Rick Griffin: Just Another MAD artist or Draftsman of the Sacred? (Part Three)
During the previous couple of years, the Surfer powers that be had modified their position on psychoactives considerably, and editor John Severin tracked Griffin down in Texas and invited him to begin producing Murphy strips again. Griffin obliged, starting with the mind-boggling Mystic Eyes. With text lifted from the Van Morrison song of the same name, the 2-pager shows a kachina-faced Murphy “having transcended the seven evolutionary superuniverses of time & space which circle the never-beginning never-ending creation of the divine perfection” and looking to catch a wave.
That he does, and as the curl envelops him he exclaims “This is the Eye of God!” and is transformed into a surfing eyeball centered in a circle of frames, then suddenly awakened by his rodent friends’ cries of “Wake up Murphy! You’ve been dreaming again!” Murphy responds with the cryptic Latin “word square” SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA which Griffin translates idiosyncratically as “The Creator, slow moving, maintains his creations as vortices.” Zany antics these ain’t. This was Murphy through the looking glass.
Wanting to reconnect with his surfer roots, Griffin relocated his family to San Clemente. Severson, who had left Surfer behind, recruited Rick as the overall visual designer and costar (most notably in the scene where he paints the bus “Motor Skill”) for his ecologically-minded feature-length surf movie Pacific Vibrations. Griffin spent the better part of a year producing an image for the poster, which many consider his finest accomplishment as a painter. A kachina-faced Sun radiates a convulsive sphere of fluids over the ocean, itself contorted into a tube/womb/dolphin head configuration about to break over a glowing, distorted supine female lying on the shore above a glowing rectangular portal identical to one of the kachina-Sun’s eyes. With this signal work, Griffin had summarized the cyclic cosmic forces he sensed at work in the Universe and in the coastal surf/psychedelic culture specifically.
This acrylic-on-masonite marked the beginning of Griffin’s attempt to translate his considerable gifts as a graphic artist into the more history-laden traditions of fine art painting. The structure – varied but basically monochromatic areas contained in discrete forms with clearly demarked edges (or even outlines) – owes much to his posters and comix. Although he flirted with abstraction, and even at one point began dissecting and reassembling earlier paintings into enormous assemblage pieces, Griffin was drawn to the more populist tradition of figurative illustration, which still offered him clear technical challenges and a channel for his symbolic and narrative tendencies.
The closest Griffin ever came to pure abstraction was in a handful of vortex-like compositions from 1976, depicting an archetypal tube with a single figure at the center. One of these was for another surf movie, entitled Tales from the Tube after the successful surf-flavored 1973 comic book (and Surfer insert) created by Rick with Jim Evans and other underground artists. Griffin’s major story for the comic was Owooo!, a dense and dynamic depiction of yet another interdimensional transfiguration loop – this time via the medium of surf movies by way of Japanese ukiyo-e prints and the GI tract of a giant reptilian deity.
This ostensibly narrative, densely inked sequence of plunging, surging, careening planes (most often made up of waves) is typical of late psychedelic period Griffin comix. His Tales of the Tube stories, as well as his Mexican & Hawaiian travelogue pieces and latter-day Murphy adventures for Surfer and later Zap contributions like Omo Bob Goes South all had a similar sense of barely-contained energy, as if the very time-structuring grid of the comic panel sequence was buckling under the strength of the graphic and imaginative forces it was being asked to modulate.
Although this might suggest that some kind of explosive fragmentation was imminent, it had in fact already happened. Man from Utopia, Griffin’s magnum opus in terms of solo experimental graphic narrative had been published in 1970. An oversized, relatively expensive ($1.50 cover price, though they now go for $60 or more on eBay) 32-page folio printed on high quality paper, Man from Utopia was a bit of a hodge-podge – reproducing work done for concert posters and album covers, a full-color reproduction of the Pacific Vibrations painting, and even a two-page spread devoted to a single photograph of Rick surfing.
