interview by GLENN O’BRIEN
photography by ALEX ANTITCH
Raymond Pettibon is a category unto himself. He was first known for the art he created for the LA band Black Flag — started by his older brother, Greg Ginn, and which Ray named and once played bass in — as well as for other bands from the Ginn-owned label SST and Sonic Youth. He developed a big fan base in California. After he garnered art world exposure and participated in the Whitney Biennial and other major exhibitions, his fame became international.
Pettibon now lives in New York City with his wife and son. I visited him in his Soho loft-studio on his birthday, June 16. The studio has a basketball backboard, a pitching machine, and crammed bookshelves. Scattered about are hundreds of drawings in various states of completion and probably hundreds of baseball mitts and bats, jazz albums, and all sorts of cool ephemera.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — I’m pretty interested in Ron Popeil right now.
GLENN O’BRIEN — The greatest telemarketer of all time! Is he still in business?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Yeah, but he’s also an inventor. The Pocket Fisherman…
GLENN O’BRIEN — The Ginsu knife.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — The Ginsu, I don’t know if the Ginsu was his, but now on TV there is the Six-Star knife. It’s a collection of knives. And his uncle, if it is his uncle, is an amazing salesman, too. They have the Ronco Grill. They’re the kind of salesmen who can capture a crowd of people to sell snake oil or whatever. I was obsessed with that commercial. It would be on 50 times a day, and I’d watch it 50 times a day. And it’s back on again … it starts as just six knives or so, and they keep adding more and more, and more and more, until it gets to be compulsory … how could you resist? The guy’s delivery is so compelling, it enraptures me.
GLENN O’BRIEN — The first Popeil product I remember was Veg-o-matic. I think Ron’s father invented that. It slices, it dices, it chops…
RAYMOND PETTIBON — They did ingenious stuff as inventors, but even more as marketers. Popeil captured the marketplace for things that you wouldn’t have thought you needed.
GLENN O’BRIEN — They were mostly late night.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Still are. This Six-Star knife one is worth watching. I’d recommend that.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Long commercials died, but with cable and the Home Shopping Network, they came back.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — That was a whole different thing. That got people addicted to shopping for anything … amethyst rings. They did a painting thing. You’ve got to get this painting — you’ve got 10 minutes, and after that it’s gone. It created shopping addicts.
GLENN O’BRIEN — That appealed to people who wanted to be on TV by any means necessary. If you got lucky, you got on the phone and heard your voice going all over America.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — That seems ridiculous, but it’s true. The power of people wanting to have their brief moment in the spotlight. My father had a student who made it known to everyone that she was in the Coke-Pepsi commercial. You know, Coke vs. Pepsi? She’s probably still saying it. It’s like bitches who were lucky enough to get it on with some third-rate rock star always somehow weave it into the conversation that they sucked Tommy James’s dick or whatever. It’s their claim to fame.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Hey, is that a pitching machine?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Yeah, do you want to hit some balls?
GLENN O’BRIEN — No, I’m out with a back injury.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — This just throws like 40-45 miles an hour.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you use to play ball?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Yeah. I played sandlot. I used to throw hard in Little League. Then you get older, and jeez, they did an X-ray a while ago on my knee and saw an old fracture I didn’t know I had. I played sports all day long. Whatever the season, whatever the sport. And I was always playing hurt. But you have to be freakishly good to play at any level past high school. I played basketball at Gardner-Webb, a small Division One school in North Carolina. To get on that level, you have to be really, really good — or tall. I was small. I was probably malnourished, and behind the other people in age because I skipped a grade. In high school, they lined up all the motherfuckers, and the coach, who was like 5’4”, drew a line, and everyone who wasn’t tall enough was out. That was his methodology for picking a team. But I always played. I wasn’t freakishly brilliant…
GLENN O’BRIEN — I played in a pretty serious softball game for years, and in my last game I went to tag somebody, and my arm just kept going out of the socket. I was done.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — I play softball, but it doesn’t compare to hardball. It’s a big sport for the women. You’ve seen college softball, women’s softball, which is for Title 9; they’re definitely good athletes. But it’s a different game. It’s not for me.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Well, for oldsters in the city it’s fine. Do you know Neil Jenney?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Just by name.
