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April 2010, R. Crumb @ David Zwirner

Installation view of R. Crumb The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis
David Zwirner, March 4th – April 24, 2010
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York

 

The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis
David Zwirner
519 West 19th St.
New York, NY
March 4 through April 24, 2010

It seems nearly impossible to really look at each and every single one of the 207 drawings in the current exhibition: The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s book of Genesis, at David Zwirner, unless you have forty days and forty nights (or at least a few) to spend with it. The herculean feat of Crumb’s illustrating page for page, cell by cell, the entire Book of Genesis of the Old Testament of The King James Bible, cannot really be understood without looking at every cell of every page. The epic narrative unfolds beautifully in Crumb’s epic rendering of it. There are so many grand stories and lasting allegories in the text (Creation, The Fall, The Flood, The Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah) and a seemingly equal amount of tedious detail, particularly with the lineage from Adam through Noah to Abraham and on. God is, as they say, in the details, and Crumb ignores none.
 


Installation view of R. Crumb The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis
David Zwirner, March 4th – April 24, 2010
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York


Having been a great fan of Crumb’s work since I was a teenager, through his LSD laden psychedelic and pornographic drawings in Zap Comics, along with Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, and his generally scathing satire of a grotesque, hilarious and cruel America; I found myself a bit surprised by how relatively tame the drawings in the exhibition are - in spite of his warning that “ADULT SUPERVISION RECOMMENDED FOR MINORS” and it being “THE FIRST BOOK OF THE BIBLE GRAPHCALLY DEPICTED! NOTHING LEFT OUT!”

I must admit I had an expectation that the illustrations of Adam and Eve, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his daughters, and other stories would be much more graphic. Crumb, however restrained himself here as he stated in his introductory drawing describing the project that he “faithfully reproduced every word from the original text”, which doesn’t allow him to embellish too much with how the characters are depicted. He does however deliver. If you know Crumb’s work, you can picture Eve’s breasts and rear are big, bouncy and bare. She is a gargantuan woman, right down to her feet, which are huge. She has oversized lips and gaps between her teeth. Crumb manages to treat Eve, the Biblical mother of all humanity as simultaneously ugly and eroticized, as his Devil Woman. She and Adam find each other “naked and unashamed” and playfully copulate in Eden. The scene satisfies the desire to see those two naked together, as every illustrated bible story and just about every classical painting has their genitals covered with the fig leaf, and Eve’s long hair is always blown over, covering her breasts.


R. Crumb,The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis, 2010
Series of 207 drawings, Pencil and ink on paper
Courtesy the artist, Paul Morris, and David Zwirner, New York

 
Crumb stays true to his form, but he restrains himself, and doesn’t embellish. We also see the nude Noah, and there are the scenes where Lot’s daughters seduce him. He deals with sexual content in a matter-of-fact manner. It is only graphic enough to be clear - Lot is having sex with his daughter, Noah has a large chubby penis, which hangs low for all to see. Crumb does not take the content to the pornographic, as he’s been happy to do in other work, but he also does not omit the content. His illustrations of the text seem to match just what the text says. This is cause for reflection on how this great and ancient narrative has been altered in some of its presentations by the some of the same folks who adamantly believe it to be the absolute word of God.

Crumb’s rendering of God, is in some ways true to the depictions of God throughout the history of Western painting. God is white. He wears a long white robe, with long, wildly flowing hair and a beard. He shifts in scale. God appears in one of the first drawings, his head taking up most of the page, as he looks into the abysmal swirl of darkness, which appears to be the universe, in the illumination between his two hands. In the Creation section he appears in one of the cells as standing over a mountain range with the sun in his right hand and moon in his left. The idea of his majestic presence is conveyed as well as any masterpiece I can think of; only it has come out of Crumb’s developed and now effortless pen, and not as the result of years of labor with built scaffolding and teams of assistants. God creates Adam and Eve and appears to them in the forests of Eden. He comes eerily through the trees, looking for them after they have eaten from the Tree of Life. His ability to shift in size, appearing to Abraham as an illuminated face in a dark sky, or appearing first to Noah as a mysterious man in the fields, and then presenting Noah with the first rainbow after The Flood. His presence as a character in the book is uncanny.


R. Crumb,The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis, 2010
Series of 207 drawings, Pencil and ink on paper
Courtesy the artist, Paul Morris, and David Zwirner, New York

 

The amount of work Crumb has executed in this project is echoed by his research, a lot of which is on display in the gallery. In the center of the gallery are three vitrines, each of which contain notes, illustrated bibles open and on display. There are what appear to be photographed stills of a monitor showing footage from what looks like Hollywood bible films. Considering the text of The Book of Genesis provides the “factual evidence” for the creationist view that the entire world is somewhere around 6 to 10 thousand years old, Crumb remains remarkably neutral here and does not attempt to render any part of it dismissively or with derision. In his introductory drawing, which is a detailed text describing his motivations, techniques, research and approach to executing he work, he states he does not believe the book to be the Word of God, but rather the words of men. He states that he approached the work as a “straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make jokes”. He recognizes, respectfully, that this is a powerful text, “with layers of meaning that reach deep into our collective consciousness ” and provides the very source of the Hebrew’s sense of religious and political power. He attempts to illustrate the text literally, and unlike other illustrated bibles, he refrains from interpreting and or embellishing on its meaning. He worked with the UC Berkley Professor of Comparative Literature and Hebrew, Robert Alter, on the King James translation to help guide him towards accuracy.  

While I think Crumb’s Genesis is fantastic, I’m not so sure if the work is edified by being hung in the gallery. It is nice to see a few of the drawings, and note the process in which he made them, many of the drawings are edited with the use of whiteout, which does not show in the reproductions. However, Crumb is best appreciated in the form of a book in your hands. The show inspired me to buy the book, which is available in the gallery, as I’m sure the book inspires some people to buy the drawings. His insistence of remaining as true to form as he is able to, maintain the position of neutral illustrator sheds light on what an amazing narrative The Book of Genesis really is. Crumb frees the ancient text from dogma, and sheds light on its allegorical and metaphorical beauty through his simple and masterfully rendered illustrations.


R. Crumb,The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis, 2010
Series of 207 drawings, Pencil and ink on paper
Courtesy the artist, Paul Morris, and David Zwirner, New York


 

Chris Kasper

 

Chris Kasper is an artist/teacher/writer living in New York City. 
He holds an MFA from the School of Art at Yale University and completed the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2006.

ckasper13@yahoo.com

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