Phoebe Hoban on Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work at The New Museum

Raymond Pettibon, No title, (We do not), 2011, Pen and ink on paper, 47 × 31 1/2 in (119.4 × 80 cm), Collection Daniel Richter, Berlin Courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin 

Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work
On view through April 9th, 2017
The New Museum, New York, NY


The Pettibon show, bristling with pen-drawn indictments of democracy as we have known it, could not possibly be more timely. Pettibon, born in 1957, covers the waterfront, right up until the moment in which we find ourselves, in Trumpland, USA, a place unlike that which we have ever experienced before. Or is it?

Well yes, and no. The President’s first 100 days in office have kept everyone from journalists to protesters frazzled and scrambling, turning many of us who are vociferously not his base into bonafide news junkies. You pretty much have to be, just to keep up with the daily, damaging detritus floating out of the White House. Indeed, political pundits have already deemed Trump’s early D.C. trajectory as having no historical precedent. But there have been plenty of low and loaded points in American history in the last 50 or so years, and Pettibon pointedly captures many of them. (There is even an unflattering image of our reality-tv show President, flag as backdrop, with the speech-balloon, “Yr Hir’d.”)

This all-encompassing career retrospective, by an artist with an extraordinarily ambitious scope, contains some 700-900 images, a virtual (but not digital) encyclopedia of powerful cultural and political tidbits. See Nixon’s jowly face during Watergate. Observe Nancy Reagan’s reaction to the notion of felatio (perhaps digesting the fact of having a gay son.) Here are the Weathermen; there is Patty Hearst. Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, torture during the George W. Bush presidency and of course, that still not yet entirely digested behemoth, World War II, all get their well-penned due. Exiting the elevator on the 4th floor, you are greeted with a wall imploding with images of nuclear mushrooms. As one untitled piece, consisting of only a single, succinct line, puts it: “Paint the all unutterable.” And Pettibon does—or rather draws and/or writes it.

No title, (Sucking cock is...), 1990, Pen and ink on paper, 18 x 12 in (45.7 x 30.5 cm), Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, Sadie Coles HQ, London, and Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin

Despite its dizzying display of graphics, what dominates this show, and Pettibon’s work in particular, is language. Nearly every image is accompanied by text, and some are text only. Unlike Robert Crumb, however, another scarily prolific draughtsman whose images are accompanied by wordy—often sarcastic text--Pettibon doesn’t just do comics—although he has some sharp and salacious takes on the relationship between Batman and Superman and the conservative backlash against the manly superheroes--and quite a few strips of his own. He does anything and everything: indie punk album covers, cutting-edge zines, a portrait gallery of Charles Manson, poetic odes to his literary heroes.  

To quote one of Pettibon’s texts, written beneath a painful image of two soldiers hanging by their feet, “We do not know the past. We read history as its [sic] laid out chronologically, anesthetized on the table. What we know we know by ripples and spirals, eddying out from us in our own time.  

This show does nothing if not eddy out from our—and Pettibon’s—own time. Curated by Gary Carrion Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni, and organized by theme rather than chronology, it is literally teeming with an exhaustive response to geopolitics, wall to wall and, in some instances, almost ceiling to floor. From twisted comic strips to beautiful goauches, to Gumby (labeled as a “lover of the great Proust”) as avatar. “My head and imagination are full of my own urgent imagery and issues, and it won’t be till I can clear it, alas, that I can do more. But meanwhile I will do what I can however limping and clumsily,” reads the text on a page that contains only the large, lower case letter, “i.”

No Title, (I thank the...), 2005. Pen and ink on paper, 22 x 32 in (55.9 x 81.3 cm). Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

Thankfully, there is a beautiful, zen, head-clearing and heart-calming room on the third floor; a breathtaking suite of large-scale surfing images, stunningly hung in their own space, a la Monet’s Waterlilies. One can get completely lost in the swirling beauty of the largest of these images. And in the nearly dozen a corner wall; compact, compelling turquoise renderings of curling, cresting waves, each made up of a multitude of artful, Van Gogh-ish strokes. (But even here, there is a smattering of text to be read.) 

No Title (As to me),2015. Pen, ink, watercolor, andacrylic on paper, 54 3/4x 112 3/8 in (139.1x 285.4cm). Private collection, Los Angeles. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

While there is a long tradition of using text in art, Pettibon utilizes it in a quirky--and totally original--way. Ironically, a critic’s language can’t really do justice to the multilevels of this eye-popping, engaging show. It is Pettibon’s unique unraveling—or sometimes even deliberate raveling--of his own acute and culturally-literate consciousness--that nails key moments of the past, thus presciently commenting on the present and future. WM

Raymond Pettibon, “A Pen of All Work,” The New Museum, February 8 to April 9. 


Phoebe Hoban

Phoebe Hoban is an American journalist perhaps known best for her biographies of the artists Jean Michel Basquiat and Alice Neel. Her most recent book is "Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open," 2014. Her Basquiat biography, "Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art," came out as an e-book in May 2016.

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