The Anatomy of Raymond Pettibon’s America
As the country finds itself in the throes of nation-splitting political upheaval, the work of cult artist Raymond Pettibon hits you with a particular force. In searing, raw drawings, Pettibon portrays the faces and thoughts of corrupt politicians, religious icons, dazed and confused hippies, gay punks, and surfers chasing the sublime.
Currently on view in “A Pen of All Work,” the New Museum’s retrospective of Pettibon’s work, 940 pieces from his output of over 20,000 drawings hang across three floors. They offer an honest, gut-punching lesson in U.S. history. It’s not one issued in textbooks or even from the maws of the world’s foremost historians. This artist’s America—seen through illustrations that grapple with war, sex, and underground subcultures—is one with disfiguring blemishes, but also great strengths: namely, the polyphonic diversity of its people and their freedom to express themselves and hunt their dreams. It’s an overwhelming portrait of a nation, a concert of hopes, desires, transgressions, and cruelties.
Below, we dissect the vital organs of Pettibon’s vision of America—one that transcends far beyond the artist’s individual experience to express the communal voice of a flawed but tenacious country.
The power of language and media to shape the country
It’s fitting that Pettibon’s alter-ego, a little man by the name of VAVOOM, is able to alter the American landscape with words. In a series of drawings and paintings from the 1980s and ’90s, the artist (who was born in the late 1950s and raised on cartoons) reimagines this “Felix the Cat” character who has the power to punch holes through mountains and fell trees by simply yelling his name. Pettibon’s version of VAVOOM stands alone, amidst sprawling American vistas. Bordered by poetic phrases, his voice resembles the collective rallying cry of the American people—as integral to his surroundings as the rocks and mountains.
Other works take this idea a step further, to highlight how language has been manipulated as an agent of political propaganda. One prescient piece from 1986, titled No title (A certain Donald Trump), taps into the current discourse around fake news and President Trump’s derogatory statements about women. “A certain Donald Trump / The first real gentleman I’d met in years,” it reads. To some ears, the text might ring with the “alternative facts” that Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway or press secretary Sean Spicer are seen as disseminating. The power of language and its ability to reveal and shape history are the thematic foundations of Pettibon’s work. Today, they read like warning signs.
A long history of war, violence, and political corruption
It’s not language but America’s long history of war, violence, and political corruption that Pettibon lampoons most overtly, however. Few leaders or wars are spared from the artist’s critique. This surfaces most powerfully in a series of works from the 2000s that broach the subject of America’s involvement in the Afghani and Iraqi conflicts. Through Pettibon’s unforgiving paintbrush and pen, politicians (chiefly then-president George W. Bush) are implicated in the deaths and torture of civilians and soldiers alike.
In one especially biting piece, No title (The War, now...) (2008), the artist exercises his satirical hand to suggest that George W. Bush’s fragile ego, and his desire to live up to his family’s legacy and “impress the press,” inspired his decision to be a “war president.” The sarcastic text joins a cartoonish image of Bush flanked by American flags and giving the Nazi salute. The piece reveals an integral and stomach-turning theme of Pettibon’s work—that of histories of violence and corruption repeating themselves.
Family values and the sex lives of our politicians
Sex courses through every theme of Pettibon’s work. It emerges in meditations on power and war, as in a series of drawings and paintings that imagine, with bawdy hilarity, Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s sex life. It also surfaces in a series that explores the presumed homosexual relationship between the hyper-masculine superhero Batman and his boyish sidekick Robin. Another piece shows two male punks embracing, as an “f-you” to the text that hovers above them—“We destroy the family.” Today, the phrase recalls a homophobic slogan adopted by the Tea Party and other conservative groups.
The dark underbelly of America’s cults and religions
Pettibon probes religions and orthodoxies of all kinds across his paintings and drawings. One work shows a disappointed St. Thomas recoiling from Jesus; the text that surrounds them explains their dilemma, one that many who are wary of religious dogma struggle with. “God himself has disappointed me more than once,” says St. Thomas, whose body hovers above the line: “His faith in anatomy was stronger than his faith in faith.” But while Jesus makes numerous appearances, Christianity and organized religion aren’t the only agents of blind devotion to come under Pettibon’s lens. In his cosmos, hippies, punks, and Charles Manson disciples are subject to the same line of questioning.
In an extended series that explores the Manson murders, Pettibon examines the way in which cults borrow language and ritual from organized religion in order to manipulate their devotees. Pettibon surrounds a spine-chilling drawing of Manson’s face with the text: “Crucify me, I’m completely innocent” and “He was not a prophet who had once for all climbed his Sinai or his Tabor.” But Pettibon isn’t out to condemn all sources of human hope and faith. Instead, he’s again focusing on the slippery nature of language—and the penchant of the power-hungry and ego-driven to abuse it.
L.A.’s underground scene and the problem with counterculture
Pettibon himself was a hero of the 1980s Los Angeles underground. His drawings decorated the covers of punk and rock albums by the likes of Black Flag and Sonic Youth, and his zines were bagged by artists, comic-book fiends, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and activists alike. But as is Pettibon’s way, he reveals both the truths and fictions of countercultural communities. On one hand, he presents creative experimentation and resistance to convention as liberating and essential. On the other, he questions the superficial motives of those who style themselves as countercultural, epitomized in a piece showing a goofily smiling, long-haired dude wielding a sign that reads: “Easier to change ideologies than hair-cuts.”
The dreams that are won and lost on the fields of American sports
Baseball, that quintessential American sport, offers another through-line in Pettibon’s mythology—and a means to map the dreams and disappointments of Americans. Drawings and paintings depicting fictitious players abbreviate the tales of real baseball heroes. They reference legendary wins, historic defeats, and battles with alcoholism, racism, and ego. They also tell a larger story of American life, with all of its opportunities and upsets.
Pettibon takes these meditations to a more existential place with his paintings of surfers. Towering cascades of waves, dotted with microbial surfers, offer a calming salve that washes over Pettibon’s broader, acerbic body of work. Some of their captions, like “I’m a lover not a fighter” and “Don’t complicate the moral world,” poke light fun at blissfully relaxed, zoned-out surfer bums. But at their core, these works are passionate expressions of individuality and freedom. In one mighty painting, a massive wave is suspended just before it breaks. At the bottom of the composition, tiny words are scrawled, like Pettibon’s hidden, hopeful manifesto:
“With every going out and coming in, with touching bottom and with coming up for air, or staying in the tube, there is a longing for escape, beyond the sea, for a lifting, from time to time, of the actual horizon (like the necessity under which the painter finds himself, with his last tube, to set a window or a doorway in the background of his picture).”