I was gonna go to New York a couple weeks ago to see Raymond Pettibon’s retrospective but a snowstorm cancelled all flights in and out of the city. I had planned to go to the museum with my friend Gil, but because I had to reschedule the trip to last Wednesday he couldn’t make it. It was probably just as well that I went through it alone. The sheer volume of work alone required all my attention. Also the fact that Pettibon’s pictures have to be read as much as seen would’ve left me little chance to socialize.
In one of the pieces about his childhood a young Pettibon says, “I want to read the pictures.” when first looking at art. That’s what I did for about three hours last Wednesday. As a rule, I barely read wall labels in art shows. I want to take in the pictures with my eyes, free of language. Pettibon makes this impossible. You can’t just look at his drawings because then you would miss at least half the experience. So I moved slowly from piece to piece, over seven hundred of them, on three floors of the museum, reading and looking, looking and reading. Every now and then I’d step back and look around, sneak a peek down the hallway to the next room, then dive back into the text. The experience was kind of like reading a book but not in your head but out in the open; not sitting still but walking.
It being New York, I instantly recognized a couple of my fellow visitors. Kim Gordon crossed my path several times which was a bit distracting. Not because I wanted to talk to her about Sonic Youth or talk to her at all but because I know her and Pettibon go way back, so seeing her made me wonder what looking at all his stuff was like for her and that took away from my own concentration. Still, I was glad she came to give one of her peers her time and respect; it’s one of the best feelings to know other artists appreciate what you’ve done. I also saw the tattooist and artist Robert Ryan strolling through with friends. My friend Tim put out a beautiful book of his work last year. I’ve never met him, so to see him here was like seeing someone from a book suddenly come to life. But then much of the experience during those three hours had a dream state feel to it.
By the time I made it down to the second floor (I’d started on the fourth), I began to hit a wall. I couldn’t read every single line in every picture but had to pick and choose. Sensory overload is a common thing on any museum visit but this was different because of all the words swimming in my mind amidst all the images. It was one of the most intense art experiences I’ve ever had. Because I’ve done art myself for over thirty years, it gets harder and harder to get out of my own way of thinking and just appreciate someone else’s way of looking at the world. Pettibon did that and I’m grateful to him for it. If I lived in New York, I’d go to the show every day for an hour for a week, but I don’t so I had to be satisfied with the compressed three hour chunk I could afford. Then I left and went around the corner to Katz’s for a pastrami sandwich. It was a cheesy tourist move but that’s what I am in New York so I felt no shame about it.
Before heading back to LaGuardia, I met my friend Mick at a place called the Peculiar Pub. I walked in a couple minutes before they were open, interrupting the bartender’s phone call with her mother. She was saying how she was going back to school. She sounded excited. Then Mick came and we talked about Pettibon, about the tour he was planning for his band, how he was about to move because he and his roommate had unexpectedly won the low-income housing lottery. He’d been talking about leaving to go back to his native Detroit but paying half as much in rent was giving him pause. Of course it was also half the space, so much of his belongings would have to go into storage. At one point the conversation drifted to amusement parks which seemed appropriate because that’s what New York City feels like these days. He’s been there awhile now but said he could never think of it as home.
I “met” Mick on Twitter but we’ve since developed an actual friendship. I had a few interactions with Pettibon on Twitter as well but don’t know if we could be real friends. What he does on there is very much like what he does in his pictures. It’s elliptical, sometimes inscrutable, but often hilarious and almost always poetic. He’s not really one for straight answers. In any case, I’ve been off Twitter two years so I wouldn’t know how else to reach the man. I’m just glad he does what he does.
p.s. I wrote about the French poster show at the Driehaus for the Reader.