Artist Spotlight: Raymond Pettibon
Raymond Pettibon & “Helter Skelter”
In 1992, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles presented “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” Paul Schimmel’s first exhibition as chief curator at the museum. Seeking to deliver an “updated” vision of Los Angeles, the exhibition divorced modern Angeleno art from the environmental factors that had animated the Light and Space movement, as well as prominent individual practices such as David Hockney’s plein air Pop art.
Schimmel remarked that the works presented in “Helter Skelter” gave form to the dark disquiet of modern commercial life, in sharp defiance of prevailing notions of Los Angeles as a “sunny mecca of hedonism” and a culturally empty sprawl. The exhibition’s provocative title immediately triggered memories of the Manson murders. Beyond the gory character of many of the works included in the show, this was a pointed allusion to the cultural phenomenon that played out during the Manson trials. Lane Relyea argues in his essay, “Art of the Living Dead” (included in the exhibition’s catalogue), that counter to Manson’s divisive intentions, the fanfare of the trial actually unified the nation in a common discussion.
Much in the same way that the Manson murders erased Los Angeles’ dreamlike veneer at the end of the 1960s, the exhibition’s works foregrounded the socially corrosive effects of homelessness, the AIDS crisis, and growing violent crime in the 1990s. In the words of Schimmel, the works demanded “a visceral rather than a purely intellectual response from the viewer,” revealing a unified mood and sensibility within L.A. art that was forged by the chaos surrounding it.
Lot 17 is comprised of 23 of Raymond Pettibon’s drawings that were included in this exhibition. Pettibon’s expansive installation took up an entire room, and the totality of the hundreds of drawings tacked up to the gallery walls was titled A Yarn Spun to No Mend. Of the many drawings that comprised the artwork, only 24 were illustrated in the exhibition catalogue as emblematic of the entire piece, and of those 24, 23 are offered here.
Described by one curator as “a scribe to the changing cultural framework of the country,” Pettibon folded rich artistic and literary histories, ranging from Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) to cigarette advertisements, into easy-to-digest visual colloquialisms. Having come of age amidst the Southern California music scene of the 1970s and 1980s, Pettibon adopted the punk rock movement’s “do-it-yourself” mentality. The self-taught artist gained visibility through his illustrations on album covers and posters for Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, and the Ramones, among many other punk bands. Pettibon’s works flaunted the symptoms of the city’s cultural disorientation and magnified feelings of alienation and dispossession.
Contrary to Schimmel’s expectation that the exhibition would be embraced by critics and loathed by average museum goers, journalists were quick to condemn the show while the public “loved it.” Time magazine called “Helter Skelter” “Valley Girl Dada” and reported that the exhibition proved that American art could indeed “get much worse than it was by the end of the 1980s.” It was precisely this critical fervor, however, that attracted worldwide attention and fulfilled Schimmel’s ultimate goals for the show.
Schimmel observed that “even the most well-known artists” in Los Angeles had to first show their work in Europe and New York before they could return home with an established reputation. He argued that, due to fear of negative backlash, museums in Los Angeles had refrained from “doing shows about their own communities” and instead had left the city’s artistic identity to be defined by outside audiences. “Helter Skelter” succeeded, in that it was a “regional show” with “international consequences.” For better or worse, the mass attention it received allowed its artists to advertise themselves in a far-reaching manner from their own turf.
“Helter Skelter” brought Pettibon’s work, in particular, to a global audience. Independent from the music world that he had been so closely associated with, the exhibition presented Pettibon as a defining voice in the bid to reassert Los Angeles’ artistic character, and by 1995 Pettibon was given his first major solo show at David Zwirner Gallery.
Drohojowska, Hunter.“Drawn to Words : Pairing Sketches with Texts, Raymond Pettibon Keeps His Art between the Lines–Where His Mother Could Find It.” Los Angeles Times, 16 June 1991.
Muchnic, Suzanne. “Art in the City of Angels and Demons : A Sordid Chapter From the Past Provided the Name for ‘Helter Skelter’–A Show That Aims to Reflect L.A.’s Dark Side.” Los Angeles Times, 26 Jan. 1992.
Muchnic, Suzanne. “Public Warm, Critics Cool Toward ‘Helter Skelter’.” Los Angeles Times, 26 Apr. 1992.
“Raymond Pettibon Biography.” David Zwirner, www.davidzwirner.com/artists/raymond-pettibon/biography.
Schimmel, Paul, et al. Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s. Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992.
23 works from A Yarn Spun to No Mend
Ink, watercolor, and acrylic on paper
Each signed and dated sheet verso; each retains Robert Berman Gallery labels frames verso; ten retain GEM, Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition labels frames verso
Together with the MOCA exhibition catalogue
Provenance: Collection of the artist; Robert Berman Gallery, Santa Monica, California; Private Collection, California
Exhibited: “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, January 26-April 26, 1992; “Raymond Pettibon: Hellbent ‘n Hardbound,” GEM, Museum of Contemporary Art, The Hague, December 14, 2002-March 16, 2003; “Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work,” New Museum, New York, February 8-April 9, 2017
Illustrated: Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s. MOCA exh. cat. 1992. 123-124, 126-128.; Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work. New Museum exh. cat. 2017. 126-127.
February 16, 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction