Raymond Pettibon is a celebrated artist who paints and draws beautiful and unnerving images, often in high-contrast black-and-white. He entered the consciousness of many through the art he made for his estranged brother's band and record label, SST. Although many teens know him as the Black Flag artist, the work he created in the punk days are inky drops in a smudgy bucket when held up next to rest of his massive oeuvre.
Pettibon's work is the subject of a four-story retrospective, Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work, that opened at New York's New Museum on Wednesday. I've never seen so much of Pettibon's work in one place, which makes sense since the show is his first true retrospective. Pieces that I assumed must have been long sold or lost are in the show. The paintings and drawings are grouped by subject matter. There's a cluster of art about Charlie Manson, and then you'll be confronted by a large corner dominated by beautiful paintings of giant waves, trains, Gumby, Batman, and other motifs Ray has worked with during his decades-long career (he's 59 and has been drawing as long as he can remember). His zines and old videos he made with Sonic Youth and Mike Kelley are there, too.
Although Pettibon didn't grant interview requests in the lead-up to the show, he let me come and talk to him while he finished up his murals on the first floor of the museum. I've interviewed him a few times for VICE now, in 2010, 2013, and 2016, and you can read those, too, if you'd like.
I met Pettibon outside the museum with his assistant. We entered and started discussing the murals as he was painting on the ground floor.
VICE: How long did the murals take? When did you start them?
Raymond Pettibon: Uh, like last week. Off and on, you know? Let's see. For this, I started with Jackie Robinson. It's pretty much improvised, you know, cause I didn't know how it would end up. So that would be the first, on the left.
What the significance of the A?
You can see the guy with his legs spread. You know, you can find the "A." And then the "A" bridge was filled in later. And, the "A" and "I" is like a tribute to my Aunt Aino, my mother's sister. So it's just like a personal thing.
Did you ever start your work where you would plan it in advance, or was it always improvised?
It's usually improvised, you know. In most cases, I don't even care—it's not like I don't care—but I don't need to know the specifications and, you know, how wide it is, how tall it is, what length it is, what the dimensions are because I'll just improvise. I'd rather it just depend on my improvisational skill, you know? Because I've been doing this for how many motherfucking years, so I don't have to have it all notated in advance.
I heard a story told by David Letterman's old bandleader about producing a performance that Sammy Davis Jr. was going to sing to and wanting him to hear the arrangement of the song before he performed the song. Sammy didn't want to but relented and was saddened because he didn't get to experience the full song for the first time at the same time the audience did. His knowing what was going to happen killed some of the enjoyment.
He started when he was like four years old, OK? He grew up in showbiz. So he doesn't need David Letterman's band to go through all the props and all that. Whatever works is fine, OK?
Do you ever regret not being able to hold on to, or maintain the murals that you do at your shows?
No, no, man. There's too much.
OK, I started with Jackie Robinson because many, many years ago I did a retrospective show at MOCA in LA. And it had Jackie Robinson sliding into home plate, which he was famous for, OK? And I thought, I thought I'd bridge New York and LA. In a simple way.
And so I started with that to make a bridge between LA and New York, although this is the New Museum, which is in the Bowery. It's not the Brooklyn Museum. If you noticed, Jackie Robinson has a "B," OK? Right? He played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He never played for the LA Dodgers. He never played for the New York Yankees. Next to him, I painted Whitey Ford, the pitcher. Originally, I thought I'd also do a depiction of Jackie as a football player because he was in the Olympics. He played basketball, football, baseball at UCLA, where I went, too. And he was in Pasadena. Pasadena Crip, Raymond Avenue Crip. So I was thinking of him as a football pose? Right? You know what I mean?
Is there any significance to your previously painting Jackie Robinson on the ground, sliding, and your current depiction of him standing with his bat pointed upward?
No, not really. You've been to my studio, and you know I collect bats and one of the store-bought bats is Jackie Robinson's bat, which has a really thick handle, not like the Nellie Fox, which has a really thick handle where you choke up. Jackie Robinson, he had big hands, and you can see it here. He's not choking up. The painting of the bat was actually longer, but I painted over it, that's why it looks kinda freaky. 'Cause it wasn't intended to be like that. It looks kinda like a California palm tree.
I thought it kinda looked like it's emanating energy. Or like, there's motion.
Yeah, same thing, OK. These things happen on their own.
I love it.
Going back to what we were talking about, things are planning in advance, I didn't know I would have Whitey Ford here, OK. There's not another artist in the world who can convey the difference between New York, Brooklyn, Whitey, Jackie, Pasadena, Raymond Avenue Crips the way I can.
Whitey Ford was only 5'7", 5'8", 5'9". But he mastered the ball—he could cut it up, he could spit on it, he could dirt it up. And for a small guy, he was an amazing pitcher. He led the league in ERA, like every fucking year. They played on different teams, but they both played in New York but not exactly at the same time. Jackie and Whitey are a little generation apart.
Is this wall complete?
As far as I know, it is. I mean, I can keep fucking working on it forever.
"The best brushes are sables, Russian sables. And quills are for pens, OK? The sables shows it's quills. See that? You get the point, right? Then it drips. Whatever."
The cross hatches are blown up from old masters. Dürer, Whistler, like Franz Kline used to blow up his bullshit.
You talk about politics a lot on your Twitter. You're an anarchist, right?
