Raymond Pettibon - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, November 30, 2021 | Phillips
  • “With my kind of work, things mingle and associate, and something comes from it — or not…” 
    — Raymond Pettibon 


    Pettibon in his studio
    Image Courtesy of Contemporary Art Curator Magazine


    Raymond Pettibon is known for his bombastic, often irreverent style which aims to satirise and scrutinise Pop culture. His art is thus borne of his propensity for being anti-establishment, having emerged from the Los Angeles punk scene of the 1980s. His iconoclastic, cartoon-like drawings combine lyrical text with illustrative images and are typically rendered in a sketch-like manner. Pettibon's works touch a wide spectrum of American politics and culture, and are often accompanied by cryptic handwritten text oriented around the themes of literature, religion, sexuality, and sports.


    His repertoire of characters includes Hollywood legends, comic book heroes, rock stars, baseball players and murderers—a wide cross-section of America’s cultural icons that dissect his society—and yet, unlike the majority of Pettibon's motifs which focus on raging cultural criticism, surfing remains as one consistent subject matter that appears in his oeuvre from 1985 onwards, a remnant of his time growing up on Hermosa Beach before then living on Venice Beach in California as an adult.


    Celebrated as the finest examples from his oeuvre, Pettibon’s wave works can now be found in the permanent collections of museums worldwide, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York. Earlier this year on 12 May 2021, surf-themed Pettibon worked hammered down for US$2,682,000 Premium, achieving the artist’s top auction record.




    Raymond Pettibon, No Title (The bright flatness…), 2003
    Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York
    © Raymond Pettibon. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner


    Surf’s Up


    Amalgamating various Francis Bacon texts,  Untitled (Force makes nature...)  is both deceptively simple in its visual/textual pairing and yet deliberately so—much like most of Pettibon’s art. Set against cheerful cerulean waves are ominous lines from Bacon, scrawled in the artist’s own hand. The modernised version of ‘Force maketh nature more violent in the return’, an excerpt from the 17th Century Essays of Nature in Men, carries an underlying meaning of the futility in going against nature. Next to this, yet another rewording appears: ‘It is often hidden, sometimes overcome, seldom extinguished,’ a sentence reworked from Bacon’s original, also referring to human nature.


    When set alongside the all-consuming force that are waves, multilayered meanings arise in which the inconsequence of humankind is pitted against the magnanimity of Mother Nature. Thus ironically, the overall sentiment of ‘going with the flow’ goes hand in hand here with the laissez-faire culture of beach life, which the artist no doubt became accustomed to.


    As Pettibon once mentioned, 'It was just a subject in the culture that I grew up with, not anything else.'i Even though the artist did not pick up the sport himself, through his observation and imagination, he still captured surfing’s vitality and movement and transcends this motif by transforming it into an allegory for life's unpredictable ups and downs—and the acceptance of this undeniable reality.




    Detail of the present work



    The Perfect Wave


    At first glance, the present piece’s large body of blue leaps to the eyes, as a foamy crest aggressively dominates the space,  plunging  from  the  sky and appearing even  eager  to  sweep  across  the  paper’s  edges.  The artist sophistically  employs  a  rich  array  of  various  hues  of  blue  to  capture  the  movement  of  the plummeting wave, and a range of darker lines featuring the texture of the vast tide cutting through the waters, as if stirring up from the depths of the ocean bed deep beneath. The whole image is infused with a sense of immersion and urgency. At the centre of the work, Pettibon deliberately inserts a tiny solitary surfer, who miraculously emerges on a surfing board from the dominant swell. He seems calm, confident and relaxed in the face of the sea's greatness. 


    Looking at Pettibon's great wave, one is reminded of Katsushika Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa, part of a series of ukiyo-e prints representing Japan's national culture and spirit. The Great Wave features a breaking swell that is about to strike a trio of boats as if it were an enormous sea monster,  symbolising  the irresistible  force  of  nature  and  the weakness  of  humans. The swell consumes the work’s surface, dwarfing  both the Fuji Mountain and the boats and conveying an overwhelming sense of tension and dominance.


