Had Andy Warhol still been living when Kurt Cobain committed suicide in April 1994, the odds are he would have immortalized Cobain in his art. Cobain, with his short, tortured life and his brief but brilliant career, was the most iconic figure in rock music since the punk era of the 1970s. Dead at twenty-seven, like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix before him, Cobain seemed to have engineered the perfect romantic rock and roll death, an end almost preordained from the start. When he killed himself, few people seemed surprised; many claimed to have seen it coming, including apparently Cobain himself (song titles such as “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die” dropped heavy hints to that effect). Whether Cobain killed himself to fulfil his destiny and secure his place in the Great Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Sky, or because he couldn’t cope with the pressures of megastardom (or a combination of the two), no one will ever know, but the result was, for certain, counterculture immortality. A beautiful face, a fragile talent, and a tragic life—the key ingredients for Warholian superstardom.
It is, therefore, an intelligent and thought-provoking piece of programming that sees the Seattle Art Museum staging Kurt, an exhibition of artworks inspired by the life, death, and myth of Cobain, alongside an exhibition of media works by Warhol. And the title of the latter—love fear pleasure lust pain glamour death—represents a neat summation of the core themes of both exhibits.
The press release for the Warhol exhibition suggests that by “focusing on the artist’s constant creation and re-creation of portraits—his own image as well as those of others—this exhibition compels us to consider Warhol’s fascination with all things ephemeral, from beauty and youth to pleasure and pain, anonymity and identity.” However, in the process of capturing the ephemeral, in paintings, photographs and silk screens, Warhol imbued it with permanence and significance, a life after death. From the scraps of the culture of late capitalism, Warhol fashioned the iconography of a secular society. If historians of the far distant future desire a snapshot of the preoccupations of Western society in the late twentieth century, they need look no further than Warhol’s oeuvre. As he noted:
The Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognize in a split second—comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, Coke bottles—all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.1
It is apparent, then, that Warhol regarded celebrities as just another commodity for mass consumption. And while Cobain and his loyal devotees might be horrified by the equivalence suggested in the exhibition notes between grunge music, with Kurt as its symbolic figurehead, and Starbucks and Microsoft, “as universally synonymous with modern-day Seattle,” Warhol would have been neither surprised nor perturbed.
Yet in creating an iconography of consumerism, Warhol also revealed the processes of metamorphosis and alchemy that can conjure the sacred from the profane—the transformational pixie dust of fame, a specialness imputed rather than inherent.
For Warhol, to be sacred also meant to be remote, beyond, and untouchable. In the golden era of Hollywood, this was understood by studios and stars, and by fans, among them the young Warhol. Film stars lived on silver screens and in improbable pink mansions in Beverly Hills; they were not the guy or girl next door.
Warhol observed Marilyn Monroe—possibly his most famous subject—from a fascinated distance, and while titillated by and envious of the acres of press coverage that attended both her life and death, he learned from her tragedy and took pains not to replicate it. Monroe was a perfect but reluctant commodity. Trapped by the success of her “dumb blonde” public image, she was an object struggling to be taken seriously as a subject. In her last interview with Life magazine she said, “That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing—I just hate to be a thing.”2
Warhol, by contrast, wanted very much to be a thing; he aspired to commodity status, to be a brand; he was a subject that wanted to be an object. He said that he would like to be “a machine,” and he sought an absence of affect. He claimed he liked “boring things” and repetition because “the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.”3 Warhol was desperate to be famous, but he was also canny enough to realize that the attendant objectification could function as both a protective haven and a prison. He created a public persona so complete that it took on a life of its own, but mirror-like, it reflected and resisted all but the most superficial scrutiny, and thus it functioned to obscure and protect the fragile human being that it ostensibly represented. He counseled against the danger of confusing or conflating subject with object, personality with commodity:
You should always have a product that’s not just “you.” An actress should count up her plays and movies and a model should count up her photographs and a writer should count up his words and an artist should count up his pictures so you always know exactly what you’re worth, and you don’t get stuck thinking your product is you and your fame, and your aura.4
Kurt Cobain, on the other hand, was not content to count up his ever-increasing record sales; despite the exponential growth of his celebrity status, he persisted in striving for subjectivity, authenticity, and the reduction of the ever-widening gulf between him and his fans. This situation was aggravated by the ambiguous status of rock stars in the post-punk context; if Warhol grew up accepting the remoteness of the famous, Cobain’s young cultural life was shaped by a denial of it. As Ann Powers suggests:
Indie never really did away with rock stars—it just located them at eye-level. As a young indie fan, Cobain idolized his own favorite bands, thought of them as the basis of his community. Just like the kids who now idolize him, he didn’t perceive the gulf between artist and audience, and eventually he became part of the indie elite, an elite that in many cases still denies its own elitism. But he was sensitive enough to be bothered by the distance now that he could see it between himself and the kids who thought he was lifting them out of their own shitty lives. And so he felt even more isolated.
