Illustration by R. Crumb
R. Crumb, Rejected New Yorker Cover, 2009, watercolor, ink, and graphite on paper, 14 1/2 x 10 5/8 inches. Courtesy the artist, Paul Morris, and David Zwirner, New York, Copyright ©Robert Crumb, 2009.
In June, I attended the opening week of the Venice Biennale with the intention of interviewing the biggest and brightest art stars for an online show I host and produce. Sadly, none of them would talk to me at length. Or at least their handlers didn’t deem me worthy of their time.
At one point, I elbowed my way into a group of journalists surrounding the red carpet and attempted to corner the acclaimed artist Christian Marclay. All he talked about was how he didn’t know how he would manage to get his Golden Lion (the Biennale’s award for the best artist featured in its main exhibition) back home. I kept my suggestion of maybe checking an extra bag to myself. Later I saw Swiss fancy-pants artist Thomas “Hershey Highway” Hirschhorn, who is truly a great talent, but a rather disappointing conversationalist. He literally had nothing to say. The closest I got to a true score was a fleeting moment with John Waters, whose PR mafia had been profusely apologizing all day for cockblocking me. But when I finally confronted him, the most he could muster was “Hurry, before they see us!” as he posed for a quick picture with me.
On the flight home to Berlin, I was digging through my bag when I noticed a red book I had forgotten I’d acquired. It was the exhibition catalogue from the Biennale’s famed Danish Pavilion, which seemed like a shitty consolation prize, until I flipped to the bookmark stuck between its pages.
The cardboard placeholder featured a color comic by R. Crumb depicting a drag queen and king holding hands in front of a marriage-license clerk. On its flip side was a blurb from Crumb explaining that the image was intended to be the cover of a 2009 issue of the New Yorker but was rejected for reasons unknown. Although I was excited to obtain such a rare and odd artifact, things didn’t quite add up.
Besides this obscure bookmark, the would-be New Yorker cover—like Crumb—was nowhere to be found at the Venice Biennale. Instead, his incendiary “When the Niggers Take Over America!” (which first appeared in a 1993 issue of Weirdo) was on display. Was someone or something trying to keep the New Yorker controversy under wraps? I imagined Sy Hersh appearing out of thin air, with his hand stuffed deep in his trench-coat pocket: “Stick these in a book no one’s going to read—or else…”
Before further developing my conspiracy theory, I decided to get in touch with Crumb to inquire about the rejected-cover debacle. If there’s one universal constant that we can all count on, it’s that R. Crumb is incapable of feeding anyone bullshit.
VICE: I was very impressed by a bookmark that features one of your illustrations—one I had never seen before. I got it at the Venice Biennale.
R. Crumb: Bookmark? I don’t know anything about this bookmark.
At the Danish Pavilion they were handing out a book called Speech Matters, which shared the title of the exhibition. Inside there’s a bunch of boring stuff about the exhibiting artists, but my copy also contained a bookmark featuring what appears to be a gay or transgendered couple registering for a marriage certificate.
They sent me the book.
But they didn’t send you the bookmark?
Did the rejection offend you?
I’m in a privileged position because I don’t need the money. When you go to the cover editor’s office, you notice that the walls are covered with rejected New Yorker covers. Sometimes there are two rejected covers for each issue. I don’t know what the usual policy is, but I was given no explanation from David Remnick, the editor in chief, who makes the final decisions.
Has the New Yorker attempted to commission work from you since this cover?
Yeah, Françoise [Mouly, the art editor] keeps mailing me these form letters, which they send to various artists they like to use. It says something like, “OK, so here are the topics for upcoming covers.” They send it out a couple of times a year or something. But it’s a form letter, not a personal letter.
Did you receive an apology?
An apology? I don’t expect an apology. But if I’m going to work for them I need to know the criteria for why they accept or reject work. The art I made, it only really works as a New Yorker cover. There’s really no other place for it. But they did pay me beforehand—decent money. I have no complaint there. I asked Françoise what was going on with it and she said, “Oh, Remnick hasn’t decided yet…” and he changed his mind several times about it. I asked why and she didn’t know. Several months passed. Then one day, I got the art back in the mail, no letter, no nothing.