GLENN O’BRIEN — He’s a really good artist. Good baseball player. He’s 70, but he’s always looking to go throw the baseball around.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Hell, I’ll throw the ball around with him. We play catch here sometimes. But I’m kind of a wreck. I broke my elbows skateboarding. I threw so many pitches at such a young age I probably need Tommy John surgery or whatever. But I’d rather get that on my dick than my arm at this point.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Neil has a wicked knuckleball.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — They’re hard to throw. You can’t throw one in the studio unless you have the fans on. You need wind currents because the ball doesn’t have any spin on it. Sure, I can throw a knuckleball. But the Niekro brothers…
GLENN O’BRIEN — I loved watching Phil Niekro pitch. He retired at 48, but he could still pitch and field. He won five Gold Gloves.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — And he probably won around 300 games, didn’t he?
GLENN O’BRIEN — He did.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — The guy with Boston…
GLENN O’BRIEN — Tim Wakefield.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Yeah. He played for a long time, won a lot of games, but he was the kind of pitcher who, as knuckleball pitchers tend to be, are invited on the roster. They’re this close to being cut because they’re not considered real athletes or studs. Meanwhile, they can win 20 games. Because the strain on the arm isn’t as hard as it is with other pitchers. Wilbur Wood for the White Sox could pitch a doubleheader if needed. He dominated the league for a couple of seasons in the early ’70s. Robert Storr is a big fan of Wilbur Wood.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Where did you come from in California?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — I came from the farm belt. Roscoe, Delano, Shafter … that’s considered the best farmland…
GLENN O’BRIEN — That’s in the Central Valley?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Yes. Like Bakersfield. The Grapes of Wrath is pretty much based on that area and the transformation the Dust Bowl had on it. You had all these hillbillies, Okies, Arkies, coming in during the Great Depression because their farmlands had literally blown away. So all our neighbors were hillbillies, and then we moved to Hermosa Beach, and that was Surf Culture. I don’t know if it really made any difference in my life. As a five-year-old kid, you can be fairly resilient. Well, in my case, I was getting the belt every day. But it was fine. I don’t blame anyone for it. I was a good kid. I was very shy. I liked to be left alone. My world was books and that sort of thing. The way kids nowadays would be on their computer obsessively, I’d be in books … I’ve never played a video game in my life, so I can’t judge it. It may be a great thing, but I would tend to see it more as something to while away the time rather than to actually engage with. When I work, I think that’s probably the main distinction that’s obvious to me, if not to 99% of our world, in which I’m the Punk Rock Artist.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I think of you as a kind of a literary artist.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — That’s secondary. Because punk rock is a lot more easily accessible than literature. That’s just the case. To complain about it makes you look defensive…
GLENN O’BRIEN — You’re still thought of as the Punk Rock Artist?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Oh, yeah, definitely. In every reference to my work, that’s the starting point. It’s not just noted; it’s embodied in the whole description. Hell, I wasn’t thinking of punk rock then. Yeah, I had a popular literature course at UCLA, and I wrote a paper on the Ramones and the difference between a displaced and ironic version of something, and the wish fulfillment of the most popular literature. Okay, I was the only punk rocker at UCLA. I got my brother into punk rock, and I was already doing artwork. I’ll show you the first fancy thing I ever did.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What year is this?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — It would have been 1975-76.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you teach yourself to draw or take art courses?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — No, I didn’t take art courses. I studied economics. That was my major. But I was kind of precocious, which meant that by the time I was committed to it, I was already jaded about it. I read enough of the class material to get by or whatever. But 95% of what I read in college was not on the curriculum. It was literature. I was learning to draw. I went to art school, but they don’t teach drawing. Where do you go to learn to draw? I don’t know. You can see this drawing here. This is Edward Hopper.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yes.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — My drawing style comes from etching. That was my big influence. Comic books were an influence, too, even though I couldn’t stand reading them. It was a way to learn how to communicate with image and words when you didn’t have to have a huge natural gift or a 15-year apprenticeship. But I was really learning from Hopper, from the Ashcan School, John Sloan, those fuckers. And Reginald Marsh, who did good illustrations for Dos Passos, even though they are very sketchy.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Sometimes I see a little Dick Tracy in your work.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Dick Tracy … not consciously. I was more into Robbe-Grillet. German Expressionist films; Hitchcock, of course. Some of these are from life, like the time I was at Disneyland and some guy had an epileptic seizure, and they put a popsicle stick in his mouth so he wouldn’t swallow his tongue.
GLENN O’BRIEN — How did you discover punk?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Well, I already liked bands like the MC5 and The Stooges. And I remember the Village Voice used to cover a lot of that stuff from CBGB’s — that was a big deal. Until the compilation records came out, which was absolutely shit, and it took down your hopes a notch or two. But there were good bands that came out of New York at the time. There were the Ramones, who influenced everyone, Television, Richard Hell. The English bands, The Damned, and the Sex Pistols or whatever. In LA, by that time, it may have been only 50 or fewer people, but it had its own thing. There was the Starwood, the Mask, places that lasted a while before the police and the landlords pulled the plug. But there was always something going on. I was a fan, to some extent, of punk rock. How did it influence my art? What can I say? Motherfuckers put out 45-rpm singles. Right? Someone has to do the motherfucking drawings.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Was Black Flag the first punk band in LA?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — No.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Who was?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — There were the Germs… Most of those bands, they had names, they had gigs, they had fliers before they learned how to tune their guitars. Within a few years, there were any number of bands, huge amounts. But then there’s always been a band on every fucking block. If you have a guitar, even if you can’t play it, you can start a band. Elvis and The Beatles made it possible for so many peripheral people to get laid. You know the narrative of punk is much like that of art. Art was a closed field. You had the approval of Donald Judd or a few others, or you’re nothing at all. In music, it was the same. How the hell could you approach these major record label owners, producers, A&R people … you couldn’t get past the door. You could start in the mailroom, like Sammy Glick, and that would be your best bet, and even that would be highly improbable. But then there’s all these people in the imitation bands that did, like, 500 singles, and 50 went to their friends, whether they liked it or not, and the rest were thrown out, but a few are left and record collectors will pay $1,000 for them. But they had to make an alternate universe. In the case of my zine, there were 5,000 made, and I threw out big trashcans full of them. I spent hours ripping them up, and I don’t regret it. I still have the motherfucking things. The other ones were Xerox, or offset. My second one was 100 or 200. I don’t know how many fanzines I did. Maybe 100 over the years. None of which I ever sold. I never sold a fanzine in my life, even if they’re on eBay for $500 or whatever. Most of them I destroyed myself or other people destroyed. Galleries and my family and SST Records destroyed most of my original work as well.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Just through carelessness or deliberately?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Well, there’s a thin line between carelessness and deliberateness… It’s very easy to have a box of original drawings moved from one part of the house to the part of the house where the rain rushes in. Why? I don’t know.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Randomness?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — No. It wasn’t random. It was willful. I had people close to me stealing as much of my work as they could, selling it on eBay. I didn’t know it. I’m not a cop. I do the art. I don’t have the time to guard it. For 10 years my work was not even considered art within the art world because of this punk rock stuff. That’s why I don’t want to dwell on it. You’ve got to have a sense of humor about it and move on. Art has its own peculiar economy. There are thousands of people still trying to track down something that Hermann Goering stole. But cops will laugh it off if it’s a work of art. One of my works can be worth a Rolls-Royce, but there’s not going to be a car chase, no all-points bulletin, or “be on the lookout…” I’ve never sold a print; I’ve never sold a fanzine. And people are spending $400 or more on those things that they think are from me. I don’t want any art attributed to me that is from someone else’s hand. I don’t have any assistants. Every line that’s done has been by my own hand.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s not just theft that’s an issue. Artists have security issues about legacy. Maybe Humphrey Bogart didn’t want to be resurrected in a Diet Coke commercial. Look at music that gets released posthumously. Maybe a musician didn’t want that take to be released, but it comes out anyway because he didn’t destroy it. In art, you have committees with no credentials deciding authenticity.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Well, look at my studio. Yeah, there’s a lot of half-done or partially done work … there’s nothing finished here. One day, I hope, there will be. There may or may not be. But the likelihood is that by the time I die there will be unfinished art…
GLENN O’BRIEN — Just get a shredder if you’re not feeling well.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — I’ve des-troyed a lot of my work myself. Posterity doesn’t bother me. I think when you die, it’s like going to sleep forever without dreaming. Realistically, how long is the world going to last? But art gives jobs to curators. Huge amounts are paid to preserve art from many periods, including the fairly recent, that the artists themselves didn’t think about. Sometimes, in fact, artists deliberately make it hard on the future conservationists, just for the hell of it, to be dicks, or to be a burden on posterity. I don’t do that. As cheap as the materials I use are, comparatively, they are archival. Whether that matters at all, I don’t know, but it says something about your intention. I didn’t take success as winning the lottery. It was actually getting to be scandalous, the way my work was held back. I’ve never taken anything for granted. I do things on Twitter nowadays, and it brings me down to earth with the idiocy of people, and I have somewhat of a conversation with a handful of people. I’m not the typical anti-collector artist, and it’s not that the people who sell or write about art are great villains. It’s just that I don’t socialize with those people. Hell, New York is not Viennese café society or Paris salons, where you have artists of great caliber talking art and influencing each other, one way or another … and LA, certainly not!
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s hard not to have any dialogue, but where does it come from?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — I get flooded with these motherfuckers who could be my grandchildren! It seems to me that my acceptance by the museum world, the gallery world, whatever, has been an excuse for people who want to project their own problems. They think it’s a lazy man’s way to riches. If they had any idea what went into it … when they were smoking joints and hanging out and learning tricks on their skateboards, it wasn’t like that for me. During the punk years I mostly went to see jazz. I wasn’t wearing a fucking beret and shooting dope. If anyone is really interested in the reality of the times, I made that movie Sir Drone with Mike Kelley, Mike Watt, and Richie Lee. It was about early LA punk rock. That’s really how it was. You know?
GLENN O’BRIEN — What do you think about the term “outsider art”?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Why the hell ask me?
GLENN O’BRIEN — You were saying, “People think of me as a punk rock artist.” I think there are a lot of people who are categorized as outsiders and dismissed when they could just as easily be an artist, plain and simple, no modifier.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Sometimes. But the term “outsider art” has become a genre in itself that people set out to be included in.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Outsider artist wants in!
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Outsider Artists or Primitivists or whatever… It’s like Juxtapoz magazine. For Christ sakes, when I was in my teens, I was reading Greenberg and Rosenberg, and I had stacks of Artforums. If you read my tweets, half the stuff I write about is about those fuckers. No, that’s not the direction I went. I had nothing to do with Smithson or even Warhol. Although I admire Warhol…
GLENN O’BRIEN — He was discriminated against because he’d been an illustrator.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Yes, he was. And his illustration work is actually pretty brilliant. It still is commercial art. It’s just done very well. It’s a shame, to me, although I don’t know that he could have worked any differently. I think he had to make a break with using his hand.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah, he did become a machine, like he said, but later he went back to drawing.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Like the Basquiat collaboration?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yes, but Basquiat, Scharf, and Keith Haring used to rag on him: “You’re the best draftsman. Why don’t you draw?” They pushed him.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — I remember seeing some of his later work, which did have a draftsman’s hand in it. But then you always wonder, “Did Warhol do it, or did he not?” You would know that, and according to you, he did, which is fairly interesting.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Well, the only stuff that there’s ever any question about really is the silkscreen stuff. He said it himself, “Anybody could make my work.”
