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.
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.
Do you think of your work as a response to literature?
In the beginning, yeah, it was. To trace it back distinctly, I guess my first artworks were cartoons, and were a response to cartoons, also. It's kind of a subtle line between that and what I do today, but, in another way, it's quite a dramatic line to have crossed. From a distance, the average work of mine might resemble a cartoon. But there was a specific point where I think I crossed over into something else.
Were the associations you made between language and imagery always poetic, even when you were making more traditional kinds of cartoons?
No. The ideas always came out of reading, and they were kind of between the lines, or suggested. It's kind of like swimming in words and letters. I place myself in this state of consciousness where I'm receptive to associations and stuff. Rather than quoting, as I have in the past 10 years, they originally were more like responses than quotations. But they always had to do with reading things from the world at large — media, television, music, books — rather than being personal or anecdotal.
Untitled (One can’t stay) 1984
Were image and writing always associated for you?
Yeah. Sometimes I wonder about the possibility of aspiring to the image alone. I've done that before, but not really successfully. Even when I do, it usually has some kind of narrative drive to it. Sometimes I can dispense with the image and use only language. I probably do that more often. But even that's fairly rare, I suppose.
What about illustrated literature? You know, children's books — the Dr. Seuss series, for example — or adventure novels that use illustrations selectively? I'm sure you read them, like every kid does, but did they have anything to do with the development of your work?
No, no. I think there's a big difference between illustration and what I do. I just don't have either the aptitude or the interest. There are illustrators whose art is reliant on draftsmanship, drawing what the writing describes. That kind of thing doesn't really do it for me. I think it's just a way to break up the page. I don't think it's really ever done successfully. I'm talking about the kinds of illustrations you find in a Mark Twain or Robert Louis Stevenson novel, where there are half a dozen illustrations interspersed. Children's literature, comic books, books where it's clear that image and language were born in combination, those are different.
Comic books can be such a beautiful wedding of the two.
I never read comic books until I was in my late teens, and they were a way to learn to draw. I saw them as an extension of film; cartoons basically meant Disney at the time. I've done comic-book-type stories, and they're something I'd like to do more. There's no reason why you can't deliver as good a work in that medium as in any other. Comics are just kind of debased by the nature of their audience.
Did you come to the comic book clean, the way most kids do, or were you already familiar with Pop art's re-contextualization of the comic?
Punk flier, c.1981
Yeah, I was. But I think I had an opposite view of comics than most of the Pop artists did. Lichtenstein might treat the comic as this Americana type of detritus, and see art as a kind of archenemy of the comic book. I think the medium itself is as legitimate as any other. That's not to say there's much that's ever been done in the comic book form that's that great. ä
How do you rate underground-comic artists like Robert Crumb or Spain Rodriguez, who some see as fine artists working within that form?
I don't know. I'm not comfortable about drawing a line and making a distinction. I guess it's just a personal thing, more of a matter of taste than empirical study. I think there are people who've done comics whose work doesn't have to be treated with indifference. Crumb, I don't know. He's not my line. But I don't think the underground comic has to be justified by its closeness to fine art.
I'm harping on the comic book not because I think that point of comparison is an interesting way to enter your work.
I don't think so either.
But it's not an uncommon point of comparison in the writings on your work. I don't necessarily think literature is the best way to think about your work either. But those two angles seem to spring to critics' minds most frequently.
If my work is judged based on how it stands up next to comics, then it's pretty thin. My skills as a video artist or as a draftsman aren't things I need to brag about. To have my work discussed in those terms, well, that's kind of ridiculous. And in terms of literature, it's not just the quality of the language I use either. My work's not literature. It may be a combination, but it's something completely different from either comics or literature.
Photo by Debra DiPaolo
You graduated from UCLA in 1977. These days, the school is one of the most important and prolific producers of young artists. It must have been quite different back then.
I wasn't in the fine-arts program. My degree was in economics, so I don't really know what it was like. Certainly there wasn't this brouhaha attached to it. It wasn't as important back then to get an art degree, and there wasn't this kind of rush to get a gallery, or I didn't see it. Not like it is now, when you almost have to go to art school to get anywhere. I did some political cartoons for the UCLA student newspaper, and that's pretty much it. But I didn't have that kind of university training as an artist, for better or worse.
Do you ever feel uncomfortable or restricted by the art world, the gallery and museum context? Because you came into art by a really unusual route. Growing up in L.A., and being part of the punk scene in the late '70s, I first saw your work in zines, on fliers for concerts, and on album covers by bands like Black Flag and the Minutemen. Those are pretty much oppositional contexts.
