Pettibon and on and on

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.


One of the greatest attributes of the English language is its pliancy. Words bend not only their meaning but also their function acrobatically and almost on demand. This makes English the ideal language for advertising. Marketing companies are always inventing slogans and phrases which strain at the bounds of meaning in order to move product. The only other language I’m fluent in is Russian and when I read an ad in it I usually cringe. The native tongue of Dostoyevsky and Chekhov is far too flowery and long-winded for Apple and Miller Lite.

So embedded is commerce in daily speech here that words used in corporate-speak often trickle out to the laity and become part of common parlance. The other night I was invited to hear the writers Irvine Welsh and Don De Grazia discuss the new musical play they wrote, which is called Creatives. That name is an example of one of the most frequent ways words morph; an adjective is now a noun. In the business realm, where this term is now common, it makes some sense. The people who come up with new ideas and make models of those ideas that corporations can then replicate a million times over can now all be herded under one tiny umbrella. A word which used to signify boundless possibilities is now a vague and nebulous term for one of the cogs in the machine.

Don and Irvine’s play has to do with theft of intellectual property. I’m looking forward to seeing it later this week even though someone in the production insists on calling it a popra, which doesn’t sound like anything anyone should have to sit through. I haven’t yet had the pleasure (honor?) of being called a creative myself nor do I anticipate that term being bestowed upon me anytime soon. What I’ve come up with so far has very rarely yielded anyone much of a profit so I’m hardly worthy of the title. It’s far more likely that there are more appropriate words to describe me in Russian.

p.s. Go see I Am Not Your NegroI haven’t seen or read anything recently which speaks as eloquently to our present condition in this country.


I’ve never felt I belonged anywhere. Leaving a place as a child sometimes has that effect. Because I didn’t live in Moscow long enough to establish an identity I can’t quite think of it as home; in any case, the country I left at age seven no longer exists so there’s nowhere for me to go back to. I’ve been searching for that home-feeling in every place I’ve lived since.

In the country I came from travel was severely restricted. You couldn’t just get on a plane and go wherever you liked. I thought of that while looking through photos from the recent airport protests. Up until quite recently most people in this country could assume that if they got on a plane they didn’t have to worry about being let back in upon their return. But we don’t live in a country like that anymore.

In the thirty-nine years I’ve lived in this country there have been many times I’ve been appalled by the actions or policies of its government but never until these past few months have I wondered whether the fundamental underpinnings of the place were under existential threat. The unmoored feeling brought on by the daily assault of the current administration against this country and the people it is supposed to govern is so all-encompassing that it has left much more eloquent and shrewd voices speechless. There are many times on most days that just a passing thought on the subject will make me feel untethered from reality.

I see others around me grasp for some constructive way to respond. They go to protests and sign petitions, trying to make their voices heard. Many have never before felt the need to participate, so perhaps we can thank the troglodytes in power for inspiring civic interest in the populace. At Bernice’s the other day I saw a diehard Miller Lite drinker with an Amstel in his hand. He’d heard that Miller was a big backer of the current regime and wanted to make his disapproval count in the only language corporations understand.

The other night I went into a pizza place run, improbably, by an aged Asian couple. While the man disappeared into the kitchen to warm up my slice of sausage, the woman, with no prompting, offered this thought to me in broken English, “America. Used to be good. Now? PFFFTHHHT.” —making the sound of a suddenly-punctured deflating balloon.

Will we come to a point when all the people worried about being let into this country stop wanting to come? When my parents brought me here all those years ago it couldn’t have been with the hope that the doors would lock behind us on anyone else who wished for a better life than where they came from. I’m fortunate not to have to worry about being deported like so many people I know are nowadays but that bit of security doesn’t make me any less ashamed of what’s going on. America was supposed to be a refuge for those who weren’t wanted elsewhere but is being transformed into a country bent on keeping outsiders out. PFFFTHHHT indeed.

So where is there to go now?