The rest of the book was taken up by a convoluted discontinuous saga involving a chrome teardrop/lightbulb/fetus/skull/duck and its attempts to re-establish the Roman Empire by controlling the rapidograph of Bob’s Big Boy. Or something. Apparently Rick rearranged the page order while tripping en route to the publisher, though no amount of shuffling would transform it into any sort of conventional narrative. On the way back to his new home in San Clemente, something even more disruptive occurred as Rick’s car broke down in Mendocino while visiting friends. When he was finally back on the road, it was the Gospel one – Rick Griffin had accepted Jesus into his heart and been born again.
Of course, the figure of Jesus and the iconography of Christianity had been appearing in Griffin’s work for some time – He had cropped up every few pages in Man from Utopia. But much of Griffin’s spiritual symbolism had been drawn from the comparative mysticism of such scholars as Manly P. Hall, idiosyncratic founder of Los Angeles’ Philosophical Research Society. Griffin’s Born Again work was marked by a distinct shift in subject matter, particularly in the first few years when much of his activities had a proselytizing tone. There was still a rich vein of spiritual symbolism, but it was focused on Christianity and most of what might be taken as occult references disappeared – subsequent printings of Mystic Eyes, for example, replaced Griffin’s translation of the SATOR square with the phrase “Pre-Salvage Mumbo-Jumbo.”
Jesus began making appearances in Griffin’s revived Murphy strips, and the artist produced a couple of fairly tame (by Griffin standards) comic-strip tracts called Holy Ned, and a sweetly gorgeous painting called Rock of Ages depicting a crusader/knight forging a path through an infinite bramble of red rose bushes, which was used as the cover for an early Craig Yoe comic entitled Jesus Loves You. But Griffin’s ideas (as with much of the post-psychedelic Jesus Freak constituency) were unique, and anything but sanitized.
One of the earliest works from this period -- the cover for the 1970 comic Allstars -- is also one of his most disturbing of his career, depicting a sweating, sobbing, emaciated junky surrounded by brass knuckles, a gun, an overflowing ashtray, and explicit pornography arrayed across a piss-stained mattress. He’s desperately praying for deliverance from his vices, while at his elbow the Devil, startled, cries out “Emanuel!” -- meaning “God with us” and the name of the virgin-born messiah predicted by Isaiah and identified as Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. The figure that is entering the repentant sinner’s decrepit flop behind his back is hardly reassuring, though – blue-robed, carrying a scourge in one hand, a standard bearing the legendary veil of Veronica in the other, with a beak-shaped head shrouded in brown cloth and bound with rope, a set of antlers and a glowing crown. It’s difficult to imagine what the Orange County evangelical community made of such extravagant visionary material.
In February 1972 Long Beach State College hosted Griffin’s first solo exhibition, which consisted of an enormous tattoo-inspired mural with the message [“eternal life through Jesus the Redeemer”] and an installation reproducing the artist’s studio – a curiously avant-garde artistic statement for an artist whose affinities lay with craftsmanship and fundamentalist Christianity. He began producing tee-shirt and new poster designs, while completing comic assignments for Surfer, Zap and other publications and taking occasional commercial assignments. His poster for the surf movie Five Summer Stories is a self-portrait of surfer Rick offering the viewer a sacramental block of wax.
By the mid-70s, Griffin was producing more mainstream designs – particularly album covers. 1973’s Wake of the Flood by the Grateful Dead and 1974’s Tales of the Great Rum Runners by their lyricist Robert Hunter were the first clear indicators of the next phase of Griffin’s artistic exploration – homages to the great figurative commercial artists of the past century. Whether due to his religious awakening, the fact that he’d already proven himself several times over as an artist, or that he now had a steady trickle of commercial commissions from people who sought him out based on his reputation, or some combination of these and broader social factors, Griffin’s need to assert himself with revolutionary graphic inventions became secondary from this period on.
