominsky-Crumb muses, as she heads out of the gallery to prepare for the coming night’s opening.
“My work definitely became more autobiographical after being involved with Aline,” Crumb chimes in. “And I could say that I made more of an effort to make my drawings more coherent, after working with Robert,” Kominsky-Crumb replies with laughs. A few days after the Zwirner show opens, the couple will head back to their 17th-century home in the south of France, where their daily life will resume—and they’ll keep drawing together. “I don’t draw much anymore unless it’s with Aline,” Crumb muses. “With you, it’s easy,” he says, looking over at his wife, his oft-slapstick expression turning serious. “Oh Robert, you’re just getting old,” Kominsky-Crumb shoots back, smiling. Painfully honest, indeed.