This Wednesday the first comprehensive retrospective of Raymond Pettibon’s work opened at the New Museum in New York. Pettibon’s name has been long familiar to all who have followed the Los Angeles punk scene. He illustrated the now-iconic album covers and concert flyers for the band Black Flag – his brother was the band’s founder and guitarist. At the time Pettibon has also illustrated numerous zines that he self-published, very few people bought, and that now fetch ridiculous amounts of money on the art market, as do his drawings.
Few things are better in this world than a well-read punk and Pettibon is certainly one of them. His drawings, of which there are by now more than twenty thousand in existence and seven hundred on display at the New Museum, often come with text inspired by or lifted from classic and modern literature (Pettibon claims to have read James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” more than once, which I find hard to believe).
Like George Orwell did with words, through his art Pettibon has a fantastic ability to cut through all the bullshit that contemporary propaganda downstreams to us. And although Pettibon is verbose in his illustrations, it’s the images that do the final work. As if to underscore this, one of the most sneakily powerful works on display at the New Museum was a white sheet of paper on which the artist has written, “PAINT THE ALL UNUTTERABLE.”
To see punk in a museum is always questionable and it always makes me uncomfortable. Punk is not meant to be institutionalized. Punk is fluid – institutions are not. Punk is the anti-thesis of the Pantheon; a museum is its embodiment. And, yet, punk being in a museum is also kind of punk, because it means you’ve broken down the cultural walls. The point is for your work to retain its meaning regardless of context.
The meaning of Pettibon’s work is unadulterated rage. His rage comes in two flavors, cultural and political, and the New Museum has neatly separated the two by placing them on different floors. The political rage is situated on the fourth floor, and the cultural on the third. Depending on how you make your way through the exhibit, one can supersede the other.
Pettibon pulls no punches when delivering his rage. His images and his words are scathing and he is very much into undressing and exposing (pun intended) political and cultural ambitions as mere struggles for power. And power for him is mostly male power and of orgasmic nature. The struggle for power is the ultimate male desire to fuck everything in its line of site, women, other men, the world. This is a rather hopeless view, because if men go to war and produce culture because they are horny, there will be no end to this until the end.
In political terms, Pettibon’s commentary starts with a casual nod to Lincoln, then jumps to a desultory attempt at Stalin and Hitler, and really picks up speed through the Vietnam war, Kennedy’s assassination, Reagan and Bush (the Iraq War, mostly), and ends with a few half-hearted attempts at Trump (surely, the Orangutan will inspire a stunning amount of output from Pettibon). Walking the fourth floor is kind of like watching Forrest Gump for adults. My favorite was a drawing of Nancy Reagan about to perform fellatio on an unidentified penis, captioned, “If Ronnie is not up to it that is not to say Nancy won’t – where is a will there’s a way.”
Perhaps more interesting than the artistic potshots taken at the obvious political villains are Pettibon’s skewering of our culture’s sacred cows displayed on the third floor. Pettibon maintains that the most valuable thing about Jim Morrison – at least for his legions of female fans – was his penis. In one drawing a woman is gobbling his disembodied member, saying something to the effect that it’s the most valued cultural treasure. The Beatles also get their due. Punk, indeed.
Also, on the third floor, you will find the aforementioned Black Flag record sleeves and show leaflets, as well as that one cover Pettibon did for Sonic Youth, and his zines, including one of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. There are also the large paintings of California surfing scenes, which are some of Pettibon’s most famous and most boring.
Last, but not least – and I don’t mean to pull a Finnegan’s Wake by going back to the beginning at the end – I must return to Pettibon’s artistic value as a well-read punk. The work on display underscores his unwavering belief in the power of not only image but language, especially the power of pitting clear language against the obscurant one of political and cultural propaganda that has accelerated to the speed of light in the last year. In his remarks during the press preview, the exhibit’s co-curator Massimo Gioni mentioned Pettibon’s “semiotic warfare against propaganda.” Few things seem more important today.