Andy Warhol launched a thousand art careers, but none, perhaps, as quickly or as quirky as that of Richard Pettibone. In the mid-1960s, Pettibone began making tiny copies of Warhol’s paintings—in some cases, soon after Andy completed them. This timely retrospective of the now 80-year-old artist includes Lilliputian replicas of several of the same works that are currently on view at the Whitney’s Warhol extravaganza. Among them are Pettibone’s 20 versions of Warhol’s flowers in various color combinations, all a bit larger than six inches square and painted in 1965, a year after the originals. Dollhouse versions of Marilyn, Elvis, Jackie and electric chairs also appear, as well as an entire room given over to five different cloned sets of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans.
Pettibone miniaturized works by other artists, too, including Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and Ed Ruscha, often painting them at the same size as their reproductions in magazines, which he used as models. In a way, his dogged insistence on duplicating images taken from the media, and on repeating pictures in an ostensibly unlimited series, makes him an exemplary Pop artist. His handmade renderings of other people’s art have always been read as pointed jokes, though it has never been exactly clear who or what they are parodying.
Long considered a precursor to theory-minded appropriation artists from the 1980s, such as Sherrie Levine, Pettibone couples his specific choices of subjects with impeccable scale-model craftsmanship, giving him the whiff of an obsessive archivist or eccentric hobbyist. Yet, as this survey takes great pains to point out, he tempers his direct sampling with mash-ups, revealing his acts of image theft as part of a larger pattern of theme and variation. Four 2009 copies of Lichtenstein’s Seductive Girl (1964) change the color of the background and subject’s hair as if Pettibone were working out a chromatic problem of his own. A larger, irregularly shaped canvas from 1971 resulted from abutting two other Lichtenstein women of slightly differing sizes with a much smaller Warhol of Jackie at JFK’s funeral, inset at an angle as if the whole thing were a collage. What Warhol’s grieving First Lady might have to do with Lichtenstein’s cartoon babes is anyone’s guess, except to say that they all occupy space in Pettibone’s feverishly recombinant imagination.
Other collage-like works are similarly hermetic, though a kind of satisfying conceptual logic does dictate the photo-realist juxtapositions of a Formula One Ferrari with Ingres’s famed Odalisque of 1814, a prime example of the so-called grandes machines tradition of academic salon painting. Elsewhere, a wall filled with self-portraits, both representational and symbolic, begins and ends with doubles of works by Marcel Duchamp.
Still, it is Pettibone’s paintings of sculptures (or, rather, paintings of photographs of sculptures) by Warhol, Duchamp and Picasso, as well as actual wood-carved facsimiles of Brancusi’s Endless Column, that truly reveal Pettibone’s sensibility: Their diminutive scale and meticulous fabrication makes them feel somehow distant, as if seen from far away or recalled in memory. They suggest an attempt, almost romantic in its yearning, to grasp something just out of reach and to preserve it, like a seed bank, for the future.