The annals of contemporary art are full of improbable trajectories, tales of women and men developing into widely celebrated artists from the most unlikely beginnings. Think, for instance, of Pinot-Gallizio, the middle-aged Italian pharmacist who assisted at the birth of Situationism and invented a radical painting practice in the provincial town of Alba in the 1950s, or Marcel Broodthaers, a Belgian poet who one day decided to create something “insincere” and thus launched what would ultimately be a hugely influential art career and a new genre of art-making (institutional critique). The path taken by Raymond Pettibon, one of the most admired artists of the last decade, is also out of the ordinary, especially when compared to the current MFA-program-to-gallery-to-museum conveyor belt that nearly every successful young artist must ride.
A recent exhibition at Specific Object/David Platzker, a bookstore-gallery tucked away in a corner of the massive Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea, did an excellent job of tracing Pettibon’s activities in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when his drawings and ’zines emerged amid the violent cacophony of the Los Angeles punk scene. Platzker has recently been utilizing the space to show off his accomplishments as an entrepreneurial archivist: last season he covered the walls with a copy of every one of the 156 artist-designed bulletins issued by Art & Project, the important Dutch venue for conceptual art. Although the Pettibon show occupied only a single room, it packed in a formidable amount of material. One wall was filled with a chronologically arranged collection of nearly 200 flyers, each of them sporting a Pettibon image, for concerts by nearly every important West Coast punk band. Mostly on standard 8½-by-11-inch sheets and nearly all on white paper, the flyers are offset-printed with the exception of a couple of faded photocopies. On the facing wall was a collection of posters and record jackets (LPs and 45s, plus a few cassettes). The other two walls featured a display of Pettibon’s books in vitrines and an assortment of skateboards, T-shirts, posters and stickers imprinted with his work. Another T-shirt graced a mannequin standing in a corner. Music by West Coast punk bands played continuously in the gallery, albeit at uncharacteristically low volume.
For those who know Pettibon’s later work, certain early flyers jump out as premonitions. A handbill advertising anApr. 12, 1982, gig by Black Flag, No Sisters, VIPs and Secret Service at Berkeley Square features a bare arm onto which someone has just carved the word “malaise” with a razor (visible in the drawing). The drawing has that characteristic Pettibon line—at once nervously tentative and brutally definitive—and the carved word has been written in his equally distinctive uppercase lettering. Razors, that favored accoutrement of punk style, show up quite a lot in Pettibon’s early images, usually in the hands of and applied to the bodies of women.
Like his punk cohorts, Pettibon has always been attracted to socially transgressive imagery. Charles Manson is a frequent guest in his drawings, sometimes clearly identified (“Free Charlie,” advocates an editioned print from 1983 of a sword-wielding Manson) and sometimes, as in a handbill for a 1980 Black Flag concert at the Starwood, suggested by a Christlike figure. The skin-carving razors are also probably as indebted to Manson rituals as to punk fashion. As the Manson obsession suggests, Pettibon shares punk’s love-hate relationship with the countercultural 1960s. An offset print from 1982 of a revolver-toting lowlife carries the slogan “O.D. a Hippie.” Expanding on this anti-’60s program, and giving it a California-centric twist, the print further advises “Legalize heroin, ban hippies (and New Yorkers).” But if Pettibon posits Manson and heroin as the antithesis of all that peace and love bullshit, he also offers tributes to Jim Morrison’s penis and to interracial romance in Greenwich Village. What is conspicuously absent in this work is any visual reference to the actual punk scene of the time. Pettibon has said that he consciously avoided contemporary content. No doubt this has helped his early work to transcend its original moment, but an avoidance of the present also suits the nostalgic character of Pettibon’s imagination, which is obsessively attracted to past styles, both visual and literary.
Pettibon, who sometimes signed his work St. Pettibone (his given name is Raymond Ginn), was by no means the only artist utilizing the punk graphic-art underground as a venue. In England, Jamie Reid lent his ransom-note, Situationist-inspired style to the Sex Pistols; in San Francisco, the late Bruce Conner haunted Mabuhay Gardens, camera in hand, to chronicle the Bay Area punk scene. But Pettibon is probably the only major visual artist to emerge from the heart of any punk scene. Rather than attending art school, he studied economics at UCLA in the mid-1970s, yet instead of pursuing a career in business he devoted himself to creating artist’s books with titles like Captive Chains and Tripping Corpse. These black-and-white, staple-bound pamphlets trolled the seamy side of postwar America (many images were inspired by scenes on late-night TV broadcasts of B-movies), and were usually captioned with pithy phrases that suggest bizarre narratives worthy of Luis Buñuel or David Lynch. One of my favorites is a Black Flag/Meat Puppets handbill in which two long-haired dudes attend the graffitied corpse of a naked woman; “If you’re really Christ, why don’t you raise Janie?” one beseeches the other. (Should Pettibon be counted among those transgressive Catholic artists identified by critic Eleanor Heartney in her 2004 book Postmodern Heretics? Probably.) As time went on, the work was increasingly invaded by fragments from Pettibon’s voracious and sophisticated reading. (Henry James is one of his favored sources.)