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The phenomenal retrospective Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work at the New Museum opens with a wall chockablock with exploding nuclear bombs. Can he top that? Yes, he can.
I should start out by stating that Pettibon has always skirted the periphery of my awareness, a blip on the outer ring of the radar screen. A Sonic Youth album cover here, a high-toned gallery show there, but always, it seemed, the same MO: hermetic pronouncements scrawled across crude ink drawings, except for the occasional venture into an outsized watercolor of a tiny surfer pipelining a tidal wave, or a full-blown mural splayed across a pristine white wall. The attitude invariably felt more adolescent provocateur than sociopolitical gadfly.
A Pen of All Work, masterfully curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni, blows apart every assumption and misgiving I might have harbored about this artist. Context may be everything, but content — lots of it — doesn’t hurt.
The exhibition is so large that a single floor feels like a comprehensive survey in itself — more than 800 objects across three floors according to the museum’s press release, though at the press preview Gioni put the number closer to 900, including never-before-seen juvenilia.
The most riveting floor is the fourth, where the elevator doors open on those exploding atom bombs, and the surrounding walls are littered with political drawings of unrelenting scabrousness, with particular venom reserved for Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney (the searing Reagan drawings feel especially trenchant given the reverence accorded his corrupt, oligarchical, and blood-spattered regime, even by commentators who should know better).
But these works, with the exception of the relatively straightforward indictments of the Bush/Cheney years, do not conform to the conventional notion of political art — taking issue with policies and raising awareness of abuse. Rather, the overtly political pieces glide along a plane somewhere between history painting and stream-of-consciousness poetry.
One of the first pieces to capture my attention was a blocky ink drawing of John F. Kennedy, gazing into the distance and vapidly smiling, with an inscription above his head that reads “KENNEDY WOULD DIE ALL RIGHT.”
What could that mean? The ambiguity conjoining word and image turns the experience of looking at Pettibon’s work into an interior journey on the part of the viewer, weaving through a weirdly sensual middle ground between thought and emotion.
Pettibon’s drawings arise from his encyclopedic reading. There’s a display on the second floor of torn out, annotated, photocopied, and cut up pages from books, newspapers, magazines, and other ephemera, whose texts he copies, edits, and adapts for his unattributed verbal streaks of indirection, invective, irony, and impertinence.
The impossibility of knowing where most of his references come from leaves us off the hook — we needn’t know anything more than what we see in front of our eyes, since the link between inspiration and image has been unplugged. Even Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, in an essay for the exhibition’s catalogue, states, “Situating the work of Raymond Pettibon historically or theoretically poses almost insurmountable problems, given the infinite variety of references that constitute the iconography and citational textuality of his oeuvre.”
But those references, once extracted, accumulate into a distinct worldview that, from the evidence presented by this show, employs pulp imagery not to parody its source or to undermine fine art conventions, but to underscore the self-destructive instincts that film noir, horror comics, and pornography throw into high relief.
Through avatars in the form of Charles Manson and Patty Hearst (along with such repurposed characters as Superman, Batman, and Gumby), Pettibon, in image after image, explores the fatal human proclivity to manipulate and be manipulated, to play predator and prey, all in the service of the basest psychosexual, violent, and suicidal urges.
The freewheeling ferocity with which the artist savages the hypocrisy, mendacity, and stupidity of political leaders, it can be argued, is as much an attack on the politicians per se as it is an interrogation of the Thanatos-driven impulses that compel us to empower those leaders in the first place.
An exception, within the scope of this show, is our sitting president. There are only a couple of Trump drawings in the exhibition, made on either side of the 30-year spread spanning his noteriety, one from 1986 and the other from 2016.
The earlier drawing, a hard-to-decipher brush-and-ink sketch of what I assume to be the back of his head framed against a moonlit cityscape, bears the inscription “A CERTAIN DONALD TRUMP: THE FIRST REAL GENTLEMAN I’D MET IN YEARS.”
The more recent image, a clunky likeness in acrylic and ink with a collaged speech balloon (“YR HIR’D,” complete with arrows pointing back at himself), was evidently made during the primary debates.
Compared to the scorched-earth takedowns of Reagan and Bush/Cheney, it’s a bland, even benign image, though I can only imagine the truckloads of merciless new Trump drawings tumbling from the artist’s studio in the months since the selections for this retrospective were made.
But maybe that’s a false expectation. The Reagan drawings, at least those presented here, weren’t made during his time in office but over the two decades that followed, and most of the Bush/Cheney images are dated late in the second term or afterward.
Of course, due to Pettibon’s staggering prolificacy (Gioni remarked that these 900 items were chosen from 5,000 out of a potential pool of 20,000), it is impossible to state anything with assurance, but the retro aspect of Kennedy, Manson, Hearst, and Gumby, to name a few, implies that a significant degree of historical distance is required for the kind of indirection we encounter in the most effective pieces on display.
That is why I described the work in terms of stream-of-consciousness poetry and history painting. It takes an absurd path toward the long view. Pettibon’s words are not his own but rather the transformation of a wealth of literature of every rank and genre. This is a distinctive and compelling use of appropriation — not the repurposing of an existing work in the interests of glibness or irony, but a scooping-up of communal gray matter that is by definition greater than oneself.
At the same time, the imagery and stylistic tropes that Pettibon gleans from historically tawdry sources — modes of expression specializing in abjection, violence, and despair — collide with his multilayered and sometimes lofty inscriptions, amassing a combinatory force that lands a punch to the head again and again.
The contradictions inherent in Pettibon’s art spread a gossamer film of transcendence over the poison that has been leaching from the body politic since the 1960s. In doing so, it maps the contours of our culture and delivers a credible accounting of the sinking horror and glimmers of hope that stream toward us from the newsfeed day in and day out.
Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 9.
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