If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Raymond Pettibon found his calling as an artist at about the same time punk hit Los Angeles in 1978. Pettibon was putting his UCLA economics degree to good use as a high-school math teacher just as his brother, Greg Ginn, was co-founding SST Records and the seminal West Coast punk band Black Flag. Raymond Ginn soon abandoned math class to make drawings for SST albums and self-published ‘zines; abandoned Ginn for the nom-de-punk “Pettibon,” a nickname invented by his father, an English professor and espionage novelist. Twenty years and thousands of drawings later, Pettibon has long since put punk behind him and, in the process, almost single-handedly reinvigorated drawing as an independent art medium. Juxtaposing crudely-drawn figures and vignettes with erudite literary texts, Pettibon’s mordant drawings are now sought by museums and high-end collectors, even as his early work can be found in CD bins and local skate shops. As a mid-career retrospective neared the end of its year-long tour, I met with Pettibon in the garage-like back room of Regan Projects, his Los Angeles dealer. Drinking stout beers provided by his dad, we fed beef jerky to the family dogs and talked about art, baseball, books, Charles Manson and that one subject that is now almost off-limits: punk.
Grady Turner For the past year, a survey of your work has been traveling the country: Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and by the time this comes out it will be here in Los Angeles. As you travel to these cities giving talks, going to the openings and so on, are you learning anything about how people respond to your work?
Raymond Pettibon I don’t have a personal relationship with the public. (tears welling up) So there really isn’t any kind of revelatory response from this project.
GT I’m surprised to hear that you don’t get much feedback. Do you mean that you just aren’t that interested in people’s responses to your art?
RP No, but my work is finished by the time the show is put up. Especially in this case, because this work is coming from people’s collections—I’m not curating it. Usually, I’m down to the wire and working like hell to get everything done. And there is some overriding theme to it—sometimes. Whereas in this case … this is the position to be in, luckily. You know, the lame duck, the politician sitting in office, not campaigning anymore. I don’t think this show has really crossed my mind in the last year whatsoever, as I’ve been working on other projects.
GT When you say “lame duck” … do you feel that the fact of having a mid-career retrospective historicizes your art in some way? Was it like revisiting a period in your life that is now over?
RP No, not even that. It’s not that I’m disgusted and dismissive of it. There are just other projects I’m working on and trying to finish. The premise for this show was that all the works came from separate collections. This work had been finished, in most cases years ago, so there weren’t any significant curatorial decisions on my part. You know, in many retrospectives, the artist is an actor in what work is displayed. I was pretty much on the sideline and not really involved with these exhibitions. I do murals on the walls, but aside from that the show is the baby of its organizers, Ann Temkin and Susanne Ghez.
GT What did you think of the curators’ decision to organize your work by collections, rather than by chronology or theme? In an essay they suggest that this organization creates a window on the collector, as each collector creates his or her own Raymond Pettibon: the funnier Raymond Pettibon, at other times the darker Raymond Pettibon, or the baseball Raymond Pettibon.
GT I saw some of that as I looked at your work through other people’s eyes. But I was curious what you thought about it.
RP I don’t know if it’s so much that way. If it is, I actually think that’s really cool. And it probably is more the case with some collections than others. A lot of art collectors delegate someone else to buy the art. At first I thought this show was an unlikely idea, but it worked out really well.
When I hang a show, for the most part, it’s usually just as well to put up the drawings randomly, because that’s the nature of the work. There are dissociations and attachments and the mind will fill in the blanks. Beyond that, it becomes overly fussy and contrived. So just about any way the work is hung, really, it’ll work.
GT But you tend to prefer random juxtapositions of your drawings?
RP Usually, unless there’s an overriding theme.
GT When you do a mural, do you usually know what you want to do ahead of time, or do you wait to see how the show looks on the walls?
RP It’s spur-of-the-moment. I don’t plan ahead. I think my art can fit into any situation, physically or conceptually. Sometimes I get background information about the dimensions of the walls, or photographs, but in general, I’d just as well wait until I’m there.
GT It seems to me that the majority of your murals depict surfers or big waves.
