Artist Raymond Pettibon is as hard to pin down as one of the laconic characters who populate his drawings. He lives at an undisclosed address in Southern California, prefers walking to driving, and, despite his international art stardom, doesn’t seem to have a reliable phone. It took several false starts and two interviews—the first of which was later found to be completely inaudible-to get Pettibon on the page. But when he finally called me on a Sunday night from a pay phone near the Pacific Ocean, he was soft-spoken and gracious, ready to discuss everything from Gumby to Charles Manson to moose hunting in Alaska.
MAX BLAGG: I was thinking if I couldn’t get in touch with you, maybe I could make up your answers from some of the captions in your works. Do you think that would be true to you?
RAYMOND PETTIBON: I don’t see why not. It would certainly represent something that is a big part of my work. There is a very fractured personality or multiple personalities there. So I could sign off on that.
MB: You mix your own writing with quotes that you lift from various texts. It’s sometimes hard to tell if you wrote the lines or if you just pulled a quote from somewhere.
RP: A lot of times the actual line is changed.
MB: Do the quotes that you use tend to come from what you’re reading at the moment, or do you gather things, make notes in books you’re reading, and double back later?
RP: They’re not always from what I’m reading at the moment, but they can be. I don’t seem to have enough time to read, like I used to.
MB: We’ll keep that in mind. Your real name is Ray Ginn, pronounced like [President] Reagan. Did this cause some attachment to Ronald and Nancy in your often unflattering depictions of them?
RP: Yeah, I was called that sometimes as a kid. But I don’t know that it had any influence on Reagan appearing in my work. He was around, though-he was governor of California before he became president. I show at Regen Projects, too . . .
MB: A lot of your work has this very nostalgic feeling to it—the baseball players and the noir characters, all those square-chinned guys that look like they stepped out of a Chandler novel—but it’s also incredibly modern. How do you combine the two elements?
RP: Part of that probably goes back to the source of a lot of my drawings. Back in the ’80s, a lot of the images I used were from TV or from films on TV.
MB: So you would draw directly from the TV?
RP: Yes. There are lots of guns and action in my drawings, and part of that is just to make them more interesting. Because you can go through a whole film and it’s mostly talking heads and little else until the action scenes, and they’re usually violence or physical stuff. Same with baseball, or any sport. Except I find pitching and batting are visually very striking.
MB: The baseball players are usually in these old-time Babe Ruth-type outfits.
RP: It’s better for movement. It’s like drawing drapery for the old masters, more than, say, with drawing a superhero, where it’s all tight-it may as well have been painted on. That becomes anatomy, and that’s never been one of my strong points.
MB: I guess that’s why you like Gumby, right? How did Gumby slide into your work?
RP: I saw him on TV. The appeal was that he could go into books and become part of the story.
MB: I just saw a documentary, Gumby Dharma , about Gumby’s creator, Art Clokey. He was talking about how he had to change Gumby’s head shape so Gumby didn’t look like a penis.
RP: Well, TV executives . . . there’s always going to be someone reacting like that.
MB: Let me ask you about trains. I love the caption on one of your many train drawings that says, “When I see a train, I want to take it in my arms.” That’s a poem to me. Do you consider yourself a poet as well as a visual artist?
RP: Not a poet, because my work is also visual—although William Blake did both. I don’t feel that I decided deliberately I’m going to write something and have it stand alone. Somewhere by the end I think it would probably revert to imagery.
MB: Does one precede the other? Does the drawing come first or the verbal part, or both simultaneously?
RP: Well, sometimes it can be all of those things. Nowadays it probably starts more often with the image. Although some of the images are like recurring set pieces. And if you don’t use an image now you might have a place to put it in further down the line—and I have a lot of unfinished drawings.
MB: Looking at your work, it’s hard to date it. It has this continuous forward momentum. It’s not like it’s radically altered over the past 30 years. You found your style pretty early on.
