Raymond Pettibon

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Selected Press

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The Enigmatic Art of Raymond Pettibon

The enigmatic, fantastically erudite artist Raymond Pettibon takes to Twitter like a bird to sky. My favorite of some fifty tweets that he posted on a recent day offers a reason that Donald Trump can't be the Antichrist: "Not charming, goodlooking, endearing enuff." In his art, Pettibon only sometimes addresses topical politics, or topical anything, but he knows his archetypes, and it's nice to have eschatological expertise on current events. How seriously to take it is an uncertainty that haunts all of Pettibon's art, which is surveyed in "A Pen of All Work," a retrospective at the New Museum of some seven hundred creations, mostly drawings with text. He has intrigued and befuddled a growing audience since the late nineteen-seventies, when he emerged, in Hermosa Beach, California, as a bookish surfer who made flyers and album covers for the punk band Black Flag (his older brother Greg Ginn was the founder and guitarist) and a flurry of zines. His fame took hold slowly, and it remains confined largely to fine-art circles. Seeing the show is like being lost in a foreign but strangely familiar city, where polyphonic disembodied voices whisper, yell, or sputter wit and wisdom that you're rarely sure that you heard quite right.

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Raymond Pettibon, Wielding an Art Mightier Than the Sword

To hazards like icecap cracks, nuclear leaks and rising seas, add another environmental threat: language fallout. Never has verbiage, generated by advertising, the entertainment industry and mouthy politicians, been so present and pervasive in everyday life, seeping from smartphones, spewing from flat screens. And few artists have more cannily predicted and reflected, not to mention contributed to, this phenomenon than Raymond Pettibon, whose career retrospective, with more than 700 annotated drawings and paintings, fills three floors and the lobby of the New Museum.

Nearly every piece in "Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work" is dominated by an image. Most are done in pen and ink, and sometimes paint, on notebook-size sheets of paper in a wired, graphic style. But many of the images–of Joan Crawford, or Jesus, or a surfer, or an explosion–are unremarkable in themselves, and made interesting primarily by the presence of handwritten phrases and sentences above, below and around them.

Some of these texts seem to be lifted from B-movie scripts, others from classical literature, still others from the sort of reactive interior rants that some of us drop into unguarded subway moments. Over all, Mr. Pettibon's art has the prickly, manic feel of such rants, and like them, it rarely achieves smooth resolution. Words and pictures are often out of logical sync. He titles many pieces "No Title," followed by a bit of quoted text. Only in his most overtly political work do all components align and fuse, defining and sharpening one another.

And Mr. Pettibon is, with gratifying regularity, a sharp political critic. It is the most interesting thing about him. His targets can be quite specific: the drug-wrecked hippie movement of the 1960s, the American war in Iraq. Yet his entire output, despite interludes of lyricism and nostalgia, and a running strain of stand-up humor, is a steady indictment of American culture as he has lived it over the past 60 years.

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Raymond Pettibon Talks Art, Anarchy, and Not Giving a Fuck

Raymond Pettibon is a celebrated artist who paints and draws beautiful and unnerving images, often in high-contrast black-and-white. He entered the consciousness of many through the art he made for his estranged brother's band and record label, SST. Although many teens know him as the Black Flag artist, the work he created in the punk days are inky drops in a smudgy bucket when held up next to rest of his massive oeuvre.

Pettibon's work is the subject of a four-story retrospective, Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work, that opened at New York's New Museum on Wednesday. I've never seen so much of Pettibon's work in one place, which makes sense since the show is his first true retrospective. Pieces that I assumed must have been long sold or lost are in the show. The paintings and drawings are grouped by subject matter. There's a cluster of art about Charlie Manson, and then you'll be confronted by a large corner dominated by beautiful paintings of giant waves, trains, Gumby, Batman, and other motifs Ray has worked with during his decades-long career (he's 59 and has been drawing as long as he can remember). His zines and old videos he made with Sonic Youth and Mike Kelley are there, too.