RP I’ve probably done three or four of those. I like to do waves as murals, because they work with the scale of a wall. Of course, I’ve done many drawings of surfers and waves on paper, but murals add something. Murals are epic. Hot dogging—or hang ten, aerial surfing—is one thing. The epic nature of big wave surfing lends itself to a whole wall. Even a 10- or 20-foot ceiling is pretty small as a big wave goes. So even when I do a big mural, a wall-size wave painting, it’s usually done on considerably less than human scale.
GT Are you much of a surfer?
RP No, not for a while. I’d like to get back in shape and do it once more.
GT Given your juxtaposition of text and images, it’s interesting that the two sports that most interest you are baseball and surfing, both of which have their own languages, analogies and metaphors. The languages of baseball and surfing are very specialized.
RP Do you surf or follow baseball?
GT Not at all. I grew up in the sports culture of the South, where everything is about football. I guess football has its own language, too, but not quite the way baseball or surfing do.
RP Yeah, I’ve done a lot of writing about football. I did a screenplay, for instance, about high school football in Texas. Football has its own language. I work with baseball and surfing partly because of language, but it’s also visual. It’s hard to depict football with the kind of solo grace of someone throwing or hitting a baseball. Football looks great on TV, but to capture it in one image is more difficult. That’s one reason I do a lot of baseball and surfing drawings—they have a very fluid nature. You can cut through the fluidity and movement without resorting to cartoony or gimmicky lines. It’s all pretty much there already. You can draw a bat mid-swing without having the bat in a blur, for instance. Whether pitching or hitting, you’re doing only one thing; the movement is very compact. Football is visually a beautiful sport, but there’s so much scattershot visual activity going on. It just doesn’t work visually the way the actions of baseball do, like hitting or pitching. There’s a lot more to the game than that, but I stick to hitting or pitching, although I’ve done a few drawings of fielders catching the ball.
GT You’re also picking up on the aspect of baseball that is perhaps inherent in surfing—one is entirely alone at bat or on the mound, just as surfers are on a wave. That’s rarely true in football.
RP Right, it’s more of a team sport. You know, they say baseball is 90% pitching. It’s a game where you can pitch a perfect game: no hits, no walks, no errors. That’s what I liked about pitching when I was a kid. You were pretty much on your own, and you could theoretically strike out 27 people in nine innings. That’s one thing that attracts me to baseball as a subject. I did a drawing once about a baseball player at bat. I think his batting average was over .300, his home runs were probably 40 or more, the text an “absolute criteria.” The drawing was a commentary about art. In baseball, you know how well you’re doing by your batting average. It’s not about how smoothly you ran the bases. Style doesn’t matter so much. In art, the aesthetics are at the forefront. So it was a kind of commentary about that.
GT A commentary about how art is more about aesthetics whereas style is less of an issue in sports?
RP Of my own favorite players in sports, there is a degree of style associated with them. I look at certain players for their batting stance, or the way they swing the ball or pitch. Of course, if you can’t strike out batters, you’re not going to be on the mound. So ultimately, statistics are an absolute criteria.
When I was a kid, I memorized baseball cards. I knew so many players’ lifetime averages: Eddie Brinkman, Ernie Banks. A year ago, I had a show where some of the art had to do with portraiture. I pinned to the wall Mickey Mantle’s baseball card from the mid-‘50s, which is probably worth a couple of hundred dollars. But rather than show his face on the front of the card, I showed the back with his stats. In a sense, that was a more biographical picture of him than his physical portrait could be. Because in baseball, that’s how you’re judged. The bottom line is your batting average and how many home runs you hit.
GT But how do baseball stats relate back to your experience as an artist? Is it that art has its own criteria of excellence, but they are never so definite as a batting average?
RP Well, it does make the point that there is no absolute criteria. But I’m more interested in the aesthetic quality to baseball. In athletics, I don’t have favorite teams. I don’t really care. I haven’t since I was a kid. I just hate the Yankees. But I like to see certain players play, primarily for the quality of doing something well. For instance, the endgame of basketball is putting the ball in the hoop. That considered, there are a plethora of ways to accomplish it. That’s the “art.” In music there are notes, and then there’s interpretation.
GT Your baseball players and surfers seem to belong to another era. The uniforms of the baseball players are flannel and the surfers wear baggy shorts rather than wetsuits. Why do you set your athletes in the past?