Showing in galleries doesn't bother me for a number of reasons. For one thing, it's more about social conditions and economic relationships. The minute I was working in what I consider to be my mature style, which is from 1977 on, I considered my work as art, as much as any artist showing in galleries at that time. There's nothing I had to apologize for. My work never had anything to do with illustration, or commercial art, or advertising. The fact that some of my drawings were used for record covers or advertisements doesn't matter. They were never done with that context in mind. Where my art is shown is pretty irrelevant to me. It's nice to have an audience, but it could be just one or two people. That's a cliché, but there is a lot of truth to that. I'd love to do more artwork that's pasted up on telephone poles, that sort of thing. I've planned on doing that for years and years, but I just haven't gotten around to it. I still do books sometimes. In some ways, I did prefer those ways of showing my art to showing it in galleries. It's not because of the nature of the work that I say that, it's just, like I said, more about my attitudes in general. At this point, it would just mean more to me to go outside this frenetic gallery system where you're preaching to the converted. It's a very small world.
Untitled (Meet the Band) 1987
The books are obviously a way to get around that.
Yeah, and my work, it lends itself well to reproduction, usually. But it's true that my case is not recommended for anyone going into the art racket [laughs], because I think it's very unlikely for anyone to make it without going through the university mill. And it's not something I would recommend to art students, to get themselves out of there. In a way it's kind of unfortunate that the gallery system is so defined. It does affect the ways I think about making art. When I was first making art, the gallery system was a lot different than it is now, this kind of blue-chip thing it's become. And you know, I don't want to take too much credit for it, but I think my work has helped open things up. You see a lot more drawing shows now, and there's more of a mentality in the galleries that it's possible to sell a number of smaller works by an artist, rather than expecting collectors to buy a single blue-chip painting or sculpture.
Do you watch much TV, see a lot of movies?
Not really. Just like most people, I guess. It isn't very interesting, since my work isn't influenced by media in that way. It's just about my relationship to the printed page, or that's where it gets its juice. I don't have that kind of postmodernism operating in my work. It's not a conflation of forms of information like so much stuff is nowadays.
What about for pure pleasure? What sorts of films and TV or popular music do you like?
I don't know. [long pause] I'm not so interested in talking about that. I don't think people need to know that. There's a mania to want to know artists' personalities, but I resist that. There isn't much to say anyway. Whatever is interesting about me is in my work, and that form of presentation is enough. I can talk about why I do what I do, but I resist pulling up examples of what I happen to like. I sort of like my work to be what people know about me, or people who aren't my friends at least. Or I just don't have anything I want to mention. If something came to mind, I'd mention it.
Okay, but I do want to ask you about the art you made that wound up adorning those punk fliers and record covers. You're saying that the artwork was not in any way inspired by your personal tastes in music, or in punk music specifically?
Of course it was.
Was it influenced by the particular record it adorned? Would the Minutemen or whatever band say, “Hey, listen to our album,” and draw your response?
No, except for one or two cases where some knucklehead would come to me and say he had this great idea: “Oh, you've got to do this!” And sometimes, just because of friendships with the people involved, I'd use the idea. But if I did a record cover, I preferred to do the whole thing without any strings attached, and it still wouldn't necessarily be an illustration project, even in that case.
Is your early association with punk rock a red herring? I mean in terms of reading that period of your work? At least in shared attitudes, I feel like there was an unusual compatibility. But then your work's ubiquitous appearance on fliers and album covers in the late '70s did a lot to define punk's image.
Well, I've never been a musician, so I never felt restricted by the association with punk. I don't know if my art was really affected by punk. I never thought much about it. But in a way there was the quality of the music that came out of punk — and I think there's some pretty big stuff, especially considering the times. Just in that way it might have affected me, like it affected a lot of people. But it's like what we were saying about the gallery scene. Punk had the same kind of institutional framework, in a more slothful way. Still, the art world doesn't have that do-it-yourself kind of thing that punk had at its best.
There's certainly some relationship there. As an artist, you're the embodiment of the do-it-yourself ethic.
Yeah. But back in the punk days I pointedly avoided contemporary references. My depictions of the nuclear bombs or hippies or whatever were references from the '60s and '50s. The first time I ever did a drawing about punk was after the fact, in the late '80s. But that's really beside the point, because I'm not a topical artist, and I usually maintain a historical distance from my subjects. It's just a kind of a guilt-by-association thing, but it's not about guilt. It's like the same thing with comic books, or illustration, cartoons, rock album covers. It's a knee-jerk response to the company I happen to keep. That's what 99 percent of people are reacting to. That's not a battle I want to get into. I couldn't care less, it's just such a waste of time. Whenever I'm asked to talk, everyone wants to talk about rock & roll. I'll do that if I don't have to bring my art into it. It just shows the obsession that society has with rock music and rock culture, nowhere more so than in art.
Obviously, emotion is a determinant in your work. Or I imagine that, because I often have a strong emotional response to your work. Are there emotions that you find more inspirational or easier to translate than others?
