The Fabulist

Riding along with Raymond Pettibon.

Light / Dark

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. 
Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

—Oscar Wilde

At a dinner in New York a few years ago, I sat across the table from artist Raymond Pettibon, who sat next to the boyfriend of a renowned fashionista. Over plates of pizza and pasta and many glasses of Nero d’Avola, I watched Raymond and the boyfriend engage in what looked like deep, serious conversation. I was jealous. I’m as fascinated with Raymond’s mind as I am his work, and seeing his moving mouth and expressive hands filled me with FOMO.

After dinner, a group of us stepped out to the sidewalk. Someone suggested we go for a nightcap at a bar around the corner. All were in, except for Raymond and his girlfriend, who said they were tired and needed to get home. Walking to the bar, I fell into step with the man who’d been talking to Raymond at the table.

“That guy I sat next to—what’s his name, Ray? Wow, so interesting!” he said.

“How so?” I asked.

“He’s a dog breeder. He breeds pit bulls. Pit bulls that fight to the death in these highly illegal dogfights. There’s this whole underground culture. Apparently he’s one of the top breeders.”

From the doors of the Redondo Beach Moose Lodge to the walls of big-ticket galleries, Pettibon remains a true hooper. Photo by Jason Schmidt/courtesy of David Zwirner

I smiled from the crown of my head to the tips of my toes. I’d always heard that Raymond was a great fabulist, but this was the first time I’d seen it in action. I was reminded of the ninth grade, when high school felt like prison and, to pass the time, a group of us would gather at “our” bench in the cafeteria and, as we liked to call it, “make shit up.” 

But beyond that sense of fun and playfulness that’s typically beaten out of us in adulthood, Raymond’s pit-bull-breeder alter ego seemed like a window into his process. While his work spans many subjects and themes—Charles Manson, baseball, trains, vixens, homicidal teenage punks, Elvis, tons of surfing—the one constant is the marriage/collision/disconnect of image and text. Some pieces do this in a wry, straightforward manner. Others are like great song lyrics: They could be interpreted a thousand different ways, and none would be wrong.

“Where the image stops and the words begin is not that clear-cut,” he told me about a decade ago in his Venice, California, studio. “It’s more a give-and-take, a back-and-forth dialectic almost in between the two.” We were standing in front of one of his wave paintings in progress—a big, rifling left—and his hand gestures seemed to almost hula with the pitching lip. “My favorites are the ones that have some lyrical space beyond a strict interpretation, the ones that I couldn’t put into any descriptive terms what I was doing. It’s like swimming in words and letters. I place myself in this state of consciousness where I’m receptive to associations.”

“What comes first, the image or the text?” I asked.

“I can start with a wave, or whatever image it is, and I have the confidence that I can make something out of it with the words. And the words are something I depend on. I don’t think my wave paintings would be of much interest without the words.”

I’ve known Raymond for nearly 25 years and have written several pieces about him, most recently an essay for his new book, Point Break. I keep writing about him because I keep learning from him, partly through our conversations, but mostly by osmosis—in his singular and sometimes awkward presence, and in the sea of work that fills his studio. His output is monstrous. Up until recently, he seemed to be always working, if not in the literal sense of painting or drawing, then in his constantly churning mind: He ventriloquizes, channels voices, inhabits the characters he depicts.

NO TITLE (HERE AND THERE…), 1995, ink and pen on paper, 17 x 14 inches, courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner.

“I wouldn’t call myself schizophrenic, but I can write in multiple voices,” he told me recently on a video call. “Nowadays I suppose that’s frowned upon. You know, you have to know your lane. And God forbid if you write like Duke Kahanamoku instead of somebody who’s coming into Hawaii from [elsewhere].” 

Unshaven, with messy gray-black hair, Raymond wore a turquoise tee. I’m pretty sure he was sitting up in bed. Surrounding him, like a constellation, were his smaller drawings. He was characteristically digressive, the piling up of thoughts palpable on his long, angular face.

I first encountered Raymond’s work in the early 1980s. His album covers for Black Flag sat across the room from my 5’6″ McCoy single-fin. His flyers were pasted at punk venues like the Whisky, Stardust Ballroom, Olympic Auditorium, and Madame Wong’s. His Black Flag logo could be seen on many a sweaty, stage-diving kid’s T-shirt.

