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Between the Lines 

Dennis Cooper talks to Raymond Pettibon about literature, emotion, the punk years and the ideal way to respond to his art


Extracted from the interview section of Raymond Pettibon published by Phaidon Press Limited.

RAYMOND PETTIBON IS ONE OF contemporary art's most enigmatic figures. Unlike most L.A. artists of his generation, he doesn't teach at one of the renowned local art schools. He very rarely makes the scene at gallery and museum openings, and the few public appearances by this ultraprivate, attention-phobic artist tend to be awkward and elusive affairs. He conforms neither to his non­art world image as a punk rocker gone legit, nor to the conventional image of a successful, hip, fashionably groomed and garbed artist. While he doesn't shy away from interviews, he is a defiantly impersonal if unpretentious subject who wants to communicate through his poetic, more-than-generous art, and leave his interests du jour to the imagination.

Arbiters of contemporary art are crazy about making distinctions between high art (essentially, art with a graduate degree) and low art made in a so-called primitive if creative way -- from "outsiders" like the currently fashionable janitor/painter Henry Darger, to basically any artist who gains recognition without relying heavily on the gallery system to get there. Pettibon is a high artist, for sure, but one whose work has reached an unusually, even spectacularly broad audience. Loved internationally by people who know his work only from the multitude of CD covers it adorns and the books in which it has been collected, as well as by Artforum subscribing gallery hoppers in the know, he may just be the most successful living serious artist -- a bona fide crossover hit who has achieved an almost Norman Rockwell­like popularity without either licensing his signature style à la Keith Haring, or becoming a media-friendlier shadow of himself à la William Wegman.

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For the record, the 43-year-old Pettibon has lived in Hermosa Beach since he was a kid. His nondescript, smallish house, which he shares with his parents, sits on a difficult-to-locate street sniffing distance from the ocean. The living and dining rooms double as his studio, and the tables and even floors are piled with works in progress, many haphazardly crisscrossed with the paw prints of his perennially barking dogs. The following interview, most of which will appear this month in the book Raymond Pettibon (Phaidon Press), was conducted in his home late last year, as the artist was preparing for his most recent solo exhibition at his Los Angeles gallery, Regen Projects.

Untitled (The Family Dog) 1990


DENNIS COOPER: You were born in Arizona, right?

RAYMOND PETTIBON: Yeah. Then we moved out here when I was pretty young. I don't have big memories of the time before that.


What were you like as a kid?

[long pause] I was a kid. I did things that a kid liked to do. Do you think it's interesting to know what artists were like as kids?


Not really. But people usually want to begin there, or at least cross-reference artists' childhoods. They like to trace things back to a pre-sophisticated state, I guess to see if they can identify with, say, you, or to see how they might have turned out differently if they'd behaved differently in childhood. You know, they want to know why they became themselves and not you.

Not an artist.


Not an artist or, if they're artists, not exactly the artist you are.

I can't tell you why I started to draw and write or why I liked to do that. I don't think there's an answer to that question back there. I just did what I liked to do, and I ended up doing what I do now for some reason.


I'm curious about your relationship to literature. Since language and visual imagery seem equally important in your work, I'm wondering if one interest preceded the other.

Literature was originally and probably still is just as important to me as art.


Do you read a lot of fiction and poetry?

Mostly fiction, some poetry. But I haven't read much poetry in the last 10 years.


Did you ever want to be a writer in the traditional sense?

I was never really much of a writer. The first things I ever wrote to any extent were related to my artwork, and I still don't write narrative fiction, per se. My longer, non-art pieces are usually screenplays related to my videos.

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