Would you call yourself an "anarchist"?
Anarchist? What does that mean? Those labels, they lose their meaning. I wouldn't call myself an "anarchist." If you wanna include anarchism with pragmatism, OK. People who identify with anarchism don't resonate with me necessarily.
"I'm 59 motherfucking-years-old, and my biography is gonna be defined by Wikipedia and Black Flag."
What's your current take on what's going on with our president right now?
After however many years of Obama, Clinton, Bush, etc., Trump is in office, finally there's like a dissent, you know?
You like what he's inspiring.
Well, yes, I mean, if that's what it takes, OK. The Middle East and the Far East have been in flames for so long. There has not been an antiwar president, OK? I'm against war, period. I'm against intervention/ I'm against violence. You know, how hard is that to figure out?
Trump is, is to me, despicable, and he's deplorable, whatever you want to call him. He's "not one of us." Yes, he's fucking racist, he's hateful, he's mean, he's a total creep. But that's what America is in reality. So don't put a kind face on Obama with his smiley-face bombs. Or Hillary Clinton. Now you know what you're gonna get. I think in the long run it's better, because where've all these millennials been for the past fucking 20 years, you know?
When Dave Chappelle hosted SNL and he and Chris Rock were making fun of all their upset white friends who were so surprised that Trump won. I found that, within my own black friends, that the reaction was similar to that skit. They've been disenfranchised forever.
And, don't just ask Dave Chapelle, OK? Ask the people in the Middle East. The Syrians, Iraqis, the Yemenis, who are out of their homes and who are desperately trying to find a home somewhere. And who caused that? It wasn't Trump. It was Obama, it was Clinton, it was Bush. Hillary Clinton, with her, it's like Hubert Humphrey with his "politics of joy" while bombing Vietnam. Fuck that. Hillary Clinton with her humanitarian intervention. I'm against intervention, period. Build a wall around America. Not to keep people out, but to keep America out from the rest of the world. Yeah, I'm isolationist.
"Whatever works is fine, OK?"
I've been feeling like Donald Trump has put a lot of topics that we try to put off dealing with to the forefront of our minds. Now we have to consciously decide how we feel about things and be prepared to act on our opinions.
I despise him. He's been in power, what, for like two weeks. And meanwhile Hillary Clinton was for every war that ever was. I despise Putin. My family's Estonian. I despise communism, but I don't like for creeps like Hillary Clinton to keep dogging Russia as a new Cold War. They always have to have a new Cold War, to keep the military industrial complex going. Anyway, what else do I have to say about that? Really nothing.
Thanks for doing this by the way. Like, I really appreciate it a lot.
Oh, come on, please. I always love to see you.
Can I ask you about painting the Black Flag bars on the elevator doors? Why did you decide to put it here?
Seemed like the likely place, 'cause it opens up. The reason I did it was sarcastic, OK, if anything. I'm 59 motherfucking-years-old, and my biography is gonna be defined by Wikipedia and Black Flag. Talk to me someday about my history with SST, OK?
We can do that. [We took the Black Flag elevator from the first floor of the New Museum to the fourth to look at some of Raymond's other new murals that he'd painted for the massive show.]
Tell me about this one, if you can. It's the earth.
That's the earth, yeah. Like, a week ago I did a sweep of paint from my hand, you know, and this of course is Walt Whitman and cradling the balls, you know. That is the earth, yeah. And um, that's a liver, OK.
"God, I wish I could live for two centuries! There is so much to do and always the fight for time my Goyd, there just isn't enough time, I wish I could live without a liver!" Is that an original thing that you wrote, is that from a poem as well?
Dunno. Look all this stuff up on Google. I can't do all the work. It can no longer be traced. I'll objectify, count it as single, indivisible, what are the edges of the limit that grows and multiplies by feeding on an abyss.
That started as a porcupine, but it became my dog.
Whistler was one of the greats. He did etchings, he did drawings, he did paintings. Whistler's Mother wasn't the original title and was not about a personalized thing about his mother. It was originally titled Arrangement in Black and Gray. It looked like Mrs. Eddy, so I added this.
The best brushes are sables, Russian sables. And quills are for pens, OK. The sables shows it's quills. See that? You get the point, right? Then it drips. Whatever.
I notice a lot of birds.
Yeah, I know, there's a reason for that. The Declaration of Independence was done from birds, OK? You know, feather quills.
That's a magician with a squirting boutonnière. That's supposed to be like a blowfish.
Is it still exciting to see your work hung in a large museum like this? Do you get nervous about it?
I'm not blasé about it…
I feel like I'm excited the first time I get to do a new thing, or see my art in a new way, and then the second time it's always less exciting.
It's kind of depressing, because my life's not always exact and there's sadness. It's not like, "I made it." Fuck no.
Would you ever feel like you've made it? Does that matter at all?
Would it matter?
Yeah, does "making it" matter?
Who really cares because people have real problems in the world and I'll be fine.
[Ray's assistant appeared and suggested we return downstairs.]
Is this Reagan art or old?
You know, Ronald Reagan's never directed, OK? That's the whole point. No one would ever allow him to direct. To be president? Yes, that's easy. That's like Donald Trump. Would you give Donald Trump, you know, carte blanche to be director of whatever budget? Of course not.
Thanks so much for giving me your time, Ray. I really appreciate it.
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