In 1990, when I moved in with my first serious girlfriend—Ana Rita, in Sydney, Australia—one of the first things we did was tape the cover of Sonic Youth’s Goo on our bedroom wall. A black-and-white drawing by Raymond, it depicts a cool, modish-looking couple in dark sunglasses, he with his arm around her, she about to take a drag off a cigarette. The text reads, “I stole my sister’s boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat, and flash. Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road.” Raymond’s drawing added a certain “on the lam” tenor to our days.

In 1998, when I was the editor of Surfing, we used one of Raymond’s drawings in the magazine. That led to us meeting in person at one of his openings in LA. Tall, shaggy, and bear-like, Raymond wore paint-splattered sneakers, loose-fitting trousers with a necktie for a belt, and a wrinkled dress shirt. His dark, greasy hair was tousled as if he’d just woken from a long nap. I told him that my favorite part of mag making was writing captions for the photos.

NO TITLE (WHICH COMMANDS THE…), 1995, ink and pen on paper, 14 x 23 ¼ inches, courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner.

“That’s a skill or talent that has a lot in common with what I do,” he said. “[In my work], I think a lot of people consider the words dissonant from the image, that they’re just thrown on randomly. That’s not the case.”

His mien was both aloof and fully present. He spoke so softly that it was hard to make out what he was saying. I got the sense that there was lots more to exchange, but that talking might not be his preferred mode of communication, especially in a crowded gallery on the night of his opening. Someone interrupted. Soon he was surrounded. He looked like he couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Born in 1957 and raised in Hermosa Beach by academic parents, Raymond had a childhood filled with books, comics, basketball, baseball, and surfing. He did not go to art school, but studied economics at UCLA, to which he rode the bus from Hermosa: “Two and a half hours there, two and a half hours back. I’d work the whole ride. I do my best writing in transit.”

When his brother, Greg Ginn (Ginn is the family name; Pettibon is Raymond’s nom de plume), formed Black Flag in 1976, Raymond was appointed chief graphic designer. He first designed their famous logo (four black bars), and then a slew of album covers. He also published ’zines of his texts and drawings, with catchy titles like “Tripping Corpse,” “The Language of Romantic Thought,” and “Virgin Fears.” For much of the next decade he remained decidedly underground, exhibiting in small galleries and record stores.

NO TITLE (I’LL GO WITH…), 2003, ink and pen on paper, 26 x 39 1/2 inches, courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner.

As his work evolved, so did his audience. In the mid-’80s, a handful of renowned LA artists—Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Paul McCarthy, and Ed Ruscha among them—embraced Raymond, and subsequently so did a number of key collectors and curators. Soon he would occupy an almost contradictory post. He was a bona fide global art star, his drawings and paintings shown in prestigious galleries and museums, while remaining an indie icon.

Over the last couple of decades, his work, profile, persona, and myth have swollen exponentially: “Raymond is the William Blake of our time,” the artist Marcel Dzama told me. A Pen of All Work, a major solo exhibition of Raymond’s work featuring more than 700 drawings from the 1960s to the present, was on view in 2017 at the New Museum, marking his first museum survey in New York. I observed and marveled. Covering three floors, it was a polyphonic delight—some words channeling the Bible, others the foul mouths of Manson girls. Yet again, I was awestruck by his output. It must be exhausting to be Raymond, I thought. In 2021, Sotheby’s auctioned one of his pieces—a surf painting—for a reported $2,682,000.

“Raymond kind of lives in his own world,” artist Doug Aitken told me. “And the closest we’ll ever get to seeing that world is through his images. His art is so unfiltered. There’s a raw, brutal honesty to it that goes back to when he was drawing flyers for Black Flag. You see the trajectory of this work; it goes from Xerox flyers taped to telephone poles to galleries and museums. And the work is never compromised. It always has that raw brutality, that irreverence. There’s just an inability to compromise.”

Point Break: Raymond Pettibon, Surfers and Waves, the aforementioned hardcover book launched in June 2022, features more than 100 of his surf paintings and drawings. Those bursting blue waves and pithy, witty words all bound together reveal the breadth of Raymond’s surf obsession.

