Mechanical Dreams: Von Dutch and Kustom Kulture

Article excerpt

About a year into a brief but zealous correspondence I struck up with the late custom-car-culture paterfamilias Von Dutch, I confessed to him I not only didn't drive but hadn't owned a car for over 20 years. "Dear Dutch," I wrote, "This may come as a surprise to you, but I ceased tinkering with autos back when the Testor Corp. added mustard oil to their plastic model cement. Before that I was usually so way gone on glue I could never be bothered to finish any of those little kits." He quit answering my letters, but not because I've never been much of a mechanic. He stopped because I leaked his real name, Kenneth Robert Howard, to the editor of an obscure Toronto magazine, who printed it.

Now that he's the posthumous focus (along with associates Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and Robert Williams) of the Laguna Art Museum's "Kustom Kulture" exhibition, sharing Von Dutch's given name doesn't present the same risks it once did. It wasn't so long ago that another eager acolyte who tried it, hot-rod historian Pat Ganahl, lived in mortal fear of the man afterward. Besides being the inventor of custom pinstriping, Von Dutch was a gifted gunsmith and knifemaker who took a reckless delight in brandishing his handiwork around pesky sycophants. Exacerbated by years of alcoholism, the unpredictability of his behavior could pose real problems for anyone within range who breached the parameters of the myth Kenny Howard had spent a lifetime living out.

In the '50s, story after story appeared in car magazines across the country about a young Southern Californian with blond-movie-star good looks who was revolutionizing the generally prosaic business of car painting. The accompanying photos usually featured him hard at work on a pinstriping project, or goofing for the camera surrounded by the exotic appurtenances of the emerging beatnik life-style. Because they were written for car buffs, most of these features regrettably played down the full range of Von Dutch's virtuosity in favor of the image of a beer-swilling Venice beach bum with a Tesla-like ability to paint straight lines and to sight cylinder bores to within a few thousands of an inch without a micrometer. By the end of the decade, a full-blown car-painting craze was underway. Flame jobs, spider-web wheel wells, flying-eyeball body panels, and baroque pinstripes (having a car "Dutched") rapidly entered the iconography of the American highway as merchandisers stepped in with mass-produced decal versions of Von Dutch designs to keep up with the demand. Enter Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, the deft self-promoter at the center of Tom Wolfe's 1965 bestseller about California customizers, The Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

Portrayed in Time magazine as the "supply sergeant to Hell's Angels," Ed Roth tilted the trend for hot-rod graphics even farther toward the defiantly tasteless with the sweeping array of popular "Rat Fink" T-shirts and gimcracks he pitched at car shows and in the back pages of car mags and comics. While Roth signed deals with toy manufacturers and the novelty companies that would make him a household name in the '60s, Von Dutch turned his back on the "Monster Art" motherlode and took up the nomadic, low-profile life of a machine-age gypsy: "I used to get all over [Roth's] case for being so commercial, but you see, his sons were as big as him so he had to keep his nose on the grindstone just to feed them. He's an honest man."

Laguna Art Museum guest curator C. R. Stecyk's Kustom Kulture catalogue raisonne, published in association with Last Gasp of San Francisco, is an invaluable sourcebook of subcultural esoterica on the history of the genre and the league of lowbrows who pioneered it. Robert Williams, a Roth Studio alumnus turned reactionary salon painter, is the sole headliner with a fine-arts background, though the exhibition and book include a number of mainstream contemporary artists whose responses to Southern California's car culture have been critically noted (Robert Irwin, Judy Chicago, Edward Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, etc. …