Born in Hermosa Beach, California, Raymond Pettibon came to prominence in the late 1970s as the creator of flyers, posters, record covers and the logo for the seminal L.A. punk band Black Flag as well as for Sonic Youth (whose fronting diva, Kim Gordon, also went on to an art career). Pettibon rocketed to fame in 1992, when he was included in “Helter Skelter,” the show that exposed the underbelly of the California art scene at Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. Since then, he’s channeled the dark side of American life and history with narrative drawings that have made him one of the most important artists of the past 20 years. Currently the subject of a career survey at the New Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Pettibon discusses his work, its influences and its relationship to politics.
You got your start making promotional material for bands. How did you get into that?
My brother was in Black Flag, and they were very good at self-promotion. I actually used my existing drawings for the posters and other stuff I did for them and eventually for Sonic Youth. I always drew what I wanted; I never listened to any bright ideas coming from punk rockers.
You have also published zines. What role have those played in your career?
They began as a way of getting my work seen, though hardly any of them sold back then. They were somewhat random, but I usually tried to have a cohesive theme like sports and religion.
The show “Helter Skelter” was your big break. How did it change the reaction to your work?
Not much. Generally, people still think of my work as punk rock because I did record covers and such. That will probably be the defining thing in my Wikipedia biography.
The look of your work is often compared to graphic novels. Have they influenced you?
I do owe a lot to comic books and cartoons, though I never read them as a kid. I like cartoonists like Charles Addams and Peter Arno, but I’m just as inspired by artists such as Reginald Marsh, Edward Hopper and John Sloan.
You also make many references to literature and film.
Most of the work comes straight out of my head, but I do borrow from books and movies. I like German Expressionist films and Alfred Hitchcock. I used to screen films on Betamax and freeze the frames to draw from them, which may be why people sometimes relate my work to film noir.
You depict America as a pretty grim place. Do you think of yourself as a political artist?
That’s not for me to say, but I aspire to show that side. I started as a political cartoonist when I was 12 years old, but I grew out of it.
But you have done some political art. Do you think it’s had an impact?
If my work was actually influential, Bernie Sanders would have been President by now.
“Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work” is at the New Museum through Apr 9.