PRINT October 1992


In 1978, Greg Ginn, of the California-based punk band Black Flag, asked his kid brother Raymond Pettibon to lend the group a drawing for the cover of a new single. Ever since, Pettibon’s images have appeared on records, fliers, and album jackets for bands as obscure as Super Session (among whose vocalists are Pettibon and Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley) and as familiar as Sonic Youth. Pettibon also started producing slim, photocopied compilations of his cartoonlike drawings in the late ’70s, (which he would occasionally intersperse with others by a nephew, whom he dubbed with the Dickensian moniker of Nelson Tarpenny). With titles like Tripping Corpse, Captive Chains, The Navigator’s Wives, and Asbestos (“should’ve been printed on . . .”), these books violate every adult standard of culture and decorum as they survey the brain-dead diversions of American society and burlesque the behavior of its sociopaths. Trashier kin to underground comics, Pettibon’s books have been distributed, usually in editions of less than 100, under imprints with names like SST, Superflux, and MDA Publications—the first an informal offshoot of Ginn’s SST Records label.

Until relatively recently, Pettibon’s admirers consisted chiefly of rock fans and members of a related subculture devoted to underground publishing. But before I ever saw Pettibon’s album covers and books, before I ever endured his epic dramas in video (best viewed while doing something else), I had seen his drawings in a SoHo gallery—pinned directly to the wall, like so many specimens from some anarchic archive. Pettibon exhibits his drawings in clusters, often of 100 or more, distributing their many subjects at random to produce a web of fragmented narratives. Among the recurring images are dollar signs, black rectangles that read like either Bibles or Ad Reinhardts, cosmic explosions, whirlpools and ocean swells (some with surfers), racing locomotives, bare light bulbs and similar stark evocations of noir, abstracted hard-ons in silhouette, baseball players and babes, Old and New Testament prophets (or are they bums and fanatics?), Gumby, Pokey, and other luminaries of entertainment, politics, and mass murder.

Pettibon’s drawings also feature handwritten texts by the artist, frequently with help from Henry James, John Ruskin, Mickey Spillane, Christopher Marlowe, James M. Cain, and other authors he likes. Sometimes, in fact, his drawings consist of nothing but such texts, though mostly they alternate between a picture-and-caption structure and isolated images recalling comic-strip panels or film stills. Pettibon never went to art school—he was an economics major in college—and he insists that he has no special aptitude for drawing. Yet he has admitted learning from the graphic styles of Reginald Marsh, John Sloan, Edward Hopper, even Goya, and over the years has revealed an increasing aptitude for deft images in black and white with strategic accents of red or blue, as well as for surprisingly delicate wash drawings in gray, blue, or an umber the color of clotted blood. There can be little doubt, however, that for many in the contemporary art world the appeal of his work centers on the aggressively anticlassical fusion of form and content that results from his combinations of technical indelicacy and patently offensive subject matter. A convenient image of Pettibon as a suburban expressionist—a strip-mall primitive with a seemingly natural predisposition for taking nothing seriously—has accompanied his art-world ascendancy. Critics have identified his works with an adolescent-suburban-white-male ethos, in keeping with which the sole objects of his resistance would be expertise, schooling, reason, and critical thought. But to conclude from this assessment that his art is slipshod, simplistic, graceless, ignorant, destructive, and critically inconsequential would be to take a nihilist pose at face value. It would also be to overlook the fact that drawings such as these have played their part, however small, in challenging exclusionary and hierarchical (Modernist) definitions of culture. In this they are allied with forms of post-Modernist art, literature, and music such as punk, in which people who share little but disenchantment with the “dominant culture,” in both its conservative and its vanguard manifestations, have fashioned works in and across every medium.

If Pettibon’s art does embody an adolescent-suburban-white-male ethos, it is only in a fairly complex sense. Take his drawings, books, and videos sending up such tired tokens of American violence and disintegration as Charles Manson and “family,” Patty Hearst and the SLA, and the assassination of President Kennedy. This class of anarchic imagery in Pettibon’s work also includes the imaginary situations that he pictured throughout the Reagan era in books like Wein, Weib, und Gesang (Wine, women, and song, 1985). Not even the ironic title can conceal the fact that the sickest joke in this “comic” book may be the relationship between the artist and his readers, whom he challenges to chuckle at child molestation, the abuse of women, serial murder, and stereotyped representations of gay men whom one would have to describe as dysfunctional.