RAYMOND PETTIBON — But those are editions. Which are as legitimate as anything else. Look, I have motherfuckers who have made huge amounts of money off me going back to the early days, who did prints with me that I don’t even consider prints. To me, prints are about working on a plate. If you know how hard it is to make etchings in the original, you know you have to start on a copper plate, put ground on it with an etching needle, do the drawing, put it in an acid bath, work out some more of it if need be. If it’s not the tint, then that’s another process. And then, each motherfucking one, you have to put etching ink on. Right? Then you have to scrape it off again with cheesecloth. And then you print it. You can imagine how time consuming that is. I took a class in printmaking from the local junior college, just so I could use their equipment. I’d already graduated from UCLA. But if you look, there’s a Rembrandt reference, and Goya. That’s how they were done. They were very labor-intensive. I mean, who the fuck is going to do all that? And I’ve got other things to do. I’d rather just use a reproduction. Okay? The look of my work did owe a lot to reproduction because I assumed that’s where it would end up. I see an edition in a San Francisco gallery, in a drawer, stacks of them, unsigned, un-numbered. The guy is still selling them on eBay for $2,500 $3,500. Collectors should know better than to buy things on eBay, which to me is just one big fencing operation which should be fucking closed down. You can’t get anything removed unless you make a police report. And to make a police report, that’s an ordeal, and the police will laugh at you if you come in to them with anything to do with art…
GLENN O’BRIEN — The cops don’t get it, but nobody knows how to regulate art because it’s inscrutable.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — I’ve been through a number of recessions. My art, if anything, did better from that because it was so underpriced. I survived those recessions by not having my money in the stock market or real estate, and this is while everyone around me, all the motherfuckers who make money from the transactions, try to get me to do it. The people obsessed with art and the bubble and the economy are just waiting — gloating — for a collapse. Which is fine with me. But I don’t see it as something even worthy of discussion. Investing in art … who the fuck does that hurt? It’s not like investing in Halliburton and the war industry… At least art doesn’t hurt anyone.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It is weird to buy something for millions of dollars then put it into storage.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — No one likes that. But there are speculators in any field, and how much art does the Metropolitan have that they’re never going to show? I don’t think it’s a major issue. I do know a little bit about economics. I consider myself pretty far to the left politically. But we don’t have anything close to an even playing field in the market in any field. And like I said, the art world has its own economy, and it’s not like the rest of the world’s. Fuck, not anyone can go into a gallery and buy art or even get the attention of the bitch up front.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Sure they want people to buy the work, keep it the rest of their lives, and then bequeath it to some museum — preferably with the gallery that sold it to them as a trustee, so it’s all in the family. Who really gains by that? It’s not the artists, and it’s not even the collector. Art schools are producing so many people with high expectations of making it. I never had any interest in making it as an artist. I made art because I like to make art. I don’t have to prove that point, but I spent 10 years without making a dime, and I was making as much art as I could. Call it my apprenticeship. Call it what you will. At times I teach. I make studio visits. I see gallery shows. I’m always completely open - minded, hoping to see the best, and not cynical, wanting to see somebody fail. But it’s so seldom like that.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You were saying that you didn’t do it to make money, and I think that’s a commonality with the people
who make good art. It’s something that they do … somebody said, “Art is work that is done for enjoyment.” Which is kind of a
narrow definition, but it’s something that really hit me.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — I would be doing it anyway. I love to read, and I love to write. I love to draw and paint, too. They interlock. I don’t separate them. I don’t need much. I can work in a corner. I grew up dirt-poor, although I didn’t always recognize it until later, and by then I didn’t care. I have no resentment against artists who are jet-setters and who have model girlfriends and own islands and all that. I’ve never had a competitive streak.
GLENN O’BRIEN — How did you get on Twitter?
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Damn, I’m trying to think of the reason behind it.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Tell me about Burma Shave. One of your recurrent Twitter themes.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — You get 140 characters on Twitter. You know what Burma Shave is?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yes, sure. For the benefit of the youth, it’s an old-time shaving cream that had roadside advertisements, one after another, making rhyming poems. You and I are the only ones who remember this.
RAYMOND PETTIBON — Probably. In the ’60s, Philip Morris bought the brand and killed the Burma Shave campaign. I can’t picture the exact revelation, my reason to do it, but it was to use the economy of the form to your advantage. Like haiku. To say the most in the least fashion.
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