High above, to the left of center, the Artist painted these words…
“I have been rewriting ‘that modern novel’
I spoke of to you…On th’ whole it is a failure, I think,
tho nobody will know this, perhaps, but myself…iyt is a simple story, simply told. And yet iyt hath no name.”
This show fills THREE FLOORS of a quite prestigious Manhattan Museum. Please define “failure,” Raymond. Unless, you’re pulling our leyg…again?
“Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work,” a Retrospective that also marked his first major NYC Museum show, closed at the New Museum on April 16. I was there almost to last call, drynking in as much as I could, though I was past being intoxxxicated on the 800 Drawings, fliers, album covers, ’zines, Artist’s Books and his films the Museum displayed over those 3 full floors1, plus the fascinating, multifaceted mural he did in the lobby, seen above, and below.
Barely, had I had time for this buzzz to peak when lo and behold…Here comes A-NOTHER Raymond Pettibon show, “TH’ EXPLOSIYV SHORT T,” at David Zwirner, 19th Street, with NINETY-NINE more, recent works, only a couple of which were in “A Pen…”(they were part of the lobby mural, tacked to the wall)! And? These 99 works were being shown in the very space where Raymond Pettibon had created them. Whoa! So, unless I completely overdose on Pettibon first, you might, as I’ve opted to do three pieces- because I think his work is that important and timely- one on each show, and a third piece that looks at the place Raymond Pettibon’s Art is now. Since the David Zwirner show, where I met Raymond Petitibon on April 29, still has some time to run before it closes on June 24, I’ll start with “A Pen of All Work,” my “NoteWorthy” show for April, before the trail grows cold on it, though for you lucky folks near Maastricht (correctly spelled), the Netherlands, it just reopened at Maastricht’s Bonnefantenmuseum, on June 2, with 700 works, where it will run through October 29. 2
Mr. Pettibon is somewhat unique in the Art world because of the way he got here, achieving legendary status through his work for bands before he got a Gallery to represent him. So? The Art world is not as familiar with the early work, while his early fans may not be as familiar with what he’s done lately (though, of course, he has many fans who have been with him the whole way, too). I’ll try to show a mix of work here, while trying to give a sense of what this remarkable show was like.
I have to think back to the Picasso Retrospective which filled ALL of the old MoMA in 1980 to recall a show of comparable size. Still, if there was a common theme to be found it was that “his entire body of work is very much a confrontation against ideologies,” to quote Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum’s Artistic Director, on the excellent audio guide. Whatever you’ve got? Pettibon will confront it, and given how much confronting he’s done, everyone involved did a superb job of installing it, organizing all of these works by themes.
The 2nd floor mostly focused on Pettibon, himself, looking at his early work with an eye on how he created his own “alternate media” in the form fliers, zines, record covers, Artist’s books, films & videos, et al, and how he goes about his craft, including samples from the archive he uses as source material, and to draw inspiration from on a daily basis.
Also on 2, along with a good part of his past, part of Pettibon’s current legacy was on view in full effect, as seen below. He forged his own way of getting his work seen, first on fliers, then on record covers, zines, Artist’s Books, and then added film and video, all before finding acceptance in the Art world, something he says was delayed by 10 years due to his association with punk. A visit to stores like New York’s Printed Matter feels like visiting the work of many of the “children” of Raymond Pettibon, as his example has been, and is being, followed by countless Artists, Photographers, Musicians and Writers right now. Including thiys one. Though, perhaps not the first Artist to work in any of those media, his methods, and his path, remain most influential.
Also on the 2nd floor is the American premier of the virtually complete original art for his first book, “Captive Chains,” 1978, an homage to comic books/Texas Chainsaw Massacre/ Betty Page that is laced with S&M imagery as well as first rate drawings, different in style than what most of his fans may be familiar with. Pettibon has been quick to downplay/under-play/denigrayte his self-taught Drawing skills- including these! “Captive Chains” begs to differ. Sorry! No faylure here. These are both terrific, and now classic. Perhaps most interesting, a number of it’s pages are full page drawings with no text, something almost never seen in Pettibon’s work since. In fact, it seems to me his career has followed the trajectory of his work being more about image primacy early on to now when text and language have come more and more to the forefront. One indication of this is that many drawings lie unfinished in his studio at any given time while they await the inspiration of texts to complete them. Sometimes for years.
Pettibon is fond of recycling old characters from the comics and television, including Batman, Superman, Gumby and the obscure side-kick character, Vavoom. While Batman and Superman are famous, Gumby, a long time personal favorite, is in eclipse. A claymation character created by Art Clokey3, he was able to walk into books and live in them, as well as visit other times in history. Vavoom was a side kick on the Felix the Cat cartoon show, a character, who’s only vocalization was, literally, an earth shattering shout out of his own name. Both Gumby and Vavoom are alter egos of Pettibon, and stand-ins for the Artist. Very interesting choices, to say the least.
In a long, rear gallery on the 2nd floor, was an amazing selection of Pettibon’s superb Baseball Drawings. Along with surfing, the Artist’s passion for Baseball is lifelong. As with his other work, unless you’re a Baseball Stat expert, like he may well be, it takes some digging to begin to understand why Pettibon is choosing to depict a certain player at a certain point in his career. (More on this in my Post on the Zwirner show.) While his early punk work continues to gets so much attention, other areas of his work live in neglect. If there’a another Baseball Artist in Pettibon’s league? I don’t know of him/her.
The 3rd floor sees Pettibon looking at the various “tribes,” and subcultures in recent American history- surfers, hippies, punks, the Manson family, and musicians.
