If you ask Richard Pettibone why since the '60s his work has entailed reproducing the work of other artists in miniature, he'll tell you on the record, "I don't know why." But caught unawares, as he was forty years ago, when he forgot that he was mic-ed at a lecture at Skidmore College, he might say, "Jesus made me do it." Such is the sense of sabotage that characterizes Pettibone's cocktail-sized copies of the paintings of other artists—Stella's stripes, Roy Lichtenstein's cartoons, Ingres's reclining ladies—that make fun of the notion of the auratic work of art, while studying their place in the cultural consciousness.
In "Richard Pettibone: Recent Works" at Leo Castelli Gallery, the artist presents subjects that will be familiar to those acquainted with his earlier work—Warhol's flowers and soup cans, and Lichtenstein's lascivious housewife. Usually working on canvasses less than a foot in diameter, the new paintings are characterized by subtle differences in color and scale. Pettibone says that one painting, measuring 9 â?? x 14 1/8 inches, is "huge for me."
Painted by the artist himself, who does not have any studio assistants, the works consist of over 100 variations of Warhol's flowers, none over 7" in width or height, 64 variations of Warhol's 32 Soup Cans, and five variations of Lichtenstein's The Refrigerator. In each series, Pettibone inserts the presence of his own hand with small alterations.
In Andy Warhol ‘Flowers,' 1965 (2011), he arranges the tiny square hand-painted in grids of 16 in some cases, and 70 in others, to reflect all of the possible ways that the four flowers in the composition can be painted different colors (which vary between red, yellow, blue and white). For Roy Lichtenstein ‘The Refrigerator, he depicts the women bent over the fridge in the nude, even though she is clothed in the original composition, the only variation in a work that is near perfect in its verisimilitude. In Roy Lichtenstein, ‘The Refrigerator,' 1961 and Andy Warhol, ‘Large Campbell's Soup Can, Tomato,' 1964 (2010), he juxtaposes one of Warhol's "Tomato Soup Cans" with one of Lichtenstein's girls, thereby creating a diptych that groups both works, familiar enough to be almost invisible, under the heading "Pop Art from the 1960s."
Pettibone saw Warhol's first show, at the Ferus Gallery in 1962. "Many, many of the other artists who saw it really hated it," he remembers. "They were pounding the tables with anger, screaming, ‘this is not art!' I told them, this may be the worst art you've ever seen, but it's art. It's not sports!"
Pettibone has cited the show as one of the main influences on his practice, which in the 1960s included diminutive forgeries of Warhol, but also Marcel Duchamp, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein. "When I did the first Warhol imitation, in the late 1960s, I was a young artist. I wanted to be a great painter. What better way to do that than to copy a great painting?"
Warhol and Lichtenstein were generally supportive, and even amused by Pettibone's reproductions, but other artists—Stella, for instance—are less charmed. "Stella thinks I'm mocking him, and he's right, I am mocking him," Pettibone said. "But I also greatly admire him. But I have to wonder, if he really thinks that a work of art has no meaning, that it's just paint on a canvas, then how come his so much more valuable than mine?"
From the outside, Pettibone's work has changed very little from the 1960s, when he first started appropriating Pop imagery, although he claims that he has become a better craftsman. "Ezra Pound once said that he expected artists to get better as they get older. He called it an increase in fineness. I'm a better artist now than I ever was."
Richard Pettibone, Roy Lichtenstein, 'The Refrigerator,' 1961 and Andy Warhol, 'Large Campbell's Soup Can, Tomato,' 1964, 2010, oil and silkscreen on canvas. Image courtesy the artist and Leo Castelli Gallery