Actually, I really want to disagree with the idea that there is much of an emotional spring to my work. I'm sure there are more distant artists than myself, but I think, for better or worse, that I'm on the outside in a way. My art just doesn't come out of emotion. It doesn't really draw up that much heat, personally. Partly that's a reflection of my personality, I guess.
But when you use language, it seems quite clear to me that you're often addressing or redressing an emotion, whether it's your emotion or not. I'd go so far as to say that the majority of the phrases and sentences in the work I've seen of yours delineate emotional states — sadness, hope, fear, the ecstatic. You're saying that is a purely formal decision?
Yeah, I've always considered it more a formal thing. I think this goes back to one of your earlier questions. If my work was coming out of an emotional source, then you should be able to read it as autobiography, and it's not. It's an extension of my art that it lets people read into the feelings it talks about. The fact that I'm not and never was a raving punk rocker is a case in point. In some ways, I've consciously been thinking of engaging more politically in my art, and going beyond just the formal exercise in that way, but that's a different thing.
Politically, in what sense?
Well, I don't mean that my goal is to influence people. I don't mean propaganda in that sense, because I don't think that kind of influence is possible. I don't really know. It's just something I'm thinking about.
So if I have a largely emotional response to your work, is that an incorrect response?
No, of course not. I'm just saying that the intentions of the artist are irrelevant. I mean no one, to this day, knows who Shakespeare was. But that doesn't really matter.
This might be a difficult question to answer, but when you appropriate lines and phrases from literature, what is it about a particular writer's work that causes you to want to borrow and transform his or her words? If it's easier to speak about a specific example, how about Henry James, whom you've quoted quite a lot?
I don't know how successfully I could answer that. To take a writer like James, he writes these really meandering sentences that are part of the novels' narratives, but when you do a kind of dissection of his writing, and take it out of context, there's something going on in the sentences on their own. Sometimes these fragments appear that are not just parts of his sentences to me, and seem to tell me something else, something specific.
So when you read, say, a James novel, I assume you don't read it in a way a person on a plane reads it. I assume you're always thinking about the language and how it works.
Yeah, I don't get lost in a novel in the sense of getting lost in the narrative flow. That's something that you lose. Like when a filmmaker watches a film, he's always thinking about how it was put together, edited and framed, and the same with musicians. I've known a lot of musician friends who've lost their ability simply to listen to music. They become hypercritical about the quality of the recording, and the parts are dissected as they listen. So, yes, I've lost that ability. I guess that's a reason why narrative per se doesn't really interest me anymore. I can't just read an adventure story or whatever. Like reading the newspaper, I used to read the whole paper, and it would take me a few hours. Now I read it looking for things for my art — not that I read it in the same way I would read literature that affects my art. Journalism is something I just shut off from my creative mind. But I guess my mind and my eye were trained over the years, so even now it becomes a kind of mechanical thing, where the eye just goes at this slow pace. But I think maybe it's not some particular stylistic or formal thing that decides why a certain writer becomes a part of my art. It's probably just that there are some writers I like to read, and who engage me to be a part of their life. That's probably what it comes down to more than anything. You know, I put together that anthology of writers I like [Raymond Pettibon: A Reader], but it wasn't a definitive collection.
It wasn't your canon?
It wasn't a hierarchy, yeah, it wasn't my canon. It was a collaborative thing. Actually, it was a real down. The end result really didn't have much jell, inner coherence, as a record. It's just an anthology.
What would be the ideal response to your work? I mean if a kid says, “Oh my God, I love these drawings. They're so fucking cool. They're the best art in the world!” Or someone has a very erudite analysis of your work based on an informed idea of its relationship to art history. Is one or the other of those responses more pleasing to you?
It's not something I dwell on. There's not so much of this common response-feedback relationship in the first place. But, yeah, of course there is an ideal response, but I don't know if I can nail it down exactly.
It seems to me that it would be entirely possible for someone who knows nothing about contemporary art to have a really profound response to your work that would not be an inaccurate response. Say someone who might respond to it viscerally, as a kind of poetry.
Yeah. But I think if someone is completely illiterate, then obviously he's going to be missing something. An absolute moron is going to be getting a little bit more out of it maybe. I'm not above making what I guess we'd call in-jokes or allusions to art or literature in my work, and knowing those references might add something. There are a lot of things going on in one drawing, at times. Obviously, everyone is not going to get everything. I don't expect them to, and sometimes there might be a personal allusion that I'm not expecting anyone to understand. A lot of times I think my work's getting across when I know someone's laughing. That's something that's nice. Maybe that's my ideal response.
Extracted from the interview section of Raymond Pettibon published by Phaidon Press Limited. © 2001 Phaidon Press Limited. ISBN 0 7148 3919 1. RRP $29.95. (WWW.phaidon.com).
All images except the Circle Jerks flier are provided courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles