When underground comics icon Robert Crumb contacted Jerry Zolten in 1980, it was a shock.
After all, Zolten had been a big fan of the writer and artist behind such characters as Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural and the "Keep on Truckin'" man.
"I was a huge fan of underground comics in general, and Crumb in particular," Zolten said. "It would be like a Beatles fan getting a call that said, 'Hey, John Lennon here.' It was that big a deal to me."
Mirror photo by Keith Frederick
Penn State Altoona associate professor Jerry Zolten poses in front of a sketchbook inscribed by Robert Crumb.
Crumb wrote to introduce himself. He had been told by a mutual friend that Zolten, now a Penn State Altoona associate professor in communications and American studies, had a similar interest.
"He said he was a collector of rare records, 78 rpm Victrola records, and he had heard I had a really good collection of 78s," Zolten said. "So he asked me if I wanted to trade records for original artwork."
Crumb included in the letter his address and phone number in Northern California and Zolten called him. The two "hit it off on the phone pretty well" and when Zolten came to San Francisco (where he used to live) a few months later, the pair met in person.
If you go
What: "Robert Crumb: From the Collection of Jerry Zolten"
When: Through Sept.4
Where: Sheetz and McLanahan Galleries, Misciagna Family Center of Performing Arts, Penn State Altoona campus
Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday and before and during all performances
"We had a great afternoon and this was the first trade that we made," Zolten said. "As a result of that meeting, we became more than just trading buddies.We [developed] a friendship and began visiting back and forth over the years. And we have a continuing friendship like that."
More than 30 years later, Zolten has decided to give the general public a peek into their long friendship with the exhibit "Robert Crumb: From the Collection of Jerry Zolten," on display through Sept. 4 at the Sheetz and McLanahan Galleries in the Misciagna Family Center of Performing Arts on the Penn State Altoona campus.
The exhibit contains a short retrospective of Crumb's career, featuring copies and reproductions of important works, but the main draw is Zolten's personal collection.
There are many unique items: a book with a personalized inscription; a birth announcement that Crumb drew for Zolten's son, Zach; the original art Crumb created to advertise he and Zolten's 2003 Penn State radio broadcast "Chimpin' the Blues"; a letter Crumb left the Zoltens when they borrowed his Paris apartment for a vacation.
All this adds up to something totally original, says Noel Feeley, the Misciagna theater and gallery manager.
"I don't remember that we've done an exhibition that comes from a collection quite like this, where the core donor to the exhibition actually has a personal relationship with the artist and also shares other interests," she said. "It's sort of unique for us."
Perhaps not as unique as Crumb himself, however.
The lanky, bespectacled artist grew up in Philadelphia, and began his artistic career there as an illustrator for the Topps Company. After moving to Cleveland in the early 1960s, Crumb began making a name for himself with characters like Mr. Natural (a bald, bearded old man who was a wise, guru figure) and Fritz the Cat (a conceited, anthropomorphic cat with no morals who would become Crumb's most famous character).
In the late '60s, he began to draw "Zap Comix," the series which brought him to the attention of underground comic fans. Between "Zap," his contributions to many other publications and his acclaimed album cover for Big Brother and the Holding Company's "Cheap Thrills" in 1968 - Janis Joplin was a big fan - Crumb became a symbol of the counterculture.
Crumb's work, Zolten says, echoed the early Mad magazine.
"He had the same kind of quality to his artwork and ability to make you laugh through pure image - outrageous images, exaggerated features, popping eyeballs," he said. "It was all there. Except the content, instead of being silly Mad magazine stuff, was social commentary."
Crumb wrote and drew prolifically throughout the 1970s and '80s, particularly in his own magazine, "Weirdo." In recent decades, his art has become recognized by museums and he has been cited as an influence by many current comic artists. Today, the 67-year-old works from his home near Nimes, in the south of France.
As seriously as Crumb takes his art, Zolten says, he's just as serious about his records.
"His favorite is heavy blues," he said. "He didn't really get into rock 'n' roll, so he's really in the past. Of late, he's gotten interested in European music of the '20s and '30s. And Altoona happens to be a great place to find old recordings of Polish bands, Russian, Czechoslovakian, you name the ethnicity.
"I can't tell you how often I go to a flea market or I go to a second-hand store and there's a little pile of 78s - six times out of 10, there's going to be some interesting European record."
But records long ago ceased being the basis of their relationship.
"In the beginning, it was sheer trading back and forth," Zolten said. "Now, we don't really keep score. He gives me stuff that just shows up. And I send him records just for the hell of it. But it isn't the be-all, end-all of [the friendship]."
The personal nature of the exhibit has drawn attention from other museums, but Zolten isn't sure he'll take it elsewhere.
Still, he recognizes the importance of the exhibit.
"You not only get a feel for Crumb and his contributions to 20th-century art and culture, you get to see Crumb the person through our personal relationship," Zolten said. "I'm sharing some very personal things that you would not see in any other exhibit."
"It's really interesting, because there's a connection between the artist and Jerry," she said. "You get to see a personal look into who this man is and how he approaches his work."
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.