“A Pen of All Work,” the New Museum’s sublime, often frustrating survey of the graphic artist Raymond Pettibon, closes on Sunday. The show has become a hit since it opened in February—the line for the museum's evening hours last Thursday night snaked up and around the block—and it's easy to see why. Although Pettibon is best known for his designs for the record label SST, the exhibition uncovers a surprisingly varied body of work, featuring more than 800 of the artist's drawings spread over three of the museum’s floors.
There are some small criticisms to be made of the show’s curation—the choice to present the drawings thematically rather than chronologically, making it hard to track Pettibon’s maturation as an artist, is one sticking point. But they are minor ones. The New Museum has done an excellent job with “A Pen of All Work.” The criticisms can only be directed at the drawings themselves.
Most people are only familiar with Pettibon from his SST work—particularly his “black bars” logo for the band Black Flag, which he co-founded—and the cover of the 1990 Sonic Youth album Goo. Featuring a smoking, sunglassed couple and captioned "I stole my sister's boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat, and flash. Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road,” that cover has become a pop icon for good reason. It’s sinister and alluring and just a little bit silly, with an over-the-top depravity that’s half Bonnie and Clyde, half junior high fantasy. It’s a dark kitsch masterpiece, and it gets its eerie, sublimely ridiculous power from an image of two people and a few words.
And what words they are—a poet would kill to claim the line “whirlwind, heat, and flash." Pettibon might be an even better writer than artist, and throughout his drawings he evinces a masterful ability to mix memorable turns-of-phrase with the dramatic, cliff-hangerish syntax of comics and dime store novels. A drawing of John F. Kennedy, captioned "Kennedy would die all right" is illustrative of this latter style, with its intimations of conspiracies in motion against the president, and its unnervingly light-hearted spin on America’s national tragedies.
The Goo cover and the Kennedy drawing may be some of Pettibon’s finest, but they also speak to the pitfalls inherent to his style. Pettibon is at his best the less he says, the lighter his tone and the more the darkness and anxiety in his work is only implied. In another drawing, a corpse resembling Ronald Reagan lies in bed, his position reminiscent of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The caption reads, "I believe in the story of Lazarus, because it happened to me in Laredo, Texas." The absurdity of the text, the non sequitur of the Reagan resemblance, the euphonious connection between "Lazarus" and "Laredo, Texas," the just-vague-enough mockery of religion and politics—it’s great, and shows Pettibon at the height of his powers.
Unfortunately, this level of humor and nuance is absent from far too much of Pettibon’s work. "Which side of him murdered (46 girls): the crazed hippie or the normal one?" reads a particularly mediocre piece, a depiction of a half clean-shaven, half bearded Charles Manson lookalike. Although the drawing is compelling, captions like this are so banal and obvious that they undercut Pettibon’s striking imagery. It’s as if Guernica had been captioned, “What if we’re the real animals?”
A series riffing on Gumby is even worse, and a troubling example of Pettibon’s persistent penchant for vulgarity. "While the original Gumby is an innocent figure with literary tastes mirroring those of his young audience, Pettibon's mature version explores the works of James Joyce and Gustave Flaubert and interacts with the world of humans in decidedly adult scenarios," says the exhibition text—curator speak for "Gumby has an erect teal penis" ("See, Gumby's not so little and cute anymore," said a breathtakingly horrible father to his toddler when I was there). Works like these are reverse pornography that seek to un-titillate. They exist only to shock and offend, and they cheapen other, more worthwhile explorations of the transgressive.
Which is too bad, because Pettibon is more than a vulgarian. Lurking behind much of his work are the beliefs of a frustrated idealist. Occasionally, a burst of sincerity breaks through, as in a tongue-in-cheek monologue from a Reagan voter. "Carter was too human to be president," the narrator says, a surprisingly respectful characterization of the earnest, deeply square Jimmy Carter. Otherwise offensive drawings of '60s comedown figures like Charles Manson and Patty Hearst are similarly heartfelt, less exercises in shock and more expressions of sadness at the collapse of the hippie dream into posturing, violence and Reagan. "By 1969 we'll have enough lsd for the revolution/revolutionary overthrow: my master's thesis," goes a line from one of Pettibon's scabrous hippie portraits. Pettibon’s dispute isn't with the idealism of the ‘60s so much as the drug-addled wastrels who signed up.
Pettibon’s romantic spirit is clearest in his drawings of waves and surfers. Like Mapplethorpe’s flowers, they show an otherwise transgressive artist working in a surprisingly beautiful mode. Looking at these drawings, one appreciates Pettibon’s deep love for the sea and for surfing. They don’t look particularly realistic—the waves are just blue and green parallel lines, the crests reminiscent more of Reagan's hair than the ocean—but they feel like photographs in how well they capture Pettibon’s lived experiences. In pieces like these, Pettibon proves that he can be a truly great artist when he wants. One only wishes he wanted to more often.
"Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work" is on display through April 9. All photos courtesy of the New Museum.