    The insignificance of man in the face of nature is heavily explored by a multitude of different cultures across various eras, with sources as diverse as the aforementioned Hokusai, to Song dynasty art exploring human survival against natural elements, to the ‘great American novel’ Moby-Dick,  the latter for which Pettibon clearly had a penchant for, having created a limited edition cover for the famous novel.



    Left: Katsushika Hokusai,The Great Wave or Under the Wave, off Kanagawa, circa 1829-33
    Various versions, present image is a print within the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
    Right: Herman Melville, Moby Dick Filet No. 114, illustrated by Raymond Pettibon
    © Raymond Pettibon. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner



    Pettibon poetically composed this work with two distinctive contrasts:  the large-scaled wave versus the negligible surfer, and the turbulent and tempestuous swell versus the calmness carried by the central figure. Pettibon reveals the full spectrum of human emotions, acknowledging the feelings of fear, loneliness, powerlessness, and insignificance, but also expressing joy, awe, hope and resilience that are mostly absent across his oeuvre.


    Balancing at the precipice of danger and exhilaration, in most of Pettibon's surf images, Pettibon’s his surfers never fall, and always carry a sense of laid-back confidence and optimism - a nod to the artist's Southern California vibe. His surfing series successfully evoke people's resonance while pursuing inner peace in a chaotic reality, striking the art world through their poetic and philosophical representation.



    A Snippet inside Raymond Pettibon’s Mind


    In ‘The Underbelly Artist’, published in The New York Times in October 2005, Michael Kimmelman writes about his various encounters with the artist:


    Michael Kimmelman So the next morning I again found him and his disarrayed tubes of paint and brushes, now roped off, like a zoo specimen of an artist on display for the passing mobs. ‘If I could shrink any more into this corner, I would,’ he said, slouching against the wall, head down, still absorbed in his folders. One folder contained a page from the art critic Brian O'Doherty's Inside the White Cube, with a passage highlighted – ‘the relation between the picture plane and the underlying wall is very pertinent to the esthetics of surface’ – and in the margins, Pettibon's own punning, run-on sentence about surfing: ‘When you bring shore life thoughts and theories/observations into the surf (when you attempt to shore up the line up), that is when (the moment) the nose of your longboard (shortboards, you're not ready for) breaks the surface of the wave, begins to “pearl”.’


    Pettibon offered to decipher this, but in the process detoured into a conversation about surfboards and Bob Beamon, the Olympic athlete, and long jumping and the flood in New Orleans, without getting to the point, if there had been one. Or perhaps I missed it.


    Read the rest here.



    Collector’s Digest


    Well-known for his works that combine text with drawings reminiscent of comic books, Pettibon first rose to prominence in the Southern California punk rock scene of the 1980s, designing album art for his brother Greg’s band, Black Flag. Though he holds a degree in economics from UCLA, Pettibon is completely self-taught as an artist. Pettibon’s work is often political in nature, critiquing American foreign policy and his experience of American life in general.


    The artist was the subject of a major retrospective, entitled 'Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work' at the New Museum in 2017. His work has been collected by the Tate Modern, the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Museum of Modern Art.



    Raymond Pettibon, as quoted in ‘Raymond Pettibon: Are Your Motives Pure?’, Pilgrim, 11 September 2014, online

    • Provenance

      Private Collection, Europe
      Phillips, London, 17 February 2012, lot 162
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Surfing USA: A Selection of Works by Raymond Pettibon


Untitled (Force makes nature...)

signed and dated 'Raymond Pettibon 6-99' on the reverse
ink and watercolour on paper
59.5 x 45.5 cm. (23 3/8 x 17 7/8 in.)
Executed in 1999.

Full Cataloguing

HK$1,500,000 - 2,500,000 

Sold for HK$3,906,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 30 November 2021