RP First of all, it’s visual. To draw someone with a wetsuit or a tight, double-knit baseball outfit doesn’t lend itself to what I’m looking to describe. It’s just one snapshot; I’m trying to depict something that is an action. If you draw a baseball player, for instance, with the old-time baggy flannels, you can depict the action better than you can with something that looks painted on his body—though a jock strap would look pretty good, too. But it’s also meant to go back in time to when baseball had more of a larger-than-life, epic quality. Whereas now, it’s just like anything else in the political arena: Bill Clinton, Washington Senators, .250 and five inches. And my surfers are all on longboards with baggies because it’s that surf-myth epic of big wave riding. You can’t hang ten on a 40-foot wave. That’s the main reason. I tend to go back in the past, whether it’s the ‘60s, or the ’50s, or the Depression era, or earlier. I think it helps to have some kind of distance. For instance, you can say a lot about race relations if you’re depicting a society in which there are no black players. Will Smith would be a better actor if he didn’t exist. In general, I like to have some kind of historical distance.
GT That’s true of other subjects in your drawings as well, whether it’s a film star like Joan Crawford, or 1960s-era subjects like Charles Manson. Much of it is within living memory, though not your living memory as these things refer to a time when you were young or not yet born. But it has a lot to do with the history of your place—it’s often from southern California culture.
RP Yeah, it’s my historical sensibility. There are good reasons why I don’t care to be topical. If you’re too close to anything, you’ll wake up one morning, whether it’s 20 years from now or more likely next month, and you’ll look like a complete ass. For another thing, a lot of the drawings I’m still working on were started 10 or 15 years ago.
GT That’s part of your process, isn’t it? To start a drawing and put it aside, perhaps to pick it up years later to work on it again? Do you just as often start a drawing and finish it at once?
RP Yeah. It depends.
GT That’s interesting, because you seemed to have arrived at your mature style early on. You’ve been a very prolific artist for more than 15 years, but your style hasn’t changed much. What changes do you see in your work over the years?
RP Visually, it has changed. That’s what they tell me. I don’t know if it’s gotten better or worse, but I didn’t start out with much anyway. There was never a longing ambition to be a great draftsman; that’s something I’ll never be. Alas, I’ll never run a three-and-a-half minute mile, it’s more about something that you’re capable of doing in the long run, over 20 years of work. But there was a point when, to my eyes, my work did become mature. In a way, it kind of happened overnight, in 1978. Before that, I was still doing work that was immature, very hit or miss. You see the difference between juvenilia and mature work—since 1978, so it’s been a while.
GT ‘78, you’d just gotten out of college then?
GT So by the time you started doing ’zines and album covers for SST Records in the early ’80s, you felt pretty confident that you had arrived at a mature style? You were already using text and image together in Tripping Corpse and other early ’zines. And the irreverent humor was there, as well as the dark noir quality.
RP I was doing that from the beginning, whether successfully or not. Of course, some of that early work makes me cringe.
GT Was your early work as related to your reading as it is now?
RP Yeah. I didn’t borrow then the way I do now. It was kind of more between the lines. All my drawings had their genesis in reading. I don’t know if it’s possible to explain it, but it was kind of a dialectic between text and image. Sometimes I get asked how much. I’d say probably a third or so. But it’s clearly out of context.
GT How do you go from one thing to another as you read? How does reading become part of your process?
RP I read as I write, write as I read. If it used to take me five minutes to read the whole newspaper, now, my mind wanders, and then five minutes later I wonder, Gee, did I read that? I used to take notes, and I have notebooks full of drawings and notes that were partly quotations, and I’ve done a lot of marginalia, writing in books. I’m usually reading a number of books at a time, and whether I get through an individual one is probably unlikely. I’ve lost interest in narrative. (sigh) At least in the sense of seeing how a story comes out at the end. There’s a type of reading where you get lost in the narrative and you become part of the story and you’re compelled to finish. I don’t really have any interest in that. For me, reading has become more microscopic, more about dissecting the work. It may start on the level of the novel, then go down to theme or style, then to a paragraph, and finally a sentence. Or the sentence itself becomes about structure, or the words in it. Probably the most obvious example of that kind of reading is James Joyce. It becomes a kind of disease. Every text becomes related to another one, even in a different language, down to each individual word, which then becomes a clue into the etymology of the word, and then that etymological tree. A different context, a different language … you’re just making these associations from one thing to another. I used to start out with a simple drawing that would begin as an idea, and then my writing would make some associations with something else. And then, you know, a day later, or a year later, or whenever, the whole page would be covered with small, finely written text. And it would become a lot of things that were meant to be just in one drawing, expanded into this while still part of my notes. Voluminous notes. You do actually get lost in that morass of associations.
