On a frigid January afternoon in his downtown Manhattan studio, Raymond Pettibon pulls from his pocket a fistful of wadded-up pages.
“I have books lying around,” he explains. “And I take the pages out. It could be practically anything. I do a lot of reading in transit, whether it’s a car, bus, train, whatever.
“I don’t read for plot. I don’t care how it ends. I read a lot slower, because I’m often trying to almost break down the writing as it occurs, or as it scans. In a way, it’s rewriting of a sort.”
Raymond Pettibon is an American artist whose work is collected in major galleries and museums worldwide.
He has won countless prizes and awards, being most famous for his text/image drawings and paintings, which look a bit like frames from a comic strip – albeit with a dark, ironic twist.
“This one is going to be about a diver who could suck his own dick,” he says of a sketch taped to the wall.
“And this one,” he says, pulling a drawing out from under a stack of about 20 others – it depicts Gumby and a team of basketball players. “This one’s about Chuck Cooper, one of the first African-Americans to play on the Celtics.”
I ask him what comes first: the text or the image. “Where the image stops and the words begin is not that clear cut,” he says. “It’s more a give and take, a back and forth, dialectic almost in between the two and/or both. Probably more times than not when I have problems it’s because I tend to overwrite, so it’s more learning when to stop.”
Born in 1957 and raised in Hermosa Beach by academic parents, Pettibon’s childhood was filled with books, comics, basketball, baseball and surfing.
When his brother, Greg Ginn (Ginn is the family name, Pettibon is Raymond’s nom de plume), formed seminal punk band Black Flag in 1976, Pettibon was appointed chief graphic designer.
He first designed their famous logo (four black bars), and then a slew of album covers. He also published ‘zines of his text and drawings with catchy titles like ‘Tripping Corpse’, ‘The Language of Romantic Thought’ and ‘Virgin Fears’.
For much of the next decade he remained decidedly underground, exhibiting in small galleries and record stores.
As his work evolved, so did his audience. In the mid-80s, a handful of renowned LA artists — Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Paul McCarthy and Ed Ruscha among them — embraced Pettibon, as did a number of key collectors and curators subsequently.
Soon he would occupy an almost contradictory post. He was a bonafide global art star, but also a DIY/indie icon.
Though he’d graduated with a degree in economics from the University of California, Los Angeles, in ’77, he was essentially self-taught. His medium required nothing more than a piece of paper and a pen.
He ran with jazz musicians, barflies and Mike Watt of the Minutemen. He did not drive, but rather rode public transport, often scribbling away at the back of the bus.
To top it off, he still lived with his parents in the home he grew up in.
In 1990 he created the cover art for Sonic Youth’s Goo. I remember it vividly; it presided over the bed I shared with my first girlfriend.
A black-and-white illustration of a pair of young, mod-looking lovers in dark sunglasses, the girl at the wheel, the mood vaguely sinister.
In the upper right corner the text reads: ’I stole my sister’s boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat and flash. Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road.’
At the time I saw it as the perfect metaphor for our newfound love. After our colossal break-up, I would learn that it was in fact based on a paparazzi photo of a married couple en route to the famous ‘Moors Murders’ trial in England. Pettibon’s work moves in mysterious ways.
His subject matter includes Charles Manson, surfers, baseball players, vixens, homicidal teenage punks, Elvis, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and the cartoon figure Gumby, who has the miraculous ability to walk into a book and enter a story (an alter ego, perhaps?).
Pettibon’s brilliance resides in the marriage/collision/disconnect of image and text. Some pieces do this in a wry, straightforward manner; others are like great song lyrics: they could be interpreted a thousand different ways, and none would be wrong.
“The ideas came out of reading,” he said in a 2001 interview with Dennis Cooper in LA Weekly, “and they were kind of between the lines, or suggested. It’s kind of like swimming in words and letters. I place myself in this state of consciousness where I’m receptive to associations.”
Pettibon’s early work generally employed only one or two lines of text. But as the 1980s wore on he expanded into three or four, often in a cacophonous manner that suggested disparate voices.
As Oscar Wilde famously put it, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
Pettibon’s work, seemingly channelled from great books, B-movies and film noir, creates a kind of opaque, offbeat, American style poetry.
“The economy of means is one of the best things that drawing has going for itself,” says Pettibon, between sips of coffee.
Tall, shaggy and bearlike, he wears a paint-splattered dress shirt, camouflage shorts and striped socks.
“The great masters of drawing tend to have that elegant line,” he says, speaking slowly and carefully.
“That tends to be an ongoing struggle with me within each individual work.”
He shows me a drawing of a wave. “I’ve done a number of waves before, but the point of view or take on it can get old. So I try to differentiate from that. When you can do something that seems new, the economy of the sublime — that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Pettibon’s studio exudes a certain ‘ransacked by the DEA’ appeal. Dirty socks, weathered LPs, pulp novels, surf magazines and vintage baseball mitts and bats share floor space with his dachshund mutt, Barely Noble.
Strewn haphazardly about his worktable are newspapers, tubes of paint, lidless ink pots, pages torn from a John Keats biography, loose CDs, an open bottle of rosé and a half-eaten slice of pizza, all of which sit precariously close to or atop valuable half-finished drawings.
Though he still keeps a home and studio in Los Angeles, Pettibon spends much of his time in New York. He lives downtown in a Frank Gehry-designed high-rise with his girlfriend, the artist Aïda Ruilova, and their one-year-old son, Bo.
He is an avid sports fan. Above the kitchenette hangs a poster of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. Deeper in the studio, presumably where the serious work takes place, portraits of baseball players Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig do a sort of face-off.
“We can hit some balls,” says Pettibon.
“What do you mean?”
“Can we set up the pitching machine?” says Pettibon to his studio assistant, Billy.
A minute or two later I find myself taking turns at bat with Pettibon. The pitching machine hurls soft plastic balls.
Pettibon’s stance is relaxed and sturdy. He hits like a motherfucker.