Interview: Artist Raymond Pettibon

The artist discusses his iconic work and his recent show at David Zwirner gallery

sonic youth black flag pettibon

Album artwork by Raymond Pettibon

In January and February of this year, the artists Raymond Pettibon and Marcel Dzama held a collaborative show titled ‘Forgetting the Hand‘ at David Zwirner gallery in New York. The show was a lively smorgasbord of lettering and pop culture imagery, layered and splattered across the gallery walls. Viewing it was like walking into a living sketchbook.

Pettibon is best known to music fans for his iconic artwork for Black Flag and Sonic Youth. He designed the logo for Black Flag, named the band, and created provocative artwork that was used on flyers and album covers (Pettibon’s brother, Greg Ginn, is the band’s founder). 

In our interview, Pettibon discusses ‘Forgetting the Hand,’ his work for Black Flag, and more.

Dan Redding: Are you able to take some time off after your show or do you work every day no matter what?

Raymond Pettibon: It depends. I haven’t been working as much as I usually do. I have a show in London coming up really soon so I have to keep on top of that.

Was ‘Forgetting the Hand’ the first time you did a collaborative show of that nature?

Let’s see… I believe so. I’ve done a few collaborations here and there but not to that extent.

marcel dzama and raymond pettibon

Detail of artwork in ‘Forgetting the Hand’ by Marcel Dzama and Raymond Pettibon

What was the experience of collaboration like? I would imagine that must’ve been very different from the way you’ve worked for many years – was it something totally new?

It wasn’t so much like that. I know Marcel’s work and I love his work. It worked out fine. We were on the same page, literally.

The show included an image of David Bowie with an inscription that said ‘Thank you.’ Was Bowie a personal inspiration for you?

That was more on Marcel’s part. That was done I guess shortly after Bowie died and he was on a lot of peoples’ minds. For me, I don’t know that I would say he was an influence so much, but I liked his music and his lyrics.

Raymond Pettibon Marcel Dzama

Detail of work in ‘Forgetting the Hand’ by Marcel Dzama and Raymond Pettibon

When you made the transition from the underground punk rock world to the mainstream art world, was that jarring?

To me, there wasn’t a transition at all. I never considered my work part of the punk scene or music scene of any sort. It held me back. It’s still something that is kind of hard to conceive… It’s buried in time as being such a part of my background the way that people seem to think so. It really wasn’t in the first place.

I guess what I imagine in my mind – and maybe it’s totally invented – I imagine a young artist working on punk flyers in a messy bedroom, and then sometime later, being embraced in the art world where people are drinking champagne at gallery openings. That’s what I imagine and it seems like it would be a change of environment for a young artist. Is that anywhere near the truth?

I wouldn’t put it that way. I did a handful of album covers and a dozen or so flyers. Those weren’t done as album covers or as flyers – they were like any other artwork of mine. There wasn’t a big demarcation point from that to what I did later. It’s pretty much the same thing that I continue to do to this day.

You designed the Black Flag logo and named the band. Did the name of the band and the logo concept arrive in your head at the same time?

The logo is of a black flag, so it goes with that.

It just seems so complete – I’m sure you didn’t think of it as a brand at the time, but the name, the logo, and the imagery all seem so cohesive.

Not so much. Logos aren’t part of what I do. They asked for one so I did it. There wasn’t any art direction involved or broad concepts any more than anyone else naming the band and doing a logo.

In your experience, how has the American climate of political correctness or censorship changed over the decades?

I think there’s self-censorship if you let it. I’ve never censored my work. After 9/11, I didn’t see that as a reason to hold back – if anything, it almost necessitated me speaking on the subject of politics because there was a complete vacuum as far as artists went after that. Politics isn’t my favorite subject but it’s like any other subject – it’s fair game… Going back to the Regan era of artists signing every petition against Nicaragua and Somoza, and back to Vietnam… the protests and the visibility of the protests were so much more then because, in my opinion, there was more invested personally in it because there was a draft… It was more about self-interest than it was about fellowship with the Vietnamese, or in this case the Arabs. It was more about saving your ass from the draft.

You and your brother Greg both have such prolific careers. When you guys were growing up, did you inspire each other to work so hard?

Oh, I dunno… We didn’t inspire each other. There wasn’t any competition. It’s something I do as an artist and writer and painter. That’s what I do. I don’t think I’m any more prolific than anyone else. As an artist, I make art. I didn’t become an artist to become a figure of the art world.

Black Flag Raymond Pettibon

Artwork by Raymond Pettibon

Also in regards to your artwork – especially in the work you did for Black Flag – there are many depictions of evil themes, including Charles Manson and situations of violence and abuse. Where did the impulse to depict evil arise from?

I don’t know. It’s just a subject matter, it’s not an endorsement. I did a handful of Manson drawings… If anything, punk rockers were upset with that, not because they were depictions of evil but because they were depictions of hippies. Punk was so anti-sixties and hippie counterculture.

What musicians are you listening to currently?

It turns out to be primarily rap, probably… They said the same things about rap that they said about punk. That it was just a flash in the pan. In a way, punk never really survived past its origins. It never developed [beyond] The Ramones or Sex Pistols… Punk kind of cut its own balls off. I don’t think there was much room for growth. It was a reactive music for legitimate reasons against the worst excesses of the hippies and progressive music. I used to love the first Ramones record, the second one… After that, I’m not even familiar with their music at all.

What do you mean that punk cut its own balls off?

It didn’t leave much room for expansion. Everything influences something. There’s a reason to be influenced by the past, and there’s post-punk and all kinds of things. It’s not something that left itself much room for discovery or progress. These are all generalizations, mind you.

How has fatherhood impacted your artwork?

I don’t think it has affected the artwork… The kid is getting to an age where he’s starting to make art and I’d like to do some collaborations with him when the time comes.

Is it inspiring to see a child’s imagination come out in drawing?

Yeah, sure. Definitely. As he gets more independent out of the cradle and crawling stage, especially.

What importance, if any, does the reception of a show have to you? Do pay attention to the response from the audience and critics? Do you care?

It’s not something I think about beforehand. I don’t draw for the reception of it. I do have respect for the audience and critics as well. But that doesn’t mean I pander to them or think ahead of time about how it will be received or let it affect the work.

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