New York

View of “Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work,” 2017. Photo: Maris Hutchinson.

View of “Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work,” 2017. Photo: Maris Hutchinson.

Raymond Pettibon

View of “Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work,” 2017. Photo: Maris Hutchinson.

IN RAYMOND PETTIBON’S HANDS, the pen does double duty—writing and drawing, verbalizing and depicting.This could explain why his massive five-decade survey, aptly titled “A Pen of All Work,” includes only three paintings on canvas. The majority of the more than seven hundred selections on view—which represent a fraction of the estimated twenty thousand works made by Pettibon to date—are his trademark pen-and-ink drawings on paper, which push the medium’s capacity to encompass both line work and protean wordplay. Handwritten texts, ranging from pithy statement to ranting paragraphs, cannily navigate negative space in relation to the sparsely sketched images. Free-associative and even poetic (but decidedly unromantic), these works present Pettibon’s off-kilter worldview and barbed humor from myriad angles. Sometimes a familiar image will be offset by a sardonic, seemingly incongruous sentence. A rendering of the iconic portrait of Che Guevera, No Title (I’ve still got), 2003, is accompanied by I’VE STILL GOT MY GOOD LOOKS; in No Title (My parents: they . . . ), 1982, an anonymous seated female figure is given the mini background sketch MY PARENTS: THEY ARE ADDICTED TO LIES. Pettibon’s lettering itself adds to the personal (though not autobiographical) feel of his work. Often causing his work to be likened to single-panel comics and capsule film noirs, the inscriptions are perhaps more accurately interpreted as dialogues between Pettibon and his images. In many cases, the artist has added text to a picture at different times, even over a period of years, suggesting that for Pettibon, a work is completed only when he feels he has nothing else to say to it, rather than nothing else to see in it.

Given their cagey lyricism, it is tempting to compare Pettibon’s drawings to songs. (In fact, he has occasionally provided lyrics and vocals to music projects.) Pettibon is much heralded for his punk origin story: He provided the cover art for multiple albums by Black Flag (whose founder, guitarist Greg Ginn, is Pettibon’s older brother). Pettibon’s low-tech, DIY approach; lack of formal art training; stark graphic style; and morbidly funny political and cultural critiques were certainly in tune with hardcore’s antiestablishment attitudes, although his personal attachment to the punk scene has been overstated. The fact that most of his early work was disseminated via black-and-white Xerox reproductions—his numerous zines from the same period, which collect dozens of drawings, in a sense functioned as his first exhibitions—initially put him at odds with the market values of the art world; however, his sensibility resonated with those of other ascendant Los Angeles artists, including Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, and Paul McCarthy.

Much of Pettibon’s output through the 1980s and into the early ’90s, including some feature-length videos made in 1989, concerned cultural hallmarks of the ’60s: JFK, the hippie movement, Charles Manson, Vietnam, drugs, and Ronald Reagan, Pettibon’s childhood governor and mid-twenties president. The widening of Pettibon’s scope and palette in the ’90s and aughts is not mapped out in the New Museum’s thematically grouped show, but an observant viewer will note a heightened use of color, larger dimensions, less blank space, and a new vividness and density in his more recent works, as well as the inclusion of nature as subject matter. These works increasingly feature extended quotations from literature. While Pettibon has always employed obscure quotes from filed fragments culled from newspapers and books, this amplified emphasis on citation has had the result of muting his own voice. In the video Sunday Night and Saturday Morning, 2005, male and female animated characters relay dialogue that would appear as text in more typical Pettibon works. But while image and words are on an equal footing within a picture plane, the symbiotic balance created by their shared existence as markings is upset when the sentences are vocalized, their wry neutrality lost in translation. (One of the few words-only pieces in the show, from 1991, reads PAINT THE ALL UNUTTERABLE.) However spartan Pettibon’s drawings may be, they are fully realized and self-contained, expressing above all an internalized world; perhaps as a result, the individual, or a solitary entity, is what Pettibon generally presents.

An entire floor is devoted to the artist’s overtly political drawings. If he approached American military engagements from a temporal and ironic distance in many works of the ’80s and ’90s, his responses to the Iraq war as it unfolded in the aughts are trenchant—and more easily traced to the historical tradition of political commentary within artworks. His distressing scenarios depicting hooded Abu Ghraib prisoners seem particularly haunted by the torture scenes of Goya’s “Disasters of War.” Yet two drawings with no clear relation to a historical event or their date of origin (1986)—a portrait of Stalin that reads I SHOULD BE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES and an umbral face accompanied by the caption WARNING: OUR FIRST WOMAN PRESIDENT WILL BE ASSASSINATED—come across as chillingly topical. The show makes clear that the ambiguity characterizing Pettibon’s imaginings of various dark points in our history renders the work all the more relevant to this exceptionally charged moment, and that his work’s staying power derives from the way it zeros in on undercurrents of American culture that are never absent, even when they—or their avatars—are believed to belong to the past.

“Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work,” curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni, is on view through Apr. 16; travels to the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, the Netherlands, June 2–Oct. 29.

Alan Licht is a musician, writer, and curator based in New York.