The New Museum is 3,000 miles away from Hermosa Beach, California, and a million years away from a memory of meeting Raymond Pettibon in the backyard at a house party where Henry Rollins and Black Flag were emotionally abusing an audience backed straight up against the walls. The sun was shining. It was a beautiful southern California afternoon.
Facing the elevator in the museum on the Bowery are the Black Flag bars that the world has come to know. Raymond brilliantly drew them all those years ago for his brother’s hardcore band, one of many that formed in the Reagan years. The sign of a black flag blowing, a sense of insecticide—there is an ominous quality that hangs over Raymond’s work. The flag is a logo I’ve seen tattooed on many body parts, curved around skin. Once I looked down and saw it on top of a girl’s foot opposite the logo for Chanel. Here, in Raymond’s hand in the New Museum, it makes a gateway into “Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work,” a show with art from the 1960s to the present.
On the walls above and to the sides are images and texts, Raymond’s hand in all of them. With scattered works and paper pinned to the wall, it reminds me of going to Raymond’s house and seeing stacks of drawings lying around—and keeping out of the way enough to give him space to make more. Upstairs the work is sectioned by themes. The most successful curatorial moves are in the rooms with drawings and fanzines in vitrines, and then the wave and surf paintings that build on each other as they circle the walls—that have enough breath and space around them to really move and lend themselves to being read. Vitrines that contain underlined books with literary references and scrawled notes still don’t answer the question “Which came first: the text idea or the drawing?” but are fascinating to see. One gets the sense that the drawing is a momentary placeholder for an inner dialogue that pauses just long enough for Raymond to get it out on paper with such fluidity and prolificness.
It’s the same voice that goes into his scripts, tweets, and in-person dialogue if you happen to be in Raymond’s presence. One-liners abound in his non-ironic metalogues, and through the 140-character limitation of Twitter, he has evolved his own slang. The films are a great addition to the show as they are almost never shown and have a lot to weed through. The most accessible one is Sir Drone, featuring Mike Watt and Mike Kelley. It centers on the two being in a band and bickering over hair length. “Are you a hippy or a punk?”—Watt tells Kelley that he can’t be in a punk band with long hair, which he ends up cutting off. It’s so simple a metaphor for the culture wars. The words are read from cue cards, giving the films a deconstructed instant nouveau vague feel for contemporary times. The way the stories are told—about the Weather Underground, Charlie Manson, Jim Morrison—are a bit like Shakespeare. Classic themes of good and evil are not what they seem. The good guy is often the bad one, and vice versa. Raymond’s scripts are classic stories of contemporary myth-making, fitting now with how we try to decipher the truth within fake news, reality TV, and Donald Trump as president. Just as Reagan speared on a generation of hardcore bands in the ’80s, with names like Reagan Death and Reagan Youth, it’s fitting for the New Museum to be presenting a body of work like Ray Pettibon’s that deconstructs media and culture from before and will continue to long after this political moment. I look forward to his film The Donald—or am I just fantasizing?