RP: Yeah. Well, I don’t know if it’s good to be stuck at one place. I’m probably too close to home on that. Because that can happen-where I’m not the best judge of my own work. It’s inevitable that everyone’s first drawing they draw is much like their fingerprint. It’s inescapable that one has an identifiable style. It’s not a major issue with me, but I never wanted to have a distinctive signature style so much.
MB: Your work is very effective individually but even more when it’s an assemblage. Some of the gallery installations look almost like a book exploded on the wall. Is that what you’re doing for your new show at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, “The Cutting Room Floor Show”?
RP: It’s going to be more groups of drawings, collage, montage, editing, cutting-in fact, I’m referencing film more. Also illustration, cartoons, narrative. It won’t be a huge departure, but it will be more than just a collection of individual drawings.
MB: You live in Southern California. Do you see a lot of other artists around? Do you hang out with artists?
RP: There’s very little of that, simply because of the geography. Manhattan is such an enclosed place—or maybe now it’s more Brooklyn—but there you run into people you know much more than you do here. There are neighborhoods here, but you can go 10 years without even knowing your neighbor.
MB: So do you prefer this more isolated situation?
RP: Yeah, no one else can help me with my work. I think I do best when I am just left alone. I did more work when there weren’t any shows to do. So it’s self-motivating and self-generating in a way.
MB: What do you spend your money on?
RP: I don’t . . . There’s really so little that I need beyond, like, rent. I don’t have extravagant tastes or expenses—like with cars, clothes, or whatever.
MB: What kind of car do you drive?
RP: I have a van, but I inherited it. And I don’t drive often, because the parking makes it too much of a nuisance. And I could never go back to commuting or anything. I’d just get fed up with it.
MB: We haven’t talked about Elvis and Charles Manson yet. Do those subjects fall in the past now?
RP: No, Manson is still a figure, and he comes up once in a while. Whenever I reference something, it usually comes back at some point. I don’t know why.
MB: Is the image of Manson in your work recurrent because he’s such a part of California culture, or because of the effect he has had on American culture?
RP: I’m not justifying anything that happened-the violence and the killings. But the effect he and the Manson Family have had has been amplified much, much more than the run-of-the-mill murder case. Manson especially, because of his complicity in the case. It’s very rare that someone gets the death penalty for charges of conspiracy, for his influence, for his Svengali-Rasputin act. But that’s exactly what both fascinated and horrified the public about Charles Manson back then-that someone like that could put such a spell on their children, on the girl next door. Seeing that made you feel that anything was possible, nothing was safe.
MB: 1969 was such a strange time in California. There was Altamont that year, too. I hitchhiked to L.A. in 1971, and people were still very scared and hostile, especially if you had long hair—Manson single-handedly destroyed the hitchhiking industry.
RP: Oh, you think it was related to that? Yeah, that could be. There was actually some pretty weird stuff happening on the West Coast, in L.A., Santa Cruz . . . Well, you know, this is the serial-murder capital of the world, but particularly down here at that time, in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
MB: You were pretty young then, in ’69 and ’70. You were just a kid.
RP: In ’69 I would have been 12. I missed my window of opportunity by a couple of years or so.
MB: Can we touch on current affairs? Do you think Sarah Palin is going to enter your universe soon?
RP: I haven’t thought about it one way or another. I’m not so much trying to keep on top of these things as a way to influence people. Even, like, Ronald Reagan—I still do works on him or J. Edgar Hoover or Abraham Lincoln, and, you know, on the ’60s. And even with current figures from politics, I work more in the vein of the Roman satirists, Horace or Catullus, who would name names just to put it on record, that this is how things were. Anyway, the way political history is passed down is influenced and spoiled by the closeness of the writers to the political figures that they’re writing about. It’s a sad state of affairs, but there’s probably more veracity of reporting in my work than there is in the newspapers.
MB: The truth is supposedly out there, but it’s hard to find. Your work has a lot more truth in it than what’s being fed to the general public right now.
RP: I’m not claiming any ultimate truth or that I know the way into it, but when you’re manufacturing journalism wholesale . . . Well, in communist Russia, their major organ was Pravda, which means “truth.” The Russians knew how to read between the lines. They didn’t take their literature literally.
MB: Like that genius novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, which was written during Stalin’s regime. He had to write it as this elaborate parable. Even then it didn’t get published for 30 years.
RP: You had to write in your own code, or sometimes you couldn’t write anything down at all. You know? Oral transmission. But we are in a time when we shouldn’t fall under the spell of taking things literally.
MB: So what would somebody like Lincoln say? Do you feel you can speak the truth through him by putting new words in that reliable mouth?
RP: Well, he was considered one of the great orators, but, if I have a voice or any commonality with anyone on that subject, it would probably be more John Wilkes Booth, who was an actor, a Shakespearean from the great acting family of the day. But then he condensed it into “Et tu, Brute,”—with a gun instead of a knife.
MB: His “Et tu, Brute” moment.
RP: His interpretation.
MB: A very avant-garde interpretation.
RP: Then he jumped to the stage, broke his goddamn leg bowing . . .
MB: He took a bow? I didn’t know that.
RP: Well, I think his leg shattered, so he kind of had to. No, Lincoln’s not one of my favorite historical figures. But to answer the question: I really don’t have my own voice expressed in any given piece.
MB: I guess it’s more what people take from it. There seem to be a lot of ways to read your work. Somebody might see something different in the caption of a drawing than what I’m seeing.
RP: Some of the kickback can be pretty odd. Well, if I were asked to explain it, I would tell you there’s not necessarily one point or punch line or message, but more something I was thinking that made it that way—and it’s not just random association or random editing or just putting one phrase with another.
MB: William S. Burroughs said, “When you cut word lines, the future leaks out.” I wouldn’t compare your work to his, but I like that idea-of things being diced up and a new truth coming out of them—like I see occurring in your work.
RP: Yeah, but he did it more explicitly and physically, with scissors and glue . . . Most writers do similar things in their minds. It’s how the mind works, basically. My work is more driven by the creative word. It’s immersed in other writing and printed work, rather than drawn so much from life or past experience. Of course, that’s all part of it.
MB: Thoreau said something to the effect that shooting a moose is like going to your neighbor’s barn at night and shooting his horses. I just wondered what your take on moose hunting is, or hunting wolves from planes, or hunting in general.
RP: Can you repeat the Thoreau quote?
MB: I’m riffing on Sarah Palin for her being the great moose hunter and a woman who runs after wolves.
RP: Well, Thoreau, he had his little plot by the pond. Already in his time Massachusetts had been pretty heavily populated, so he wasn’t cut off that much really. Alaska is more like the last frontier.
MB: Okay, Ray, last question: Do you think art can make a difference?
RP: Well, art comes after the fact, as a witness to certain things that have happened. There’s an urgency in it. A lot of people like to document it or put it on the record. I’m not in those dire conditions. But eight years have run their course, and this mess was going to happen from the first week. So, no, I don’t have any grandiose illusions about changing anything. I think, more likely, the effect of critically charged art designed to influence the public probably has a negative effect on the message, the same way every time Sean Penn or any Hollywood figure gets up on a soapbox, that just turns off—
MB: A lot of people.
RP: Including the kids who vote. In this country, I don’t know if it’s possible for anyone to come out of the art field and be a person of influence, because it just doesn’t work with the general public. But, I think at times I’ve had a platform where—I guess at the Venice Biennale or Documenta [in Kassel, Germany] or certain shows-it’s not so much that I was able to influence the change, but I was able to get a message noted or put an idea on the table. You’re not going to find out any other way, because [with the media] the transmission of ideas is so centralized. The media is really coming from just one place, and there’s so much that’s not even up for discussion. I haven’t come to a point where now suddenly I’m going to be a stridently political commentator for the rest of my career. But it was worth doing political works, just to see if I could approach the subject and do it in a way that’s not the condescending, infantile, cartoon-like language of politics that we have today, like The Wall Street Journal editorial page, or whatever. That is, to me, much less truthful than the Yellow Kid [from Hogan’s Alley] or Krazy Kat or even Nancy or Mary Worth. And much, much less than Gumby.