Mightier Than the Sword: Artist Raymond Pettibon Wields “A Pen of All Work”

Artwork: No Title (Batman was nowhere…), 1986. Ink on paper, 8 1/2 x 11 in (21.6 x 27.9 cm). Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.

“I don’t make art with grandiose delusions. I do know there are limits to what art is capable of. That makes it all the more appealing to me. And I can do as I will whenever I choose,” American artist Raymond Pettibon has said, revealing the essence of the continuous appeal of his work. A populist without pretense who came up in the West Coast punk scene, Pettibon honed the D.I.Y. ethos of the era into a fine art career.

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Now, in celebration of his phenomenal body of work, the New Museum, New York, presents Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work, the first major museum retrospective of his work, currently on view through April 9, 2017. The exhibition takes America to task for its truths, providing a perspective that is equal parts poignant, witty, and subversive.

No title (This feeling is), 2011. Pen and ink on paper, 37 1/4 x 49 1/2 in (94.6 x 125.7 cm). Aishti Foundation, Beirut, Lebanon. Photography courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Pettibon, born in 1957, came of age as the idealistic impulses of the 1960s counterculture collapsed. In the void, punk came raging forth. Rejecting all systems of hierarchy, it posited the eternal truth: no one else is going to do it unless you do. Pettibon got his start playing bass in the group called Panis; he suggested they change their name to Black Flag and designed their iconic logo, featuring four black bars that combined the supermatist spirit of Kazmir Malevich with the graphic genius of Paul Rand.

From this prescient start, Pettibon’s work as an artist found its niche, creating zines and album covers that were so singular, Kim Gordon took to Artforum in the 1980s to sing his praises. Pettibon create a style that was entirely his own, one that evokes the mysticism of William Blake and with the raw nerve of Francisco de Goya, combined with the contemporary stylings of underground comix artists like Jay Lynch and Art Spiegelman.

Training his eye on popular culture, Pettibon has produced a singular body of work that takes elements of politics, history, movies, literature, comics, and television and mixes them into a heady brew that will leave you breathless and intoxicated by the limitless space of the possible.

It’s possible to draw characters as diverse as Charles Manson and Ronald Reagan, Gumby and Superman, and reflect on the ways in which they shape American narratives and mythologies. It’s possible to call out the horrors of war in a manner that both humanizes and personalizes the devastating toll the military industry complex takes on both the world as a whole and the youth of this country that it chew up and spits out year after year.

The show’s title, which is drawn from a poem by Lord Byron, is a touching reminder of the ways in which Pettibon uses his work as a platform for voices that are silenced or marginalized by the mainstream. He doesn’t shy from the disconcerting, uncomfortable truths of life, nor from our complicity in a system that makes us all accountable. Instead, he uses his work as a space to remind us of the power of art to transform our souls.

“Forgiveness is the nature of my art in general. It’s expressing love and compassion, the kinds of things that don’t make sense in any other context other than emotive expression,” Pettibon has said, allowing us to see the redemptive possibilities of the work of art. It’s not enough to create for its own sake; to complete the action, the artist must share the work with the world. In doing so, we can discover our own truth within, mediating on something we never considered or weren’t ready to admit. Or, just possibly, knew all along, now finding a realm of kindred spirits who share our ideas and concerns.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.