“Why such a big interest in surfing?” I asked during our video call.

“I was an impressionable kid who grew up near the beach,” he said. “But I didn’t take it up—probably for the better, because it’s like a rip tide: not totally under your control. I knew kids who became more surfers than people.” He paused, considered his words. “That’s a comment I take back, but there’s some truth [to it].”

NO TITLE (DRAWING IT… DRAWING IT…), 2005, ink and pen on paper, 22 x 29 3/4 inches, courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner.

I was reminded of one of the paintings in the book. Gliding across a curling wave, the cartoon character Gumby does a jazzy look-back that perfectly fits the caption: “Lived, loved, wasted, died. P.S.-Surfed.” I told him that those words could be inscribed on my grave, and off we went into other ideas.

We talked about the art world, and how the higher you go, the thicker the bullshit. Raymond, or at least my idealized version of him, has never played that game. He sometimes skips out on his own openings. I told him that I respected this, being all about the work and not the accolades. I mentioned highly ambitious artists I know who strategically place themselves at the right parties, the right dinners.

“That’s just not in my blood, that’s not in my personality, and that’s not a model for anyone else to follow,” he said.

We got back to his surf works. 

“They’re not about surfing specifically, and you don’t have to be a surfer to get what they’re about,” he told me. 

I tried to get more out of him, but to no avail. In our conversations over the years, he’s occasionally come close to explaining it.

Indie icon, global settings: Installation view of Pettibon’s FRENCHETTE exhibition at David Zwirner Paris. Photo by Jack Hems/courtesy of David Zwirner.

“The economy of means is one of the best things that drawing has going for itself,” he said in 2011. “The great masters of drawing tend to have that elegant line. That tends to be an ongoing struggle with me within each individual work. I’ve done a number of waves before, but the point of view or take on it can get old. So I try to differentiate from that. When you can do something that seems new, the economy of the sublime—that’s what I’m trying to do.”

“There’s two kinds of surfing,” he told me in 2016. “There’s big-wave surfing, and there’s the surfing that is changing out of your wetsuit in the parking lot, the kind of locker-room jock culture. Big-wave surfing is of epic proportions. It has to do with what you call ‘the sublime,’ going back to Edmund Burke. It has to do with making artwork about nature at its most epic, its most ferocious. Caspar David Friedrich. Frederic Edwin Church. [JMW] Turner. So I’m speaking of the differences between big-wave surfing and small-wave surfing: Big-wave surfing separates oneself from the parking lot and flashing some Gidget [while] changing out of your trunks. In the lineup, it’s between you and the wave. That separates the men from the boys; it separates Greg Noll from Fabian. I used to have dreams—almost nightmares—of waves when they were so big, and being caught inside and it’s like a washing machine, and as far as you can dive down, you can get your eyes full of sand and you’re still being tossed and turned. It’s been many years since I’ve had those dreams and nightmares. I don’t dream much anymore, but that one was recurrent.”

“Raymond always wanted to be a surfer,” musician Mike Watt told me. (Raymond made the art for Watt’s first record with his band Minutemen.) “He obviously has a passion for it. To me, I think it’s this connect. You don’t have to have the correct words for this interface with reality. In fact, you’re part of it. You’re trying to ride it, and you’re trying to channel this force. He likes this idea, the things that make us know we’re alive. It seems this is part of his work: ‘How do I know I’m alive?’ Almost a Greek thing of ‘How do we know what we know?’ kind of shit. He likes the mystery, too, and the observer being part of the work.”

When I spoke with the art critic Dave Hickey just a few months before he died, he said, “I think for Raymond surfing is a big, sustaining idea. As Lou Reed said in ‘Heroin,’ ‘It’s my life and it’s my wife.’ Surfing is a primal metaphor. If you have a dream about success, it’s about riding a big wave.

In studio, NYC, 2019. Photo by Jason Schmidt/courtesy of David Zwirner.

If you have an anxiety dream, and you’re having dinner on La Cienega, and you look up and there’s a 40-foot wave above your head… It’s a primal metaphor that kind of gets into your life.”

