For music fans, the artist Raymond Pettibon's name is synonymous with a certain era of punk rock. The younger brother of Black Flag founder and SST label owner Greg Ginn, Pettibon grew up at the center of California's late-'70s/early-'80s hardcore scene. His creepy, black-and-white comic-style illustrations plastered countless flyers and albums for bands like The Minutemen, Circle Jerks, and Sonic Youth, and he was responsible for both the name and the stark logo of Black Flag — his most durable creation, since parodied and tattooed into oblivion.
But while he's never fully given up the sparse, zine-ready illustration style of his early material, Pettibon is now a member of the fine-art world. His prolific body of work, spanning five decades, is the subject of a retrospective currently at the New Museum in downtown Manhattan. The exhibition, titled "Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work," is filled with nearly 700 drawings, paintings, and videos, which combine to present Pettibon's twisted, misanthropic view of American pop culture — from SoCal surf culture to Charles Manson to the punk rock that the artist has often tried to escape.
While many still see Pettibon as the unofficial creative director of hardcore, the irony is that even as he was creating this aesthetic back in the '70s, he was often simultaneously critiquing it. "I mean, what the fuck is a battle to punk rockers? Against long hair?" he later recalled in an interview with BOMB Magazine in 1999. "Jesus. It’s a really decadent mockery, when you think of it." A plaque at the New Museum exhibition inside a display case of Black Flag flyers assures visitors that "most of his actual illustrations of punks were less than flattering," and notes for the record that Pettibon's visuals were usually not made by collaborating with the musicians. At the time, hardcore punk was a hypermasculine scene; loud, angry at seemingly everything, and ready to pummel each other in the pit, its true believers were a direct counter to the long-haired, peace-and-love hippie culture of the previous decade. Yet Pettibon's cover art for Black Flag's 1981 Six Pack EP depicts a man cowering in the corner, blood all over the floor, as if to mysteriously warn fans about the dangers of attending one of their shows.
Some of Pettibon's punk-era work reads as purely satirical, such as the 1989 movie "Sir Drone" (on view at the New Museum), starring artist Mike Kelley and Minutemen founder Mike Watt as two flailing young kids who can't play their instruments and cry when getting stick 'n' pokes. In one scene, the two try to throw a radio out the window at a hippie, become too afraid to do so, and resign to simply spitting on it as some sort of radical act.
Elsewhere, in early illustrations and pages from zines, Pettibon's vague, poetic illustrations depict the hardcore scene engaging with femininity and sexuality outside of prescribed macho notions in a way that feels less like a joke and more like an honest, uncomfortable inquiry. In one illustration, a punk with a mohawk stares at himself in the mirror while trying on his girlfriend's earring. In another, two men with Black Flag tattoos embrace, half-naked, with "WE DESTROY THE FAMILY." written above. In one opaque work along the same wall, a silhouette of a punk fan is decorated with a monologue about their explicit homosexual encounters and smoking on the anniversary of the closeted Germs frontman Darby Crash's suicide.
Pettibon's work is supposed to be challenging. His ambiguous use of text, which he often pulls from writers like William Blake and James Joyce, can come across as snark or profound wisdom depending on how you approach the work. What's clear, looking at the New Museum's survey of his career, is how often Pettibon tried to dissect and reimagine the rituals of masculinity that are embedded in American culture.
While Pettibon's work is notably dude-ly — women mainly appear as sex symbols or violent Manson worshippers — his focus on the traditionally male circles of punk, surf culture, politics, and sports sidesteps stereotypical depictions of these subjects. Baseball is a great love of Pettibon's, so much so that he famously has a functional pitching machine in his New York studio, often inviting interviewers and critics to bat with him. His baseball paintings are very body-focused, featuring players colliding and moving through space with or without clothes on. "WHATEVER LIFE TAKES AWAY FROM YOU, LET IT GO, AND MAKE IT BETTER," reads the text above one sketch in the New Museum lobby.
The way he depicts baseball players with the focus on their form is reminiscent of how artists like Michelangelo portrayed hunky gods and men during the Renaissance. "The heroic has an epic scale to it. If you look at my baseball works, for instance, there is a kind of larger than life attitude to a lot of it," he said in an interview with Art21. "But then, not all the works are a pure adulation of the ball players. I mean, they go into some pretty sordid avenues."
In the book Pay for Your Pleasures: Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon, art historian Cary Levine writes of a page in Pettibon's 1983 zine "Capricious Missives" in which a man's thumb holds down a baseball card of the Cincinnati Reds first baseman Ted Kluszewski with the line "MY FIRST ORGASM" written above. "Here the beefy, sleeveless baseball player, Big Klu as he was nicknamed, embodies two supposedly incongruous impulses: he is both a paradigm of normative masculinity and an object of the homoerotic desire underlying male worship of athletic heroes," Levine writes. Just as he did with punk, Pettibon shines a light on the inherent sensuality in the male camaraderie and competition of sports. It's an exploration not far from Pettibon's work with superheroes, in which he often reimagines the dynamic between Batman and Robin as a sexual one.
His more outwardly political works, depicting presidents from John F. Kennedy to Trump as well as elements of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, sting the most in a time when "locker room talk" has been accepted into the White House. The inclusion of a snarky 1986 drawing of a figure staring up at the moon with the words "A certain Donald Trump, the first real gentleman I've met in years" is chilling. His portraits of presidents, which depict Obama as gleefully war-hungry and Reagan as a self-obsessed film director, are scathing. "It’s a way of trying to break down this kind of natural awe and respect that comes out of a fear or envy," Pettibon has said of his political works. "There’s this built-in respect that shouldn’t be there, completely." In one particularly disturbing painting, war becomes a sexual game, as Pettibon depicts a group of horny American soldiers interrogating a hooded prisoner. "We tortured him until we got an erection out of him," the text reads. "Did I say erection? I meant reaction."
The minute a section of American culture designates a new icon of masculine heroism, whether it's a disaffected punk fighting the system, the power of the president of the United States, or the perfection of a caped superhero, Pettibon's pen is there to take it down. It's a point of view that's as necessary today as it was in Hermosa Beach in 1977. In Pettibon's world, then and now, machismo is merely a front, and our American heroes are never what they seem.