Skip to content

How Raymond Pettibon Puts Words, Pictures, and Anger Back Together

“I could erase an entire life,” thinks a pensive Adolf Hitler as he stares into his mirror in one of the many striking images from the career of artist Raymond Pettibon. In our time, when words mean little and images deceive, Pettibon creates art that rewrites the meaning of words and images erased by modern society by uniting them in fascinating ways that all share a common, simmering anger. How words and pictures have been rent asunder, and how art can undo that divorce, is the subject of a major monograph on the artist titled Raymond Pettibon. A child of the late ‘60s, Pettibon found his groove in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but his art and his message feel just as relevant and important today.

Pettibon, born Raymond Ginn in Southern California in 1957, never really embraced the hippie “Summer of Love” culture that surrounded his childhood. It’s not until the late 1970s and the rise of Punk rock that Pettibon found a counterculture he could consider embracing. “Excited by the music of bands like the Dogs and New Order,” music critic Byron Coley writes, Pettibon “was also seduced by the notion that this new subterranean cultural paradigm might replace decaying remnants of the hippie death vortex.” Pettibon’s older brother, Greg Ginn, joined a punk band first known as Panic, but later (and better) known as Black Flag. Some of Pettibon’s earliest publicly known works were promotional flyers for Black Flag, which shared his punk mentality of challenging authority in the most disturbing ways possible. Coley cautions, however, “that very little of [Pettibon’s] work has anything to do with punk-qua-punk” or with “punk” as “a term with reductionist anti-intellectual implications galore.”  Pettibon may be anti-authority and anti-establishment, but he’s far from anti-intellectual.

The monograph’s editor and one of its essayists, Ralph Rugoff, sees “Pettibon’s took kit bring[ing] his art into correspondence with one of the primary tendencies of television—namely, its exploitation of the tension between what is said and what is shown.” Rugoff compares Pettibon’s technique to that of novelists Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, and their “seemingly limitless spectrum of cultural knowledge.” Pettibon mashes together highbrow textual references to Romantic and Victorian writers and thinkers such as William Blake, John Ruskin, and Walter Pater with low to middlebrow references to Batman, Superman, and Gumby. Pettibon doesn’t just pay homage to such figures. Instead, he uses them in an extensive “caustic reexamination of key figures, symbols, and events from American history,” Rugoff argues. Nothing is safe from Pettibon’s pen. By burning away the comfortable fictions of language and imagery built up over the years that cover over the harsher reality, Pettibon reminds us that language, imagery, and history are not things that happen to us, but rather our own creations that we have allowed to control us. “Ultimately,” Rugoff concludes, “the critical contents of Pettibon’s drawings emerge not only from what they portray, but also from the specific ways that they address us, and from how we, in turn, navigate our way into the uncertain territories they summon.” Here be the dragons of modern existence, Pettibon suggests, and here’s the way to slay them.

Like Blake, Pettibon thrives in excess. Over the last three decades, Pettibon’s drawn somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 images of complex verbal and visual interaction. Just when you think you’ve had enough of one series (on baseball, Batman, surfing, Charles Manson, John Dillinger, or any other Pettibon motif), he slugs you with one more. In some ways, Pettibon’s the anti-Warhol, whose minimalist films Pettibon seems to respond to in a series of late 1980s VHS films about 1970s figures Manson, Patty Hearst, and the Weathermen. Ed Halter sees Pettibon’s direct to video films “embrac[ing] the automatic nature of VHS” in an artifice-less, aesthetic-less reply to the over-the-top camp of Warhol. “I want just a fraction of what Andy got,” Pettibon writes on one of a series of cent and dollar sign drawings that mock not just Warhol’s own dollar sign series, but also Andy’s whole pop-based overcommercialization of art.

Kitty Scott provides an excellent case study of one of Pettibon’s motifs—cats. Scott traces Pettibon’s felines everywhere from Manet’s Olympia to Goya’s Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga to Felix the Cat. And that’s all before Scott even tries to trace Pettibon’s text to a letter by largely forgotten 19th century artist and critic William Wetmore Story. The effect can be overwhelming, as if we’re drowning in imagery and language. But, more importantly, this overwhelming effect reminds us how powerful the union of words and pictures can be and how we need to harness that power. In 2011’s No Title (I work upstairs) (detail shown above), an almost cathedral-like wave of water threatens to engulf a solitary surfer. “I work upstairs, I come downstairs,” Pettibon writes in the corner of the drawing, suggesting, perhaps, his own penchant for making the highbrow (upstairs) meet the lowbrow (downstairs) somewhere in the middle. Just as Pettibon surfs the edge of the intersection of words and images, he asks us to accept the same challenge and ride the overwhelming wave ourselves.

In the finest essay of the collection, eminent critic Robert Storr traces Pettibon’s evolution from spleen to outright rage in his art, which Storr believes makes Pettibon “a pivotal artist for the grim fin de siècle of the twentieth century, and the lurching start of the twenty-first.” “Pettibon looks back to the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency, the hinge-point in American history when the bright hopes of the Kennedy presidency and an optimistic counterculture of civil rights marches, peace marches, and Woodstock definitively flipped into seemingly endless foreign wars and civil conflicts,” Storr writes. Pettibon looks back at those events in anger, but he uses that anger to look at the present and future, too. “Fueled by the proliferation of wars and the obscene degradation of the ways they are conducted” during the George W. Bush presidency, Storr writes, Pettibon creates bigger, cruder, and more violent images to mirror the direction he sees America taking. Only Pettibon would update Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World romantic lyricism with a mushroom cloud. The proliferation of deceptive words (often taken, as Storr notes, from Bush apologists/enablers such as William Kristol and Norman Podhoretz) and violent pictures reaches such a fever pitch in some more recent works that they appear as modern day equivalents to Rodin’s Gates of Hell, but with Pettibon himself looking down in the role of The Thinker. “In [Pettibon’s] still evolving Book of Revelations,” Storr finishes, “there is no Heaven but there is a Hell—and it is here on earth.”

“It is the voice of his love or hate, of his hope or sorrow, idealizing, challenging, or condemning the world,” Pettibon writes on one of his “Vavoom” pictures featuring a wide-mouthed figure shouting to the universe. “Are we really deaf?” In that quote from George Santayana, who most famously warned us that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” we can hear Pettibon’s own voice—an angry voice and creative eye who rages out of love and hate, hope and sorrow, to challenge the world as it condemns it. The real question posed by Pettibon’s art and the ideas and images of Raymond Pettibon is if we will turn a deaf ear (and a blind eye) to Pettibon’s challenge to question the past to save the present and the future. If humanity’s words and pictures—its prime means of communication—no longer mean anything, then the word “humanity” itself means nothing either.

[Image:Raymond Pettibon. No Title (I work upstairs) (detail), 2011. Pen, ink, and goache on paper. 71 x 52 inches (180.3 x 132.1 cm).]

[Many thanks to Rizzoli USA for providing me with the image above and a review copy of Raymond Pettibon, edited by Ralph Rugoff and with texts by Byron Coley, Ed Halter, Mike Kelley, Jonathan Lethem, Ralph Rugoff, Kitty Scott, and Robert Storr.]


Up Next