For a few years now, the New York Public Library has been selling tote bags bearing an inscription from the artist Raymond Pettibon. “Good prose is of no harm,” it says, above an image of two clowns. The message might seem pretty lame as far as words of wisdom go. Shouldn’t “good prose” aspire to something more ambitious than the avoidance of injury? Shouldn’t it seek to illuminate or enlighten? Nonetheless, I bought the bag and use it everyday, perhaps because there is something irresistibly playful about Pettibon’s famous combinations of goofy aphorisms and cartoon-like drawing.
Pettibon, who turns 60 this year and lives in New York, is now the subject of a powerful if uneven retrospective at the New Museum. (Its title, “A Pen of All Work,” is another of his almost–aphorisms.) The show brings together some 700 works, most of them ink drawings on paper. Is he a master draftsman? He is probably more of a mad draftsman, endowing the medium with a terrific urgency. Filling three floors of the museum, the show contains more material than you can absorb on a single visit. The crowded installation seems fitting for an artist who adopts the persona of a compulsive and cranky social observer. In his early work especially, he can put you in mind of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, ranting about the follies of politics and contemporary life.
Born in 1957, the son of an English teacher, Pettibon was raised in Southern California. He always drew, and when he was in his twenties, he published his drawings in small ‘zines and on record covers. The show is heavy on his early work, which can be sophomoric. Many of his drawings poke fun at the failed idealism of the counterculture of the ‘60s. The hippies who populate his work variously drop acid, throw themselves off of buildings, or point loaded guns at the viewer. Pettibon’s artistic universe – which treats hippies, Jesus and Joseph Stalin as fellow believers in religions of sort – levels all ethical distinctions and isn’t exactly persuasive as commentary.
The show is really a two-part affair, and the later work is where he excels. In the place of sardonic one-liners, he starts to favor cryptic excerpts from literary fiction and a style that is nearly painterly. His penchant for graphic immediacy culminates in a series of very beautiful drawings – mural-sized images of crashing waves. Some are as large as seven feet square and you can make out tiny surfers in the water. With their slashing lines of black and turquoise, the wave drawings suggest that Pettibon is a closet colorist with a hankering for Matisse’s decorative blues and golds.
His best work extracts an unexpected poetry and ambiguity from straightforward words and images. Look for the small black-and-red drawing that shows a child’s tricycle isolated against a bare page. The caption says: “Who will finish his odyssey?” Maybe Pettibon will. For all his famous cynicism, he is clearly on some kind of colossal odyssey and getting better as he goes.