Raymond Pettibon and The Soft Clay of our Generation

Text by Sozita Goudouna

All I am really asking is for you to look at Gumby with the same kind of respect that you would if it was some historical figure or Greek statue [1]

Raymond Pettibon No Title (We have read…), 2020 Ink and colored pencil on paper

Tennis Elbow 70 Raymond Pettibon

“He did work at Macy’s for a time, where he amused himself by teaching parrots to say motherfucker but that didn’t work at all”

Curated by Sozita Goudouna

November 5–19 2020

Tuesday — Saturday 12–6 pm

45 White St

New York, NY 10013

Store window displays were used in the ’50s and ’60s to launch art careers. In the daytime, artists, like Andy Warhol, painted billboards and designed display windows for Bonwit Teller, Tiffany, and Bloomingdale’s. Warhol was one of the artists who understood the potential of the store-front window to promote the idea of “art as advertising.” These store window displays featured paintings based on comic book strips and newspaper advertisements.

Raymond Pettibon, Untitled (He did work at Macy’s for a time, where he amused himself by teaching parrots to say motherfucker but that didn’t work at all), 2020, Wall Painting.

Pettibon’s show title, “He did work at Macy’s for a time, where he amused himself by teaching parrots to say motherfucker but that didn’t work at all,” refers to this moment in history, but also to The Journal’s decision to feature a single work in an isolated room behind the window glass.

Pettibon is particularly drawn to popular culture, however, the nexus between words and images, and the dialectical impulse in his work, reveal his complicated relationship to the legacies of popular art and the ways it operates in American psyche and ideology. For Raymond, every insight is almost the inversion of the previous, and his oeuvre is in a continuous dialogue (or struggle) with itself, back and forth. As he mentions, drawing from William Empson and his Seven Types of Ambiguity, ‘one of the ways of being ambiguous is by being apparently direct.’

Raymond Pettibon No Title (Bred in the…), 2020 Ink and colored pencil on paper

Pettibon is also particularly drawn to books — pages, paragraphs, sentences, phrases, words — while his character, Gumby, can walk into and out of any book and page, with his pony pal Pokey, too, who is royally “bred in purple” in the piece No Title (Bred in the…). As Raymond states, ‘if you ‘ve got a heart then Gumby’s a part of you. Gumby’s mission is to play, really. His mission is to play and have fun.’ However, Gumbies are also agents of change.

The exhibition features two booksmart Gumby pieces, No Title (We have read…) and No Title (At the instant…) that attempt to read(e)finehistory when they are in the mood and a Gumby wall painting with a Pettibon motif, the cover of the Bible, used here as a reminder that the supreme court shouldn’t always judge by the book.

Raymond Pettibon No Title (At the instant…), 2020 Ink and colored pencil on paper

In Pettibon’s work sometimes Gumby does change history, or as Raymond says ‘he becomes a part or an agent of historical change for the better. I don’t know if Gumby ultimately actually changes things, that would be kind of like interventionism as it’s practiced. Of course I would go back in time if I could. If I was Gumby and could rewrite history, I ‘d end slavery and do obvious things that were there before…’[2]

Raymond Pettibon No Title (James Joyce “Ulysses”…), Those of a Lower Clay — This Year’s Best Shock-Novel, 1989

In Raymond’s 1989 fanzine, entitled Those of a Lower Clay — This Year’s Best Shock-Novel, Gumby comes out of the cover of Joyce’s Ulysses and admits that he looks more like the polymorphous female character Goo — such at least was to be the “force of the Joyce imprint in the soft clay of our generation.” Pettibon is particularly drawn to James Joyce, and it seems that he is also a synthesizer, as Samuel Beckett used to say for Joyce. According to Beckett, Joyce ‘wanted to put everything, the whole of human culture, into one or two books… the more Joyce knew the more he could. He was tending toward omniscience and omnipotence as an artist.’[3] Nevertheless, by being apparently direct and by resisting omnipotence as an artist it seems that Raymond constantly rewrites everything he reads or sees, leaving a long-lasting imprint on our generation.

Raymond Pettibon No Title (It’s the Illiterate that believe…), 2020, Wall Painting.

[1] Raymond Pettibon in conversation with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, May, 2008.

[2] Raymond Pettibon: Homo Americanus, Deichtorhallen Hamburg — Sammlung Falckenberg, David Zwirner Books, 2016.

[3] Graver, L., and R. Federman, eds. Samuel Beckett: The Critical Tradition. Boston: Routledge, 1985.

Sozita Goudouna is a curator, adjunct professor at CUNY, and the author of Beckett’s Breath (EUP, 2018). She is head of operations at Raymond Pettibon Studio.