GT When I first looked at the reader that accompanies your retrospective in lieu of a catalog, I thought the choice of writers was very eclectic. But I realized that there were common ideas running through some selections—they often dealt with the creative process, sometimes about having an ideal and failing to reach it, and sometimes about the ecstasy of making something. That was interesting, because those are ideas I see in your work as well.
RP That could be. I didn’t have a conscious idea of that, but yeah. That is pretty interesting.
GT Like, for example, the selection from Izaak Walton’s 17th century book, The Compleat Angler: Walton finds in angling a certain faith in transcendental experience, in revelation or epiphany, that he can relate to something so sublime as the experience of God. How can a modern reader help but be envious of such faith, derived from something so simple as fishing?
RP That’s interesting that you say so, because I’m very envious of that. I can’t make that jump to faith or religious belief, which makes me more envious of people who can. You’re right, the way you put it. A lot of those works do refer back to the creative process, and they do refer back to the blank page. You start out with a page, wondering what it will take to fill it. Editing that book, I had a lot of different formal principles on how to order the book together. And in the end, it became much more random. Whereas at first, I set out to give it some kind of a cohesive excuse for existing. In the end I was wondering, What are editors for? What are compilations of works for? Who the hell am I to gather in works of other authors, put them together and say, “Here, you should read this.” I’ve always been sort of reticent about that; it’s just not my personal nature to do that sort of thing. So it’s hard for me to really explain why this or that book exists.
GT Along the lines of faith, I was struck by the really wild juxtaposition of Charles Manson’s trial testimony and William Blake’s notes. They both seem mad, but enviably secure in their righteousness.
RP Actually it’s quite interesting that you say that, because I think, of anyone in that anthology, they are probably the most akin. In fact, I did a video about the Manson family along those lines. Manson used the lyrics of the Beatles and text from the Bible—actually, Jesus’s words—for Helter Skelter. There was a part of the video where Manson was going through Blake’s poetry and relating it to Helter Skelter, the Beatles and the Bible.
GT Manson often comes up in your work, usually as a marker for the death of ‘60s idealism, I suppose. But it seems to me that the Manson family was very much a part of California culture. Although the murders captured the nation’s attention, it still seems very much in people’s minds in southern California, almost an obsession.
RP I was still fairly young when it happened. I guess I was 12. You’re still informed at that age, I was anyway, to where you have independent thoughts and philosophies. I remember, at the end of my block there was this retired woman in her ‘60s or ’70s, and I used to mow her lawn and cut her hedges. I was in her house and the Manson family was on television. She said, “He’s the personification of evil.” Or the devil. She was taken by the shock value of these hippies with swastikas and bald heads. They definitely freaked out people much more than other run-of-the-mill murderers. If you murder somebody for the right reasons—which in America means profit, or jealousy or “getting ahead”—then your case doesn’t hit the papers, you do your anonymous time, and that’s why you get a parole date and a release. But in this case, the Manson family really struck a nerve. Here was this charismatic, good-looking guy whose followers might be your own daughters. It was like society was collapsing. You know, Manson wasn’t even there for any of the murders. Supposedly, he drove them to one of the sites. If he were a clean-cut guy, he may have got manslaughter. No one is ever convicted for conspiracy, but instead he got first-degree murder and the death penalty. And the reason was because of all of the trappings, all the fear he struck in the public. That’s why he will die in prison. I don’t have any sympathy for Manson, but his case showed that if you want to be really vicious and hateful and evil, do it outside of the media’s eye. Unless you’re already a darling of the media, like O.J. Simpson.
GT Is that the reason you keep returning to Manson?