This slim, malevolent volume, or the Manson or Kennedy cartoons, might be likened to George Grosz’s similarly cruel and comic vivisections of German life after World War I. The comparison, however, only reveals an immense gulf between the troubled humanism of Grosz’s pessimistic analyses and Pettibon’s cold-blooded style. Yet Wein, Weib, und Gesang opens with a cautionary cartoon, in which a pensive young man seated before his typewriter—a surrogate for the artist—ponders, “There’s a story for every man, woman, and child in the big city . . . and they’re all the same plot.” Although the line is a joke (“the same plot,” perhaps, being the maxim “You’re born, you suffer, and then you die”), it implies a certain perspective on the violent impulses that Pettibon then lampoons. In this sense, it is possible to speak of a slim rhetorical space that separates the “jokes” in his book from their ostensible author.

There are other hints of mediation. More than one cartoon mimics the dated styles and diction of film noir, ’50s and ’60s crime dramas, and “specialty” magazines for men. These codes are so instantly recognizable as codes that the drawings function on more than just the primary level of representation. They also operate on a more opaque, secondary level, in which the referent is no longer the situation depicted but the engrossing, somewhat antiquated style in which it is shown. To some extent, such devices distance Pettibon from the adolescent cruelty of his jokes.

Ultimately, it makes as little sense to scrutinize one Pettibon book, or one of his drawings, as it does to isolate one “film still” by Cindy Sherman or one “surrogate” by Allan McCollum. Only within the matrix of Pettibon’s other images and texts can the greater meaning of any particular class of his images be established. Only by thumbing through several of his books, or by surveying an array of his drawings, does one perceive the parodic, “novelistic” aspect of his invention.1

Pettibon’s seemingly direct drawing style conceals his works’ genesis in a gradual, cumulative process. He takes down phrases from his reading; copies images from books, magazines, movies, and TV; sifts through and collates all this material; and finally puts fragments from the growing archive together in visual compositions that inevitably elude the conventions both of “art” and of underground comics. They do, however, recall the “cut-up” device associated with the writings of William Burroughs. Pettibon frequently juxtaposes highly codified images and texts in ways that recode them. Sometimes, his combinations of debased image and arcane text ignite a spark of humor and even of poetry that reinvigorates both.

One drawing of 1991 shows Gumby, TV’s vapid invertebrate, reposing on the pages of a book (of all things). To this image Pettibon has lent a trio of oddly learned voices: “As a boy they kept me shut up in Greek and Latin books like a pressed butterfly! . . . For an airing. . . . ‘Transport them out of dead words into those which are alive, and let them wing their way daily through the mouths of men.’” The work is headlined “The Library in Your Good Hands.” Entrusting the library to Gumby, who, in Pettibon’s imaginary realm, also reveals a highly developed sense of ethics, signals something more than the artist’s counterintuitive way of splicing pictures and words. It suggests his determination to restore a distinctly secular pleasure to texts that the dour champions of canonical culture have reduced to sacral chores.

Pettibon has indirectly addressed some of the durable themes of Modernist culture in amusing ways. A favorite among Pettibon’s cast of recurring characters is a little hooded gnome with a very big voice who intones a primal, expressionist “VAVOOM” when confronted by the “natural” sublime. The earth-shaking cries of this character (appropriated from the Felix the Cat cartoon) supply Pettibon with occasions for commentary, simultaneously wry and sincere discourses that splice contemporary speech with texts emanating from a more felicitous and cultured past. “One always understands by something in his tone,” reads one inscription, “that he had read his Homer and his Virgil and his Dante.” Or: “In the morning he went out under the cypresses to write Latin verses, which he read to the professor at breakfast. ‘Well,’ said Felix when he had finished, ‘Don’t you think that’s exactly what Cicero would have said?’ ‘Very much,’ said the professor, ‘if he could.’” Another inscription addresses literature: “The word, fixed, as it is, to a well-defined literature, and a well-defined group in art, is all but meaningless now.”

