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When the elevator doors open on the fourth floor of the New Museum I don’t know which way to look first. Every wall is covered snuggly by pictures and words. Some drawings are framed, others just tacked to the wall the way a teenager might display a band flyer swiped from a club wall after a gig. It’s a dense polyphony which demands attention without giving the viewer much guidance. A quick scan yields glimpses of Kennedy, Reagan, Bush, and dozens of unrecognizable others, all seemingly caught in the middle of doing something questionable. Then, when you come up closer, the text which accompanies these figures alternately reveals or obscures what it is they’re up to. Raymond Pettibon never lets us know anything definitively but that ambiguity does nothing but make his pictures more powerful.

Spread over three floors and comprised of over seven hundred pieces, A Pen of All Work presents the most comprehensive survey of Pettibon’s work to date. Each gallery is devoted to a different theme with much of the fourth floor given over to politics. While there’s a palpable anger in much of these pictures, humor and mystery often lift them above mere propaganda. In his drawings of George W. Bush, for example, Pettibon often speculates about the man’s internal frailties which lead to disastrous political choices in a way which is surprisingly empathetic. He doesn’t approve of W.’s decision-making but seems to understand the flawed reasoning behind it. More times than not, after first looking at some politician’s crude depiction, then reading the captions, I was left not just questioning my own assumptions but the artist’s as well. Pettibon’s a master of leaving the viewer at loose ends.

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The unique challenge of this show is the amount of reading one must do in order to see the work the way it demands to be seen. In one of the more elaborate multi panel drawings about his early childhood exposure to art, the last caption reads, “I want to read all the pictures.” And that is what Pettibon forces the viewer to do over and over. But unlike the effect of comics panels when displayed on the wall rather than the page, these drawings lose nothing in the museum setting. Normally when visiting an art show I barely bother with wall labels, preferring to take in the work with my eyes and leaving words to the side, but here the tension between text and image is inescapable. It may even be the ultimate subject-matter. The cumulative effect of all this reading is a feeling of being inside of a book. Normally, of course, the reader is in a solitary relationship with words, but in this case one is wandering within them, occasionally bumping into other often gobsmacked reader/lookers. It is both disorienting and overwhelming.

A room of large surfing-themed pictures on the third floor provides a welcome respite from the heavy themes of the floor above. There are words embedded in these surging waves as well, but they are sparer and are often hidden within the deluge. They wash us clean and give us the wherewithal to keep going. It’s fascinating to see the way Pettibon revisits and rethinks themes over the four decades of his working life. Whether it’s Jesus, Vavoom, Charles Manson, or himself, the artist is always looking to find another angle. On the second floor there is a display case filled with cutout clippings he has used for source material. These scraps give insight into his process but hardly unlock the mystery of how his work is created. What becomes clear after several hours spent in his world is that Pettibon is involved in an endless quest of transformation and becoming. There is even an entire wall taken up by childhood drawings to which he has added explanatory/obscuring text decades later. No subject or fascination isn’t worth diving back into.

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Midway through the second (and last floor of the show) I finally hit a wall. I could no longer read every bit of text but had to pick and choose. Seeing the early illustrations he made for punk bands—the work he is still probably best known for—was like being reminded of lifelong friendships. The Black Flag bars, for instance, are such a part of the cultural alphabet at this point that it’s jarring to remember that a guy had to draw them into existence. A few years ago, when I was still on Twitter, I got into a back-and-forth with Pettibon about Burma-Shave. That company’s roadsign poetry is a frequent jumping-off point for his verbal riffing. A couple days ago, while casting about for ways to make some sense of the experience of taking in this massive retrospective, I checked out his Twitter feed, and, right as rain, he was back to composing Burma-Shave couplets.

After over thirty years of doing my own artwork, it’s difficult for me to be taken away from my own way of seeing the world, but as soon as those elevator doors opened I fell as through a trap door into another reality. The New Museum show was certainly one of the most powerful art experiences I’ve ever had. The unique marriage of word and image is Pettibon’s genius contribution. We know the people he draws and the words he uses but the wrestling match between the two is all his own.

Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work is on view at the New Museum until April 9, 2017.

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