RP That’s partly the reason, because it’s a bigger case than just any other crime, but there’s more to it than that. If you look at my works that are based on Manson, it derives from his exegesis of the Bible, the Beatles, it’s open to interpretation. It’s about that, rather than the grim facts of the crime. If you look at my work and think for instance, Why Joan Crawford? It’s not because I like her acting or I have a crush on her or because of some campy thing or whatever, it’s because I work with her as an example of someone who made her own features and reinvented herself, the same way Michael Jackson did. It’s really about portraiture. She was her own self-portrait. Or back when I did drawings of Vavoom: he’s a cartoon figure, but my drawings of him were also about the roots of language, expression and communication. Very elemental, basic things. When I do Gumby, it’s because of the way he goes, literallygoes, into books. It’s kind of the same way I work. So, these aren’t campy, pop culture figures to me.
GT The fact that you include so many references to literature and pop culture in your work will give art historians a field day when you’re dead and gone. They’ll trace down quotes and original sources, you know, the sort of inane stuff that graduate theses are made from.
RP That wouldn’t be too hard. I haven’t tried to hide my sources. Especially since I’ve quoted more directly in the last ten years or so. Editing is its own art. It’s pretty obvious when I have Gumby speaking in Elizabethan English, for instance. I’m quoting something and I would hope that some readers would recognize the source—usually because it’s meant to be in that context and there are reasons. It’s referring to another work, whether something else in the work embellishes the quotation. Even when something is copied matter of factly, it’s impossible to escape the context. When you’re buying some Gucci handbag for $15 you know it’s being manufactured down in China. Nothing’s really done with a straight face anymore, unless it’s poker. Rather than willfully trying to be obscure, I wanted to acknowledge my sources.
GT We’ve talked about Manson, but I’m also interested in other ways that the 1960s recur as a theme in your work. Why are the events of that decade so compelling for you?
RP I don’t know. I’ve done a lot of work about the Depression era, the ‘40s and ’50s as well. Like I said before, I use a sense of history to distance me. Usually, I’ll do some piece for who knows what reason, and as I’m doing it, I’ll have something more to say about it, some aside, or extension of it—what you’d call a snowballing effect. Then, all of a sudden you have this wealth of material on something that you’ve never imagined or even given half a thought to before. But I guess the reason I keep going back to the ‘60s is because it was the previous generation to mine. By the time I was coming of age in art, the hippie generation was the establishment. The antiestablishment had already become the establishment! And I think it was partly about that, the hypocrisy of it. On the other hand, it’s hard to keep up with historical distance because history repeats itself incessantly. I remember the first time I did Charlie Manson, someone said, “What are you drawing this hippie for? How uncool is that?” And then here it is, over 20 years later, and the same stupid-ass mistakes are being made. One thing it comes down to is that everyone is eventually a teenager, no matter when they’re born. Everyone is still going to go through this kind of rite of passage. Like punk—I believed in it for about two weeks somewhere between the ages of 15 and 18. But there are teenagers nowadays who are actually killing people because they’re wide-eyed idealists about straight edge. I mean, Jesus, what a hell of a battle that must be. You know, at least in the ‘60s there was a war going on. There were tens of thousands of your peers dying, and millions of Vietnamese, at least that was a real battle. I mean, what the fuck is a battle to punk rockers? Against long hair? Jesus. It’s a really decadent mockery, when you think of it. When I was a kid, I always thought that each American generation of boys gets to have its own war, I expected that. My father was a navigator in World War II when he was nineteen, and the ’60s generation, they were fighting as well. Even if you protested against the war, then you also had a price to pay. If punk is just an excess of hormones, fine. Confine it to the slam pit, or whatever. But to make it political—what does it manifest itself as? Bruised tattoos?
GT This gets back to what you were saying before, about the lack of an epic narrative in contemporary life. So many of the periods that recur in your work have an epic history: The Transcontinental Railroad, the Depression, the ’60s …
RP Nostalgia is hell. There is a nostalgia for war. Nostalgia for the Great Depression. Nostalgia for the Holocaust. It’s about wanting the test of surviving hard times. You know, nostalgia is a hell of a lot better state of affairs than the real thing.
GT You’re a very deep thinker, aren’t you Raymond?
GT Reading the essay contributions to your book, I noticed that critics have very different responses to your work. How is that for you? On the one hand you’ve got a full blown theoretical, art historical reading by Benjamin Buchloh and then you’ve got Bernard Welt’s stunning, astute piece of fiction.
RP Criticism stands on its own, basically, whatever the subject is. If you really expect to be explained and all the buttons to be pushed correctly—that’s not going to happen anytime soon.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.