On ViewThe New Museum
February 8 – April 9, 2017
Yet again, the New Museum has fashioned an exhibition with a nearly limitless collection of work. Encapsulating absurdly prodigious and outrageously stimulating works, Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work is a blistering retrospective of Pettibon’s over five-decade career, and is the artist’s first major survey in New York City.
Featuring over 800 artworks (maybe even more than 900 depending on who you ask), this major exhibition includes, though is not limited to, Pettibon’s famous wave drawings, his record cover designs and punk flyers from the 1980s, and of course his iconic image-cum-handwritten-text ink drawings so widely recognized—a motif that is irrefutably the artist’s greatest conceit.
While the show almost demands the viewer to commit to the Sisyphean task of engaging with each and every drawing, zine, and artist book, as well as a few videos, the sheer amount almost seems manageable when considering that the exhibited works represent roughly less than five percent of Pettibon’s entire oeuvre.
Unlike the recent Kai Althoff retrospective at MoMA, curated by former member of the New Museum cohort, Laura Hoptman, A Pen of All Work is not an infuriating (albeit beautiful) mash-up, but rather an approachable and carefully organized collection and stunning study that honestly offers a succinct examination of Pettibon’s productive history.
Much of the credit for this goes to the curators Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari, who with deft expertise succeeded in curating the myriad of works into a number of subdivisions that help schematize this treasury: political and satirical drawings on the fourth floor, Manson drawings and photocopied zines on the third, Gumby paintings on the second, and so on… Impressively, the show is able to subjugate its viewers to unbridled excess, while keeping the galleries of the museum open and airy (despite the crowds), never feeling too inundated.
But praise must also go to the artist, and by extension, the work itself—graphic visions that instantaneously gratify the senses with great simplicity and wit. This is not to say that each work is without complexity and hermeticism, but rather that each drawing is carefully crafted to deliver a swift intellectual punch. The immediacy of impact, whether it is the beauty of his pen stroke, the rendering of his figures, or the humor and erudition of his illustrative writings inked across the surface, can both induce abrupt seduction and establish a sustained and intimate engagement for a lifetime.
Despite its scope, A Pen of All Work does a worthy job of showcasing Pettibon’s humble beginnings, displaying drawings from his childhood that he later reworked and added new textual insights to, as well as the individual ink drawings from his celebrated graphic novel Captain Chains (1978). Throughout, one of the most striking stylistic tropes of Pettibon’s art is his dark humor, or darkness ipso facto, a theme so ubiquitous in his work, it is only too befitting of the time, if not timeless. My favorite, No Title (Reading the rings…) (1991), a small drawing of Ronald Reagan’s asshole, with sentences strewn across stating: “Reading the rings of Reagan’s asshole,” or “Memory selects, distorts, organizes, conceals, and by these, evaluates; then, fixes!” is a wonderful example of Pettibon’s grave intelligence, haughty perversion, and satirical banter—qualities I believe are indispensable to weather our current political whirlwind.