As he introduced the new Raymond Pettibon retrospective, New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni admitted that he first became aware of the artist via his album covers for the Minutemen, Black Flag, and Sonic Youth. While we’re in confession mode: I still think of Pettibon mainly as the brother of Black Flag frontman Greg Ginn and the creator of the punk band’s iconic logo. But “A Pen of All Work,” which opens today, is further proof that the artist is far more than just a nihilistic doodler whose work has been “displayed” by skaters and punks sporting Six Pack t-shirts.
The way Gioni sees it, Pettibon is a “living legend,” and his work has the ability to “prove that America can be made great again.” In fact, some of his drawings– usually paired with evocative lines of text, often quoting from literature– employ the “guttural sounds of our new president,” Gioni said at a press preview yesterday. Granted, these days pretty much every curator is trying to tie in Trump, but there actually is reason to agree with Gioni that many of the artist’s pieces are politically “prophetic.” Take the one below.
Gioni and and his co-curators edited some 5,000 or so of Pettibon’s 20,000-odd lifetime pieces down to a little over 900 and spread them across three floors, each with a loose theme. The top floor is dedicated to Pettibon’s most political works, several of which were exhibited at David Zwirner in 2007 and collected into a book with Osama bin Laden as its cover boy. The dark sendups of George W. Bush’s War on Terror were created in the years following 9/11 (the Zwirner show opened on the sixth anniversary of the attacks) and amount to “a teeming rebuttal to the disinformation [Pettibon] perceived in the news media,” according to an informational card. Hashtag fake news.
There’s a good degree of cynicism and distrust at play in “A Pen of All Work,” and not just toward political leaders like Reagan, who is depicted as a cuckold of Frank Sinatra, and Bush, who is shown scorning an amputee just as Trump would later seemingly mock a disabled reporter and insult a POW, John McCain.
As for Trump himself, the two pieces that reference him by name are a little more ambiguous, as you can see below. One was created in 1986, and the second in 2016.
A single slip of paper above the political works reads “PAINT THE ALL UNUTTERABLE,” a line that also appeared in a Red Hot Chili Peppers video that used Pettibon imagery. Depending on how you interpret it, that line is apt for Pettibon’s work, much of which traffics in taboos such as incest, soldiers torturing Muslims for sexual kicks, and the like. Batman and Robin are depicted as gay lovers, in what’s said to be a nod to Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, a 1950s book that called for the censorship of comic books’ supposedly homosexual subtexts.
But Pettibon isn’t a gratuitous provocateur. He shows a deep distrust of groupthink and cliques, whether they’re conservative of liberal (judging by his feisty Twitter account, he isn’t a fan of the Obama “regime,” either). Both Charles Manson and Jesus are well represented here. Hippies are skewered as joiners whose idea of freedom was ODing and jumping off buildings.
Pettibon wasn’t any kinder to punks. In a case displaying his record covers, a card notes that although Pettibon was tangentially associated with them through his brother’s record label SST, “most of his actual illustrations of punks were less than flattering.”
The 100-plus zines Pettibon self-published between 1978 and 1993 are displayed in cases and electronically. One of them, New Wavy Gravy 2, depicts punks as closet hippies who get Black Flag tattoos in a pathetic attempt to impress Henry Rollins.
In an essay included in the catalogue (now on sale in the New Museum gift shop), co-curator Gary Carrion-Murayari notes that a Black Flag fan might be tempted to see Pettibon’s misanthropic temperament as punk attitude, but in fact his work conveys “stories of wasted youth that long predate punk.” Pettibon insists that even his early work had only a “paltry connection” to punk, compared to influences like Edward Hopper, Goya, John Dos Passos, the Studs Lonigan novels, Saul Bellow, and the Ashcan School of art. Carrion-Murayari notes that he was also influenced by the pulp comics of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and his nods to them are “less a celebration of a punk attitude and instead an attempt at finding a common mythology of stifled drams and failed rebellion throughout twentieth-century America.”
If Pettibon distrusted punks, he also questioned their arch enemies: cops. Hanging on one wall is the image that brought heat on Black Flag after it graced the cover of Police Story, though the homophobic slur after “make me come” has now been obscured (whether intentionally or through wear and tear, it’s unclear).
Of course, not all of Pettibon’s work attempts to shock or topple sacred cows, especially as it has matured since the late ’70s. Who knew that the guy whose in-flagrante nun graces the cover of Slip It In would end up drawing lovely cathedral interiors?
There are rooms dedicated to his appropriations of Gumby and Vavoom, a character from the Felix the Cat cartoon that Gioni described as Pettibon’s “alterego.” Other areas are dedicated to Pettibon’s fascinations with wrestlers, trains, baseball heroes, atom-bomb explosions.
You can also watch Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore make post-coital pseudo-revolutionary talk under a swastika in one of Pettibon’s late-’80s B-movies, a political farce titled The Whole World is Watching: Weatherman 69. (It isn’t the only swastika in the show. One drawing shows a young man telling Hitler, “You are now our pied piper.” Yep.)
Perhaps the most striking paintings, if only because of their monumental size and uncharacteristic dash of color, are Pettibon’s depictions of surfers, some of which were featured in a 2014 show at Venus Over Manhattan. In contrast to the warts-and-all grotesquery of his earlier work, these evoke the beauty of nature as well as Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic print, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. They give the impression that Pettibon, who’s pretty much synonymous with Southern California, might just subscribe to the words found in one of them: “My purpose in life is to do this. On the seventh day I paint.” But he’s no surf bum– actually, he moved from Venice, California, to Manhattan in 2011.
Either way, the massive waves are a welcome break from what Gioni called the “at times cacaphonic, at times melodic and mellifluous” verbiage of Pettibon’s word-heavy work. Nearby, a case full of clippings, displayed here for the first time, show how the artist adapts fragments from the texts of Sir Walter Scott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Lord Byron in order to pair them with images of Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani, the Twin Towers, and the Battle of Iwo Jima.
To hammer home the point that Pettibon has evolved over the years while he has also revisited certain themes, “A Pen of All Work” begins with some drawings he made around the age of 6, to which he has now added text (a crude doodle of a pirate is now paired with a line of text about shooting sperm). The show ends with some more personal pieces made for the exhibition, the most striking of which is this seeming confession.
“A Pen of All Work” continues through April 9 at New Museum, 235 Bowery; admission $12 (students) to $18, or pay what you wish on Thursdays, 7pm to 9pm.