Instead, in much of his commercial work and most of the paintings he completed as illustrations for 1980’s Gospel of John, Griffin pitted himself against great book and magazine illustrators like Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, and J. C. Leyendecker, as well as lesser known or anonymous designers of orange crate label art. One of Griffin’s most impressive and least-seen commissions from this period was the original full cover for Slow Motion, an album by the English band MAN. Riffing on the Will Elder/Norman Mingo MAD Magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman, Slow Motion subtly incorporated Christian iconography including a fish and stop-motion baptismal splash. Unfortunately, MAD’s lawyers were consulted and quickly vetoed the full cover (baselessly, as the “What Me Worry?” character had been in circulation a half-century before MAD adopted it) and the album was issued with a cropped quarter-section of the original painting.
While Griffin was more than able to hold his own in this rarified company, this emphasis was fundamentally at odds with the accepted canon of art historical importance. At the time, it may have seemed a perverse denial of the significance of his own recent innovations and contributions, but in retrospect is remarkably prescient of the marketplace, design world, and Lowbrow Art movement’s embrace of historical illustration. Nevertheless, during this time Griffin began to receive some recognition and respect from the more mainstream art community.
In 1976, a solo exhibition was organized and traveled to England and the Netherlands, where both posters and comics were taken more seriously as fine art media, and Griffin’s work was already accepted. The following year, Rick was invited to participate in the Eyes & Ears Billboard Gallery, a privately-funded public art project. His billboard depicting a griffin talon emerging from a blazing orb of light gripping a scroll was situated above S. Orange Grove & Wilshire Boulevard, was just a stones-throw from the Los Angeles County Museum and a few blocks west of a billboard by Ed Ruscha, who in many ways represented a more acceptable art world version of Griffin’s commercial graphic sensibilities.
In 1980, the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman College in Orange hosted India Ink, a survey of Griffin’s post-salvage black-and-white graphic work which was well-received by the LA art community -- including a review [in XXX] by video/multimedia artist Bruce Yonemoto. The show compiled originals from Zap, Surfer, an unpublished series of illustrations for a Rolling Stone Tim Leary interview, and sketches for the forthcoming illustrated Gospel of John, which was to be the most significant summation of Griffin’s faith-based artistic production and the magnum opus of his exploration of illustrative painting.
In 1977, Griffin relocated his family to Santa Ana to work on a series of commissions for Chuck Fromm of Maranatha! Music, a groundbreaking Christian popular music label that had commissioned Rick’s exquisite 1975 cover for legendary band Mustard Seed Faith’s first album. In addition to further record cover and poster gigs, Fromm also hooked Griffin up with Chuck Smith, label founder and pastor of Costa Mesa’s Calvary Chapel, who was looking for an artist to illustrate a version of The Gospel of John updated for his hippie-and-surfer-welcoming congregation.
Over the next couple of years, Griffin produced hundreds of ink and marker drawings and a dozen or so large scale paintings depicting events from the most abstract of the four books of the New Testament. The latter includes an almost-cartoonish rendering of the water-into-wine miracle, the Samaritan woman at the well (with multiple Harold Edgerton milk-drop coronets signifying the water of everlasting life), Jesus walking on the water (one of Griffin’s most haunting images), the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the arresting officers falling back at Jesus’ declaration of “I AM,” and the posthumous miracle of the catching of 153 fish. These are some of Griffin’s most focused works, and he continued to distill his illustrational style through them, expanding and refining his color palette and vocabulary of dramatic lighting effects.
Half a million copies of the resulting magazine-style publication were distributed in the early 80’s. At the same time, Rick and his friend and business collaborator Gordon McLelland had put together a monograph on Rick’s work. Published by YES cover artist Roger Dean’s Paper Tiger imprint, the book was licensed around the world, and while Dean’s partner somehow forgot to pay Griffin any royalties, the book spread the art far and wide – by some estimates to another 500,000 consumers.
As Griffin’s work was circulating in the millions, he continued working on graphic design commissions for Maranatha! and other Christian friends, as well as more album covers for the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and newer bands like The Cult and Indy (as in Indianapolis) rockers Birdmen of Alcatraz. He was involved in unrealized animation projects and renewed his interests in spiritual and philosophical tangents not directly related to Born Again beliefs – particularly the paranormal and Arthurian legend, which was featured in his later stories for the almost-defunct underground comix industry. He became interested in the emerging subcultures of Punk and Goth, even as psychedelic nostalgia began to make his work topical once again.
In 1986, Griffin was tapped by Jacaeber Kastor to be the star of the debut show at his Greenwich Village gallery Psychedelic Solution. The result was The 9th Wave, and exhibit that brought Griffin’s work to the attention of a new generation of young American artists. In 1988 he traveled to Easter Island with Robert and Suzanne Williams, Glenn Bray and Lena Zwalve and others to help dispose of the ashes of visionary crackpot artist Stanislaw Szukalski, and a fire destroyed the Griffin home in Santa Ana along with much of his unsold art, including an allegorical religious portrait of Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. He was in Zap show at Psychedelic Solution the following year, but his output slowed as he and Ida separated and Rick moved north to Petaluma, where he died in a motorcycle accident on August 18, 1991.
Given Griffin’s pattern of cyclical self-reinvention, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that, given a couple more years, Rick would have hit his stride again – perhaps producing work as definitive to the 90’s and 00’s as his surfing, psychedelic, and Christian work had been to their respective eras. Though maybe not – authentic subcultures are less and less viable and Griffin seemed to thrive on playing an integral role as the aesthetic chronicler of a particular time, place and community. In any case, all we can go by is his legacy – which is, after all, 3 or 4 careers-worth by any other standards.
Psychedelic art’s reception and gradual acceptance by the mainstream has been chilly and slow. In Robert Masters and Jean Houston’s Psychedelic Art -- the first book devoted to the subgenre – there is only a single mention of Haight-Ashbury, and none whatsoever of the poster artists. Psychedelic art has not entered the art history curriculum, except perhaps as a sidebar to the revival of printmaking as a fine art medium in the 1960s. Recent museum exhibits have reflected a loosening of these strictures (although LA MOCA’s Ecstasy: In and About Altered States ignored the posters just as their Visual Music shortchanged the psychedelic lightshows) – perhaps in response to the recent wave of blatantly psychedelic art emerging from Providence and other hot art centers – although whether this is just a sign of the increasing tendency toward short-term novelty appeal in curatorial practice remains to be seen.
Not that he would care. Griffin’s goal with his art was not to wrangle himself a position in Jansen’s History in between Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, but to communicate. Rick’s ongoing popularity with a variety of subcultures – including graffitists who revere his calligraphic invention, graphic designers who have absorbed his influence, comic artists who are in the midst of rediscovering that a comic book doesn’t have to be a depressed ironic daily journal of your minimum wage job and masturbatory fantasies, as well as the surviving and revived psychedelic and surf cultures and the growing number of disaffected young Christians looking for ways to think for themselves – is ample testimony that he achieved that goal.
Rick’s life and work constitute an exemplary metaphor of America’s ch-ch-changes in the postwar era. Not just for the arc from naïve hedonist through a series of radical awakenings followed by a sense of laurel-resting entitlement tinged with disappointment and redundancy, but for his embodiment of the collective dissatisfaction with the lack of spiritual nourishment provided by contemporary culture, and the attempt to remedy it. Griffin’s success as a communicator hinged on the deep symbolic potency of his work. People often don’t know what they’re responding to in art, but they know when something powerful moves them. With dazzling and mostly self-taught visual skills, Rick Griffin sought and found and transcribed a reconciliation of the subjective visionary experiences of surfing, psychedelics, and salvation with the contingencies and shortcomings of the mundane world. That’s the job of the shaman.