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‘I Smoke Because My Parents Do Not’: Raymond Pettibon @ The New Museum

by Aimée Tian

Pettibon’s counterculture narrative of America’s dark underbelly is not for the faint of heart.

I arrived at the New Museum on a rainy Wednesday morning, disheartened to find that the Sky Room was closed to visitors on weekdays. Towering above the nitty-gritty of the Bowery, the museum stands out distinctly in all its aluminum mesh glory. Its galleries are concrete, windowless cubes, permitting natural light only through slight skylights that are located around its perimeters. These structural boxes are intimate, yet incredibly isolating. I am quickly overwhelmed by a pressing sense of claustrophobia, despite the museum’s high ceilings. Of course, this monochromatic space is the perfect place to house A Pen of All Work, a staggering, multi-floor retrospective of the work of LA-based cult artist Raymond Pettibon.

Featuring over 800 pieces and spread out over three levels of the gallery, A Pen of All Work is the largest and most complete survey of Pettibon’s work to date. Although the artist is no stranger to the contemporary art scene, this is his first ever major exhibition in New York.    


Born in Tucson in 1957, Raymond Pettibon is a punk-rock enigma of the Hermosa Beach hardcore scene. Working since the late 1960s, he has produced thousands of drawings that feature bold imagery and block text in tandem. Pettibon’s work intersects elements of literature, art, music, poetry, war, crime and politics using a “brash and iconoclastic visual style that would influence and speak for an entire generation of disaffected youth” (The New Museum).

Pettibon’s America is raw, gut-wrenching, and certainly unidealized. Moving through the exhibition space, we are forced to rethink the disillusioned American Dream as the artist tears down corrupt politicians and redefines the transgressive characteristics of love, sex and war. He engages with subject matter that is unabashedly honest, offering a subcultural chronicle of a nation’s coming of age. Journeying throughout the decades of late-20th century America, Pettibon’s work reflects on the problematics of a deeply capitalistic society, confronting systems of oppression with the easily identifiable sweep of his ‘pen’: india ink on paper.

A Pen of All Work is deeply unsettling - just as it’s meant to be. Particularly when considering the recent unraveling of American politics, the nation is as divided as ever. Wielding language and media as a double-edged sword, Raymond Pettibon’s vision scours the sores of These United States. His earlier works read like safety hazard warning signs, often philosophical and always self-reflexive. 

Pettibon’s oeuvre calls upon visual references to pop culture, natural history, religious and political figures, while the lexicon of his textual reflexions are closely informed by the writings of John Ruskin and Marcel Proust. One character that especially caught my eye was VAVOOM!, a caricature taken from the 1950s Felix the Cat comic strips by Otto Messmer. VAVOOM! serves as Pettibon’s cartoon alter-ego, shouting into empty space. Through this character, the artist struggles to find a voice for the American people.

It is difficult to conventionally ‘like’ Raymond Pettibon’s work. We could attempt to admire the aesthetic formal qualities of line and form that make up his hand, but it is impossible to read these works as empty of their sociopolitical context. What resonates is a profound unease - the museum space begins to feel like a prison, and the artist’s work like desperate, disjointed slashes on the walls like cries for help. Even as his works are broken, and nuanced with violence, there is a still-hopeful tonality that scores the drawings. 

Curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari, Kraus Family Curator, and Massimiliano Gioni, A Pen of All Work is an ineffable collection of the artist’s greatest works. I recommend visiting with an open mind and full lungs. 

A Pen of All Work will be on view at the New Museum from now through April 9th, 2017.

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