Who is Raymond Pettibon, exactly? For me, he is a monolithic pillar felled, breaking open the wall that separated me from my courage to be an artist, any kind I desired. He was born in Tuscon, Arizona, in 1957, has a B.A. from UCLA, and for anyone who ever drew stuff and also knew what feedback was (in a good way), he probably changed their life. If nothing else, his work hovered menacingly in the bedrooms of thousands of kids who grew up and fucked up the world for the better.
I was just like anybody else from my generation—starved for motive and ready for action. Pettibon’s words and directive-styled art called to me like a wolf to a cub lost in the wilderness of the mall-ridden 1980s. His work destroyed every idea I had about what art could be, in one single, accidental, gravitational album cover explosion. Before I could say I owned my first Raymond Pettibon drawing, xeroxed flyer or album cover pasted above my bed, a moment happened that changed my life, a moment in time forever burned into my screaming teenage soul.
An album slipped butter-finger style from a stack of clumsily carted records just as the dusk turned to Carolina night, all tar-black and twinkling at the edge of the ocean, like the lid of America popped off into nothing. We skaters met on the darkened streets to discuss our days of vandalism, ramp skating and music, our resources very limited. At that time, we were all investigators scouring the record store for anything that looked lost and loud, like we were.
Pow! A Black Flag record (My War) slipped from under the arm of a big-kid skater in my hometown. I admired him for his ability to smoke pot, skip school and avoid being arrested. The drawing on the cover in all its savage glory popped out as the vinyl hit the street and cracked. Loving comics, I said “What is that?”
Enter: punk rock. Also enter: a lifetime of trying to recreate the paranoid, savage, boxy and well, just wow artwork that adorned the album that slipped from the sleeve and broke on the pavement. Little did I know that this was not only the sound of the record breaking, but the feeling Pettibon’s artwork would give me through my teenage fuck-this, fuck-that years to right now. He is, in a word, fuckingbadass.
Pettibon is an award-winning fine artist known for his amazing black-and-white art found in books and illustrations used by legendary hardcore and punk bands such as Black Flag (his brother, Greg Ginn, was their guitarist), the Minutemen, Sonic Youth and the Foo Fighters. His art is a healing, howling fire that broke into the galleries and institutions it once challenged. I, for one, am grateful that he changed my world and the world around us by making art that is stunning, beautiful, sometimes shocking—but most of all, a mirror to contemporary culture, one half-menacing and the other provoking the world, as if wanting to watch it burn some more. Let’s check in with the modern genius, shall we?
RYAN ADAMS: Raymond, I’ve been following your work my whole life. It’s been interesting to grow up with your album covers and posters, and now, to see your work in proper art books. And then there are the awards you’ve won in recent years, like the Bucksbaum Award at the Whitney Biennial a few years back. Has this type of recognition changed the way you work? RAYMOND PETTIBON: I don’t think so, no. More than anything, the work requires things that are necessary and immutable—the research and the grind—which are things that I actually like. That stuff doesn’t change. I haven’t figured a way out of it, at least.
You seem to be one of those habitual artists. By that, I mean someone who goes to work sort of freely. I recognize the same method in myself. I tend to gravitate toward the work first and think about context later. I don’t exactly know what you mean by context.
Well, as an example, you might say that your art existed before it was on albums. But once it’s out there, it creates dialogue with an audience outside of the fine arts community, and even within it. At that point, the works begin to comment on things outside of themselves. Oh, I see. They were never created with a particular context or audience in mind. Punk has influenced my artwork significantly, but I’ve always let the pieces find their own natural audience, if there is one. I haven’t ever given much thought to promoting, managing or selling. To be honest, I’ve never been much of an agent.
Is it strange to walk around and see something that you drew in, like, 1983 on someone’s T-shirt? It can sometimes embarrass me because, well, that’s just my nature. But I’m really thankful for the kids today who appreciate my work. I’m certainly not going to put it down by being blasé about it.
I have a question for you from Sonic Youth’s Thurston More. He said, “I’ve always been kind of curious about Raymond’s pre-’76 years, his youth. What was his experience like as an American hippie?” Well, I was on the cusp of that generation, at best, because I was born in 1957. By the time I was independent enough to do something drastically dramatic like join a community, protest a store or run away, it was already over, really. The influence was there, of course. But as a kid, I just wasn’t in the position to be under that spell. It was a different generation, really, but I appreciate a lot about that period. It was a radical, engulfing time—there was way more experimentation, so many failures and successes.
How are things with your new band, the Niche Makers? We’ve actually done a few art-related performances. I tend to combine rehearsals with recordings. Instead of practicing, I would much rather go through songs with a microphone and hope that we get it on the first take. It’s like jazz.
That first take is always the most important. It’s always the one that makes people stop and say, “Whoa, what the fuck?” Unlike rock records, where you don’t see many versions of the same song, in jazz reissues, you can hear what sounds like pieces, layered fragments.Which brings me to my final question: when Sonic Youth came to you looking for artwork for Goo, had they already seen that image or was it a more collaborative process? If I remember correctly, they said they wanted me to draw some pictures for the record. And I was hesitant, not because I didn’t want to or because I was against it, but because I’m not very good at being commissioned to create stuff. I always freeze up. But that wasn’t the case with this. I think Kim [Gordon, singer, bass player and guitarist for Sonic Youth] probably saw some of the work I had kicking around… no, wait! The Goo cover was a drawing I had already completed. It struck her, I guess, those two kids on a crime spree.
It fits so incredibly well with the record. Raymond, thank you. I’ve been a fan of yours since I was just a kid, so it’s mind-blowing to get a chance to speak with you. Thank you so much for all of your work. I’m out here loving it.