Raymond, via video call, pulled out an issue of Surfer magazine from 1977 and read aloud a few of the captions (“taunting the inevitable while avoiding the horns”). He told me that he grew up reading surf magazines and was fascinated by the culture, the language. “I was struck by the captions. You know exactly what year the issue is from.”

I asked if those magazines are in his mind when he makes his surf works.

NO TITLE (GIDGET GOOEY. “OOOOO!”…), 1995, ink and pen on paper, 22 ⅛ x 15 1/8 inches, courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner.

“I don’t draw from a photo,” he said. “Usually they’re composites. They start as that and then I freestyle on them. I never learned the skills from drawing from nature, or models. On the other hand, I think it’s good, at least in my case, to have some reference as a starting point rather than recalling from your dreams or your imagination or your history. Every surf drawing or painting of mine is different from the last. I’m trying to find something new in it as I start it, and then there’s fits and starts, there’s false starts, and then you’re trying to work yourself out of that hole. I could do 10 surf drawings a day if I wanted to. Working big is actually easier than working small. I’m still learning each time I pick up the brush or the pen. And, starting with a blank canvas or paper, I don’t have it all in my mind.”

“I can write profusely for days and nights,” Raymond told me a few years back. “I don’t have writer’s block or that same thing with the images. I can always do something with anything. I mean, it’s a challenge to me to take the most ridiculous image and make a story out of that. Like, you know, walking into the studio, if you put your eye onto something, I have the confidence, whatever it is, to make something of interest that’s worth telling. Of course that’s not for me to judge, but it could be anything.”

He was getting at the fabulist thing, the riffing and the improvising à la the jazz musicians who’d play at the Lighthouse, which featured in his Hermosa Beach youth the same way the surfers and surf shops did. I sensed that Raymond’s mind works like a method actor’s. The artist Gomez Bueno told me how he and Raymond would go to openings, concerts, Dodgers games, and horse races together. Gomez would pull up in front of Raymond’s studio in Long Beach and toot his horn. Raymond would come out and hop in the car. Gomez would ask how he was doing, and Raymond might say, “Much better now that Paris and I broke up,” and so would begin an hourlong conversation through LA traffic about Raymond’s fucked-up relationship with Paris Hilton. Or it might be “Been getting my moonsaults down,” and he’d launch into details of his training regimen as a pro wrestler. Or it might be about fighting in Vietnam, albeit from the Viet Cong side. “It was always very creative and colorful,” said Gomez. “And I was just totally blown away by his wealth of knowledge, how he could just keep pulling up details. It was like witnessing someone creating a work of art, just with his talking.”

I brought this up with Raymond, and the conversation took a surprising turn.

NO TITLE (STR8 LINE.), 2020, acrylic and ink on paper, 59 1/2 x 99 1/2 inches, courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner.

“I’ve moved away from the art world, and even making art, over the last couple of years,” he said. “And it has nothing to do with COVID. I’ve been in the game for a long time—my whole life, basically. And I could be throwing any garbage into the art world and it’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, great, fantastic, sell it!’ People see an artwork of mine and it’s a Pettibon because it has the same line work, or it’s the styling of the lettering I do, or it’s a surf [painting]. And, beyond that, they’re interchangeable, you know? That’s not to say I’m going to quit doing it and taking it seriously for the work itself, within the work itself. I’ve kind of taken a hiatus from that because it does make me question what the hell I’ve been doing. It shouldn’t matter, and it really doesn’t, but it’s mattered just enough for me to stop and throw my hands up and say, ‘Okay, I’ll take a break here and write. I’ll devote my energy to small, Twitter-sized stories, which can’t be monetized in any way, which is fine for me, because I’m just burnt out on the art world.’”

Raymond paused, collecting his thoughts.

“It’s not that I’ve run out of material or words or pictures. I’ve got enough of those in my head or in my notes to last several lifetimes.”

Images excerpted from Point Break: Raymond Pettibon, Surfers and Waves. Published by David Zwirner Books, 2022, 192 pages. Use your TSJ member discount in our bookshop and purchase a copy here.

[Feature Image: NO TITLE (BUT THE SAND…), 2011, acrylic, ink, and pastel on paper, 80 x 126 ½ inches, courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner.]