Currently the subject of an impressive retrospective at the New Museum, Raymond Pettibon has long had the status of an art master who was hiding in plain sight. When I was learning about punk rock in the late 1980s, there wasn’t a thing on earth as dark, funny, or cool as any one of his Black Flag album covers, which had an obscure, unsettling power at that time that the Internet and other forces have done much to blunt in the intervening years. His single-panel pieces of that era addressed tough subjects like rape, domination, and pedophilia, virtually always with a bitter, knowing caption that had the effect of setting the viewer’s mind ablaze.
The merest glance at 4 or 5 of his album covers was plenty to convince any interested party that Pettibon had produced tons of other work at a comparable level, and thank god, that turned out to be the case. In addition to his album covers, Pettibon made his name in the early 1980s with a series of self-produced zines that were likewise put out by his brother’s label SST and used the same killer comix technique of charged imagery coupled with deliciously nasty text.
According to Brian Cassidy’s online bookshop, who was selling “one of an unnumbered edition of approximately 5000, ‘of which only about 100 found their way into commercial distribution,’” the story of Pettibon’s zines starts with disappointment and failure:
They unfortunately didn’t sell well and—according to the artist—he destroyed most of the remaining copies, leaving only a hundred or so copies of each issue extant.
That estimation of “a hundred or so” is rather interesting—Booktryst’s writeup of some of his zines include a phrase I don’t recall ever seeing in any other context, that being “Limited edition of 500 (i.e. 100).”
Pettibon was wildly prolific, and there are plenty of titles to ponder, but with so few copies of each in circulation, prices have predictably skyrocketed in the intervening decades—each title fetches hundreds of dollars, and you can buy larger lots for as much as $20,135.
Pettibon, whose characteristic register on Twitter is one of irascible exasperation, spoke out recently against the well-known “fence” known as “eBay” where you can obtain fake Pettibons (or something, he’s not the clearest):
If u buy 'my' art on th'fence EBay u r giving yr $ away 2 GGinn,Alex Flynn or sundry chiselers.Provenance?Ask 4 GG's brnt roach,AF's cottons— Raymond Pettibon (@RaymondPettibon) March 1, 2017
Pettibon has tended to pooh-pooh his links to punk rock as an influence, citing “Edward Hopper, Goya, John Dos Passos, the Studs Lonigan novels, Saul Bellow, and the Ashcan School of art” as well midcentury pulp comics. Myself, I notice the sly nod to Mad Magazine in the tidy disclaimer “$1.25 INSANE” tucked in the middle of the cover of Freud’s Universe. I also wouldn’t exclude George Grosz from the mix, esp. A Can at the Crossroads.