Although Pettibon didn't grant interview requests in the lead-up to the show, he let me come and talk to him while he finished up his murals on the first floor of the museum. I've interviewed him a few times for VICE now, in 2010, 2013, and 2016, and you can read those, too, if you'd like.

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Flotsam and Jetsam: Raymond Pettibon

A conversation with the artist Raymond Pettibon is a master class in ellipses. There are breaks, fits and starts, and halting gaps. This is a man with a lot on his mind, and he’s in no rush to communicate it all. To talk to him, you have to slow your metabolism and get into his groove.

"Everything here is a work in progress," says Pettibon, 59, who appears to be wearing pajama bottoms for the workday in his SoHo studio. He's a philosopher-king who manages to combine grumpy world-weariness with a completely open mind.

A long pause ensues. Traffic noises waft in from the street below.

"I don’t have any idea how it will all play out," he finally says.

To get into the topic at hand–his big survey show at the New Museum, "Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work," through April 9–you have to go sideways, since this artist always has something uncanny in his peripheral vision.

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Raymond Pettibon's Punk Prophesy

Raymond Pettibon is a surf-punk artist with a taste for the sloppy sublime and a shambling contempt for tidiness, preciousness, and hypocrisy. He was born in 1957, and, living in Hermosa Beach near Los Angeles, made Xeroxed flyers and album covers for his older brother Greg Ginn's now-legendary band Black Flag, and lots and lots of zines. His jaunty, prophetic sense of the grotesque has translated particularly well to social media (you should follow him on Twitter, but not if you're easily distracted by a certain Joyce-ian immediacy in spelling) and our current political era. You could say that Trump is the perfect embodiment of every suspicion any punk rocker ever had about the rotten truth at the core of our social order.

Today Pettibon's scrawled revelations on scraps of paper are considered objets d'art: He's represented by the big-shot gallerist David Zwirner, lauded by Peter Schjeldahl, and has an enormous retrospective at the New Museum, from which this slideshow is drawn.

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Raymond Pettibon talks about his journey from L.A.'s punk periphery to art stardom

Born in Hermosa Beach, California, Raymond Pettibon came to prominence in the late 1970s as the creator of flyers, posters, record covers and the logo for the seminal L.A. punk band Black Flag as well as for Sonic Youth (whose fronting diva, Kim Gordon, also went on to an art career). Pettibon rocketed to fame in 1992, when he was included in "Helter Skelter," the show that exposed the underbelly of the California art scene at Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. Since then, he's channeled the dark side of American life and history with narrative drawings that have made him one of the most important artists of the past 20 years. Currently the subject of a career survey at the New Museum on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Pettibon discusses his work, its influences and its relationship to politics.

You got your start making promotional material for bands. How did you get into that?
My brother was in Black Flag, and they were very good at self-promotion. I actually used my existing drawings for the posters and other stuff I did for them and eventually for Sonic Youth. I always drew what I wanted; I never listened to any bright ideas coming from punk rockers.

You have also published zines. What role have those played in your career?
They began as a way of getting my work seen, though hardly any of them sold back then. They were somewhat random, but I usually tried to have a cohesive theme like sports and religion.

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Raymond Pettibon at the New Museum: An Expansive Exhibition for One of Our Most Endlessly Prolific Artists

Raymond Pettibon is relentless. For nearly 40 years, the 59-year-old artist, long associated with the Southern California hardcore punk scene and now based in New York, has presented dark, comic visions of the American id in a proliferation of ink drawings. Lurking amid the works are murderous hippies, beefy baseball players, and gallant surfers–not to mention divisive figures like J. Edgar Hoover and Osama bin Laden. Phrases cribbed from Henry James and William Blake commingle with Pettibon's own words, creating an effect that is polyphonic, alluring, and unhinged.

"Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work," his largest exhibition to date (February 8 through April 16), at the New Museum, in New York, examines his literary inclinations in early zines, drawings, and the scripts for the scrappy videos he would begin making in the late 1980s. "We lost count!" Massimiliano Gioni, the museum's artistic director, jokes when asked how many works will be in the show he co-curated with Gary Carrion-Murayari. Among the 700 drawings–selected from some 5,000–are ones Pettibon made as an 8-year-old child; texts that he had cut from books and saved for later use will also be shown for the first time.

"There's this idea of him as a guy who just sits down and cranks out these drawings, like an improvising punk rocker," Gioni says. "But instead, his method is careful."

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Raymond Pettibon: Pictures, Literary Voices and Surfers, Too

In his energetic drawings of baseball greats, Hollywood legends, comic book heroes and rock stars, of drug addicts, bikers and gangsters, Charles Manson and J. Edgar Hoover, Raymond Pettibon gives us the full sweep of the American social landscape.

Then he detonates it. Compounding his images–urgent, bold, often hallucinatory–are headlong inscriptions that mix original writing and material borrowed from authors spanning centuries. The medley can be clamorous. It is a vision of populism recast as anarchy.

"If there's any voice, it's multiple, even within the same work," Mr. Pettibon said during my recent visit to his studio.

Rumpled and barefoot on a cold winter day, Mr. Pettibon, who turns 60 this year, seemed a little preoccupied. (As it turned out, he said he was "in the doghouse" with his wife, the artist Aïda Ruilova, and was sleeping here on a daybed.)

When I asked what percentage of the writing in his work is original, he said, hesitantly: "I wouldn't hazard a guess. But it's not one or the other. Nothing comes out of thin air. We all live with the same language and influences." He added, "I'm just the conduit, the messenger."

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I first became aware of Raymond Pettibon in the early '80s, when I was visiting my parents in Los Angeles. Thurston and I came across his zines in a store somewhere, and we became keenly interested in them. One Sunday afternoon, we went to a house party in Hermosa Beach, a languid, slightly funky enclave that never became a resort town but rather a suburban neighborhood by the beach. Black Flag were playing at the party, and Henry Rollins was singing in the kitchen. He came right up to me and sang in my face. That was maybe one of the best gigs I'd ever seen because it was so surreal and intimate and confusing–refrigerator, counter, Henry Rollins twerking before twerking existed in his little black shorts, fusing hardcore punk with suburban banality.

This was all new to us. Coming from the New York music scene, people didn't have houses or garages, so no house parties viewed through the almost-too-bright L.A. sunshine. We went out to the backyard and there was Raymond. Someone introduced us. He was already sort of mythical in our minds. He was shy and dressed normally–casually disheveled. No one from that area dressed in a stylized punk way. That was one of the things that made it so cool–South Beach as opposed to Hollywood. We got to visit with Raymond a few times. There was always a pile of his drawings spilling over on a tabletop.

Raymond's drawings were way beyond illustrative. At that time, he had no relationship to the art world. I decided to write an article for Artforum on his work, as well as Tony Oursler's and Mike Kelley's, whose work also used high and low culture, eschewing the conceptual mantle of '70s formalism. It was a way to get Raymond into Artforum–this was the mid-'80s. We also participated in one of Raymond's films, The Whole World Is Watching: Weatherman '69 as Told by Raymond Pettibon (1989). It was very informal, and the brilliant script carried the whole thing. It almost didn't matter what the actors did. Whoever showed up to Raymond's house became crew and cameraperson. The task happened to fall on Dave Markey, the musician and filmmaker (The Slog Movie, 1982; 1991: The Year Punk Broke, 1992), but it could have been anyone. Reading off cue cards made it immediately a natural deconstruction, a Nouvelle Vague film à la Hermosa Beach. Shortly after that, Raymond began showing at Ace Gallery in L.A. He was like a flower opening up with a little attention. 

This interview took place over lunch in SoHo in New York, just before the opening of Pettibon's latest show of drawings at David Zwirner gallery. This winter also brings the release of two Pettibon art books, a definitive collection of his work from Rizzoli and Raymond Pettibon: Here's Your Irony Back: Political Works, 1975-2013 (Hatje Cantz).

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