Before I left for the opening of Kurt at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), I played a few Nirvana songs on my music player and thought about what I expected to see. Nirvana’s music in the late 80s and early 90s defined a generation. Kurt Cobain became the face of grunge’s stripped-down sound and tortured aesthetic. His untimely death left a void in the lives of his fans and the culture at-large. The SAM bills the show as an exhibition that “will cause viewers to question why and how Kurt’s visage and his gestures came to mean so much to a generation.”
The five galleries contain 80 works of art, including photographs, drawings, video and sculptures that reflect the multitude of ways Kurt’s life, art and death influenced artists in Washington and beyond. Although it has been 16 years since his death, many of the works featured are from 1994 onwards, suggesting that Kurt’s influence continues to this day.
In the first gallery, Maxwell + Hadley’s installation Standing Wave Séance sets the tone for the exhibit. The twelve-sided foam room features a freestanding studio – duct-taped carpet and a microphone in the center urge us inside. Speakers project the sounds of an audience anticipating a performance – their rhythmic claps and excited screams play off the sounds of guitars tuning and microphone feedback. Visitors are encouraged to enter the room, lit by a bald hanging light bulb, and step on the duct-taped carpet and perhaps stand behind the microphone and perceive the excitement and pressure of the concert. Standing behind the microphone, one can peer out and see Charles Peterson’s seven large-scale black and white Chromeogenic prints capturing the progression of Kurt hurling himself into a drum kit. The gritty 4’ x 5’ photographs were reproduced and enlarged specifically for the SAM. Peterson took the photographs for Sub Pop Records during Nirvana’s early years when they were still playing small venues, such as the Rajis in Los Angeles. The viewer has the perspective of an audience member, bearing witness to Kurt’s total disregard for his bodily well-being.
On an opposing wall, Alice Wheeler’s intimate photograph captures Kurt at the height of his fame. Taken after an MTV New Year’s performance, Kurt looks like the quintessential rock star; his hair is platinum blond, he’s wearing big red sunglasses and his neck is adorned with red, blue and green Christmas tinsel. As a friend of Cobain, Wheeler’s portrait and her three additional photographs in the exhibit come across as genuine expressions of love and loss. In Tent City, Seattle, Wheeler captures the influence Kurt continues to have on today’s youth. The photograph, taken in 1999 on a hill in Seattle, depicts a boy who has taken on Kurt’s look and has traveled to Kurt’s city, but who has unfortunately remained unsuccessful in the pursuit of fame and fortune.
In the next gallery, the feeling is less about Kurt the friend, but Kurt the loved musician, or Kurdt, the persona Kurt created for his celebrity identity. Gretchen Bennett’s brightly colored pencil drawings are intense meditations on Kurt’s memory. Made from movie stills, Bennett’s drawings capture fleeting moments in Kurt’s life and reveal the painstaking devotion of a fan. In one drawing, Kurt’s face is barely discernible from the pink and yellow pencil markings, each differently colored line clearly visible. In the center of the gallery, Evan Holloway’s fragile, seemingly unfinished foam sculpture depicts Kurt leaning over his guitar while he stands precariously over a paper drawing of an abyss. His body is barely kept together by yellowing glue, perhaps suggesting Kurt’s fragile mental and physical state. Nearby, Elizabeth Peyton’s small, feminized portrait of Kurt hangs on a freestanding silver wall. Similar to Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn, Payton’s portrait becomes a religious icon of celebrity.
As I wandered though the galleries, I heard a cacophony of music – Nirvana intertwined with The Rolling Stones mixed with Neil Young. What was this? In the center of the third gallery, Sam Durant’s miniature replica sculpture of Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed (1970), a sculpture erected at Kent State University that later became a memorial for the Kent State shooting, serves as a makeshift sound system. Durant’s replica blends the music of these three bands to make an elaborate connection about fame, lyrics and untimely deaths. Neil Young wrote the song “Ohio” about the Kent State shootings and then Kurt quoted Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” in his suicide note – “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Durant also contributes to the exhibit with corresponding drawings featuring his worked out thought process concerning the interrelation between Smithson, Cobain and Young. Nearby, Jeffry Mitchell’s portrait as Kurt is arguably the hidden gem of the exhibit. Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain in the Style of Jay Steensma features a skull wearing a blond wig amongst a thickly painted sea of grey. (Steensma was a “mystic” artist famous for his paintings of grey, Northwestern landscapes).
As the SAM discovered, you cannot create an exhibit about Kurt Cobain and his influence without referencing his suicide. In the following gallery, black and white overwhelms the space. Judas Priest-inspired wall decals adorn the wall (calling to mind the 1985 suicides blamed on hidden messages in Judas Priest lyrics). Banks Viollette seemingly takes the broken drum kit from Chris Paterson’s photo series and covers it with black shiny epoxy and attaches stalagmites to it. Surrounding the sculpture are large graphite drawings emphasizing the isolating and suffocating effects of fame. In one large drawing, Viollette fills the piece of paper with graphite – the center of the piece is a void of blinding white spotlight. Viollette’s hand is present in the forceful indentations of the graphite pencil, again reminding the viewer of the pressure of fame.
The last gallery serves as a memorial – Joe Mama-Nitzberg and Marc Swanson’s photograph of glass tinsel called “angel’s hair” intertwines with baby’s breath. The photograph comes from a series of flower arrangements Mama-Nitzberg and Swanson created to memorialize people who had made a significant impact on their lives, and the materials reference Nirvana’s lyrics from “Heart Shaped Box,” “cut myself on angel’s hair and baby’s breath.” Nearby, Washington native Scott Fife’s eerily accurate bust of Kurt lies on the floor. Jordan Kantor’s forensic paintings of news photos from the day police found Kurt’s body are on the wall behind Fife’s sculpture, and their simple style feels clinical and cold. Rodney Graham’s slideshow of Aberdeen plays nearby, each photo a melancholic tribute to where Kurt came from, a city that only recently added “Come As You Are” to its city signage.
Seattle gave grunge to the world, and Kurt Cobain, the awkward left-handed guitarist from Aberdeen, WA, epitomized the movement. Kurt the exhibit appears to sustain that claim. Kurt is awkward, and it’s sad, and it leaves us wondering, would Kurt have said “Come as you are?”
Kurt is on view at the Seattle Art Museum from May 13th to September 6th, 2010.