It often seems that Pettibon is interested in restoring meaning to dead words, and also in exploring novel ways of gaining access to preexisting visual traditions, whether debased or revered. Recently, along with Ed Ruscha, Alexis Smith, and Buzz Spector; he was invited to use the stacks of the art library in the Getty Center, in Santa Monica, to produce works for an exhibit there called “Connections.” In one vitrine Pettibon displayed open copies of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, and the catalogue from the recent Reinhardt retrospective coorganized by Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The display also contained a sufficient number of his own drawings to engage the books in mischievous discourse. In a second vitrine, Pettibon exhibited a single Reinhardt cartoon: Art of Life of Art, 1952. This he juxtaposed with a drawing of his own, consisting of a heretically loquacious grid and his own take on the Reinhardt cartoon: “Man Bites Art—Arf!”

The multitextured, complex, and engaging textuality produced in Pettibon’s drawings is consistent with the fragmentary mode of what Roland Barthes described as the “writerly”—“the novelistic without the novel, poetry without the poem, the essay without the dissertation.” In its opposition to “readerly” texts, which constitute “the enormous mass of our literature,” the writerly is of special value, Barthes argued, because it helps transform the passive consumer of the literary work into its coproducer.2 There is a drawing by Pettibon, from 1990, that takes this transformation as its subject. Dominating the field at center left, and carefully drawn in red, is a large, sinuous capital A. To the right of this scarlet letter, in smaller script, Pettibon has penned, “There is something in my theory of the storyteller’s art that wants to put the reader and the writer on equal footing in the role of the creator.”

This idea—that reader or viewer should be credited beside author or artist for the completion of a work of art—was as central to Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the “creative act,” which he articulated in 1957, as to the theories that Barthes developed a decade later (“the death of the author” was always an argument for “the birth of the reader”). It subsequently engaged the generation of post-Modernist artists who worked with the model of the fragment and the film still in the late ’70s. At the same time, it has underlaid the cultural assertion and self-entitlement of punk music and underground comics, and it still underlies Pettibon’s alternately aggressive and poetic drawings.

It is possible that Pettibon is treating this idea of “equal footing” ironically, a common function in his iconoclastic art. But the responses demonstrated in his work as a whole are multiple and contradictory, and he has more uses for his source material than simply to throw eggs at it. The need for a statement to accompany the “Connections” show gave Pettibon an opportunity to describe his attitude toward the literature he samples: “How often have I in a moment of inner distress . . . or conflict with the world outside . . . retreated to my study to pick some oblivious volume blindly from the bookshelf and thrown myself on whatever chance paragraph or verse it opens to, which text immediately blooms on just the apt script I would have needed for reading a full restoration of all healing faculties of the imagination. And from there I’m well on my way anywhere; it’s half written, a book full already, in my own hand, that perfect incantatory scribble that can be read with a multiple of readings and associations; the first card and cornerstone in a library full of them (a library made of cards).” Admittedly, this statement is itself a masquerade—a tissue of allusions to past literary styles. But the masquerade may not imply fakery or satire so much as a comfortable slipping on of an alternative role. If the post-Modern identity is not centered and stable but a patchwork of possibilities put together through both choice and overdetermination, Pettibon’s pleasure in literature, and in art, may well be embedded in the opportunities they offer of escaping the one-dimensionality of everyday life.

David Deitcher is a New York-based art historian and critic who teaches at Cooper Union.


1. By “novelistic” I am referring to a concept developed early in the century by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who described how the modern novel arose out of the ruins of an obsolete, “epic” narrative form: “The novel took shape precisely at the point when epic distance was disintegrating, when both the world and man were assuming a degree of comic familiarity, when the object of artistic representation was being degraded to the level of a contemporary reality that was inconclusive and fluid.” To the extent that Pettibon’s drawings sample highly codified, sometimes remote visual and literary texts, they mimic Bakhtin’s concept of the novelistic, which he identified with the adaptation of preexisting ways of describing experience. In the novel as Bakhtin understood it, language is more than just a means of representation; it is also a socially resonant object of representation, in relation to which the author can occupy any number of positions. Thus “parodic stylizations of canonized genres and styles occupy an essential place in the novel.” See M. M. Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel,” in Michael Holquist, ed., The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981, pp. 39, 6.

2. See Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill and Wang, 1974, pp. 4-5. Barthes writes, “The goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.”