Raymond Pettibon’s story begins with punk. In particular that omnipresent four-block Black Flag logo—a mark that has found itself emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to tattoos, and scrawled across toilet walls over the years. Pettibon took care of the band’s flyers and record sleeves, hell, he was even in Black Flag for a while—on account of his brother Greg Ginn founding the band in the first place (Pettibon is a pseudonym derived from the nickname his father gave him as a kid, “little one”).
But surveying his entire body of work from the 1970s to the present day offers us more than just punk, revealing a potted history of American counterculture, politics, and attitudes; albeit one presented through a very particular lens. As his style developed, it did so concurrently with the development of various scenes with which he rose, and later watched crumble. Pettibon has often used his work to delineate the dissipation of movements or ideals and those who fronted them—whether punks, hippies or political leaders—and his angry yet prescient presentation of the world around him is a pointed and occasionally frightening social critique.
A new book published by Phaidon, Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work, presents this trajectory in a comprehensive series of works spanning his career, accompanying a vast retrospective of the same name at the New Museum, Pettibon’s first American survey show in nearly two decades.
Perhaps his other most widely recognized design is the cover of Sonic Youth’s album Goo: that much-parodied image of a couple with matching black hair and impenetrable sunglasses. It’s the T-shirt everyone wishes they’d drawn, and that every high-street retailer wants the licence for to up their edgy street cred.
But as this book proves once and for all, to reduce Pettibon’s vast output to these reference points is to miss the point altogether. The reason he got that Goo commission was thanks to his ties to the art, rather than the punk scene: Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon had written about Pettibon in Artforum magazine in the 1980s before appointing him to the project. And while Pettibon states he feels no real animosity towards the L.A. punk scene, he’s very keen to place his work in a wider artistic canon than that of fanzines and flyers.
“The fanzines were utterly a failure. Of Captain Chains, I think I sold one copy… They became collectible at a later date. Personally, I wasn’t playing hard to get or looking to make things scarce or to make a collectible out of them. On the contrary, I wanted the fanzines to be read, but nobody seemed to care for quite some time,” he tells Massimiliano Gioni in an interview printed in the book. “No punk ever bought or really cared about my work. And I am not trying to distance myself in any way. I did half a dozen covers and I did some flyers because my brother was in Black Flag… I was part of the punk thing, but not as an artist. I am not really interested in this kind of cheap historicity, which has ended up constructing a fiction of myself as a punk author.”
Though he studied economics rather than art in a formal capacity, Pettibon is also quick to remove himself from associations with “outsider” art. He says, “You see, I’m not some outlier or outsider. I know it is not what people want to hear, but it’s not that my approach was coming out of some pure, isolated sensibility, like that of outsider artists or comic book nerds. I think that’s a myth.”
As we begin to see, like his spiky, angry, often disillusioned work, Pettibon is a tricky character when it comes to discussions of his practise. But there’s a hell of a lot to talk about: a “conservative” estimate places his output at “upwards of 20,000 individual drawings since beginning with zines in 1978.” An essay in the book describes him as a “self-propelled drawing machine,” and “a racing, leapfrogging, insatiable mind. Profusion and proliferation are the most salient qualities of his art and comprise its meaning as a response to the great content surge flooding contemporary culture.”
Through hundreds of drawings, zines, paintings, scripts, textual fragments, and ephemera, Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work shows how this “surge” was not just a proliferation of work or anger, but a trajectory that has a sense of motion and development throughout the artist’s career. His 1970s work is characterized by bold images accompanied by deliberately misspelled hand-rendered text; monochrome drawings that delight in uncovering mid-20th century America’s dirty underbelly, then wryly tickling it.
These earlier pieces are populated by shady characters; “mobsters, racists, alcoholics, violent cops, and disaffected youth,” which in the following decades morph into their ageing counterparts as washed up hippies and “cartoonish” punks, visually mocked for their over-the-top demonstrations of countercultural ideas. Pettibon also showed a knack for caricaturing both abstract grotesqueries of contemporary culture and the figures he deemed partially responsible for them, including political leaders such as Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan.
As the 20th century became the 21st, Pettibon’s cast of characters widened to include pop culture icons including Superman, Batman, Vavoom, and Gumby. These “act as symbols of America’s traumas and neuroses and as avatars allowing Pettibon to traverse wide swaths of time and space,” writes Lisa Phillips in the book’s foreword. “In spite of this multitude of voices upon which he draws, Pettibon’s signature voice has only grown clearer over time.”
Although he’d likely bristle at our saying, going from punk-band-logo-designer to having 30 years of longevity in the global art scene is hugely impressive. So how has he done it, aside from what must be an exceptionally gruelling work ethic?
“I am asked often by young artists and whomever about how I did it or made it. … the underlying assumption is that people think there is some kind of secret that you have to be part of the illuminati or know the secret handshakes, or you have to suck cock, to be crude,” he tells Gioni. “And of course there is no such thing as a secret, and all this paranoia takes everything away from the work itself. If it’s a great work, you will get attention for it eventually.”