His Surfer and Wave works strike me as living at the center of his work, the heart of it. Beyond punk, Manson, religion, politics, war- all the rest of it. Here’s a world Pettibon knows intimately having grown up near the water in Malibu, where he indeed surfed, though, as he told Dennis Cooper in “Raymond Pettibon,” (Phaidon), “I don’t surf much any more, but I grew up with it. I was never a card-carrying surfer.” Usually, he depicts a solitary man in the middle of a gigantic wave, testing himself against nature, symbolically against the world, against the nature of things, against chance, and against himself. As his 2005 work, ”Man stands as in the center of Nature, his fraction of time encircled by eternity…”, which wasn’t in this show, sums up perfectly. At moments like those, the “truths” that present themselves (or rather, that Pettibon presents) are often zen-like koans- they’re ineffable. They can’t be distilled further. All but the tiny place where board meets water is out of his control. How long will the ride last? Will he survive? Be maimed? What goes through the mind while it does, and at times like those? It’s not just a man’s game, either. He shows us girls and women surfing, sometimes topless.
The 4th floor sees Pettibon’s extensive, long-running, devastating and ever-timely political and war works, along with works relating to the power of media. Brace yourself- Pettibon doesn’t play favorites. Democrats and republicans come in for just about equal poundings- from JFK through Obama. It culminates, and the show concludes, with an inner gallery of work Pettibon created for “A Pen of All Work.”
The layout of the 4th floor is interesting in the choice of having the most timely, most controversial and most “explosive” work including pieces regarding Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Donald Trump (one from the 1980’s, and one from the 2016 campaign) and atomic explosions….
surrounding an inner space, where the feeling is, surprisingly, both personal and intimate, it felt to me. Inside, the Artist pays homage to his mom, talks about his craft, and, apparently, nature, life, some of his wishes at this stage of his life (he turns 60 on June 16), all in works created for this room, and some on it’s walls.
The show includes some treasures. His mother, 95 as of last December, saved some of his childhood drawings from the 1960’s and 19 of them were on view that Pettibon has now added texts to! Pettibon pays homage to his Mom in a wonderful, Artful, way in this final gallery, which brings the show full circle.
So…Moms? Hold on to your kids drawings!
PHEW. Some “failure!” It sounds HUGE, and it was, but it was a mere pittance (4%!) of the over 20,000 Drawings Mr. Gioni says Pettibon has created to date. And counting. He’s already added at least the 99 drawings in the David Zwirner show to the total. And? The one he did for me there.
Beyond that, in a show that contains work that goes back to the 1970’s, it’s fascinating that nothing here feels “dated,” and virtually all of it holds up. Over 800 of any works is a pretty good indication of quality, even out of a body of 20,000. I’m still looking for a “bad” Pettibon.
After spending some weeks with these works, and Pettibon’s work in general, I find Mr. Gioni sums up the mystery of “understanding” Pettibon’s work the best I’ve found so far when he says on the audio guide, speaking of his political works, but I think it’s valuable to keep in mind, regardless of subject- “Pettibon plays with a variety of voices, in this case a cacophony of voices. The texts that are inscribed in the works of Pettibon are rarely a direct confessional expression of the Artist’s opinion, and they are instead a collection of what could be defined as the collective unconscious…” Proof of this is that we learn very little about the Artist, himself, from his work. Unless he comes out and tells us, directly, in interviews, and even then? Watch out for his “tall tales!” The point of the work is not personal (about the Artist, himself). It’s more about self, than “himself.”
Personally? I felt like I was seeing the work of 800 Mensa members. If you want to know why he is a major, and in my opinion, crucially important, Artist of our time, the “Pen,” and a pretty nice one, called the New Museum held your your answer. A wall card says the show’s title comes from a poem by Lord Byron. Ok. Another way to look at it is that the New Museums truly was A “Pen” (as in an enclosure) of All (well, A LOT) of his Work “that matters,” as he painted in the lobby.
I must also say that I feel that this show was a huge coup for the New Museum. As far as I’m concerned, this is the show that takes the New Museum to the next level. “Big 4” Museums? That sound you hear is someone breathing down your necks in contemporary Art. As for Mr. Pettibon, himself? I wonder. This show could have been held at MoMA (who, according to their site own over 300 of his works, on say, the whole 6th floor) or it could have filled The Met Breuer (The Met lists 3 of his works online). Either would have, most likely, given him quite a bit more exposure, which might be critical given the timely nature of his work. I would love to know if either was ever an option, and why they passed if they were. Raymond Pettibon’s time is (still) now. Maybe MORE now than ever. Still, all of that having been said, I’m glad that it happened at all! I mean no disrespect to the New Museum. On the contrary, I heartily applaud them on doing such a superb job, on all accounts. Bravo! While I won’t compare qualitatively, “A Pen of All Work” will be one very hard show to top in NYC in 2017. Meanwhile, his Art continues to find favor elsewhere around the world. If you are anywhere near Maastricht, the Netherlands before October 29, don’t miss iyt! Raymond Pettibon also has a show about to open at the excellent Garage in Moscow, Russia. But? Sadly, this one is over.
“And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row.”*
When I left “A Pen of All Work” as the show closed that last time, I walked out on to the Bowery, the erstwhile “Skid Row,” or “Desolation Row,”(hence, this Post’s Soundtrack), where C.B.G.B. used to stand a few hundred feet away, back in the day before gentrifucation. Yes, punk is long gone, but Raymond Pettibon’s “failed modern novel” gets more and more attention than ever, now worldwide. Pondering all of this, I felt that Pettibon seemed to be akin to a modern day biblical, or zen, prophet- complete with his own burning bush, wandering in the desert, speaking in tongues.
800 works in, I’m listening harder than ever.
*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan, from the classic “Highway 61 Revisited,” and published by Bob Dylan Music Co.
Special thanks to kitty, who’s research assistance made thiys Post possible.
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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com