[. . .] Rich Jensen, Sub Pop’s general manager, views the problem as a struggle with the sacred. “Kurt viewed his favorite bands as icons,” he says. “An icon is something you own, or it’s a false idol.”5
What fascinated Warhol most about Monroe was that, despite her resistance, the real woman had effectively disappeared behind a screen of representations. She reached such a peak of cultural construction that, to some extent, it ceased to be relevant whether these constructions emerged from or were projected onto a “real” person; she had become, in Jean Baudrillard’s terminology, hyperreal, symptomatic of a state of pure simulation in which signs refer to nothing but themselves.
The same could be said of Kurt Cobain. But this separation of signs and signifiers provokes anxiety, not just among the celebrity elite who experience the terminal detachment of their public image from their private selves, but also among fans and the public. This no doubt accounts for the many, and often prurient and intrusive, biographies of famous individuals such as Monroe and Cobain, or the homemade tributes and shrines produced by fans: they are desperate strategies to construct meaningful subjectivities from the empty images of stars. This urge is also clearly reflected in the Seattle Art Museum’s Kurt Cobain exhibition, which is organized around the themes of portraiture, identity, and mythology, themes which further emphasize Cobain’s iconic status. The subjectivities constructed here are not those of Cobain, but those of the artists and the audience. As the wall text suggests:
The works on view here can thus be understood as memorials of a sort, but the vast differences between them reveal the extent to which each artist brings their own conceptions, biases, and personal relationship to Cobain’s life and music to bear on their interpretations.6
In the context of the Catholic faith, icons and shrines are often dedicated to saints who are celebrated for their martyrdom. Literary critic and lapsed Catholic Terry Eagleton suggests that “martyrdom is a kind of socializing of one’s death, placing it at others’ disposal so that, to adopt a phrase of Auden’s, it may be modified in the guts of the living.”7 We might regard Cobain as a latter-day saint, who died, if not for our sins, then perhaps for our existential angst. Alienated teens can identify in him, and his suffering, an empathetic reflection of their own feelings of agony and isolation. However, again, the putative focus of the exhibition is not Cobain himself but people’s relationship with him and his image, their attempts to make meaning with and through him—or their idea(l) of him at least. Cobain himself perhaps remains as opaque and unreachable as ever before, but that quality which made him so unhappy in his lifetime is perhaps precisely that which makes him so treasured and, potentially, empowering after his death.
Portraiture, a theme of both exhibitions, also offers a form of life after death. Jonathan Flatley suggests that Warhol’s work, and the same might be said of many of the pieces on show in Kurt, can be understood in terms of prosopopoeia, which he defines as “the fiction of a voice beyond the grave. It is the trope that ascribes face, name, or voice to the absent, inanimate, or dead.”8 Warhol’s famous dictum that “in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” notwithstanding, portraiture can extend a life long beyond its corporeal existence, and we might interpret Charles Peterson’s photographs or Scott Fife’s posthumous bust constructed from found materials as fulfilling this role. I quite often see kids here in London who must have been either very young or perhaps not even born at the time of Cobain’s suicide wearing Nirvana T-shirts, which frequently feature that iconic photo of Cobain looking up through kohl-rimmed eyes with the expression of a hurt puppy. These young people cannot possibly have memories of the living Cobain; they have access to him only through reproduction, of his records and his image. Yet he is undoubtedly real and meaningful to them, as James Dean was to previous generations of young people born after his untimely and undoubtedly, if regrettably, romantic death. As Michael Darling, one of the curators of the exhibition observes:
Most of the works date from 1994 and after, clearly suggesting that Kurt’s death motivated these artists, and so many others, to come to terms with his legacy [. . .] What is truly amazing, however, is how recent a lot of the work is, as Kurt’s story continues to be relevant, meaningful, and far-reaching. It is so clearly resonant in the Northwest, but it is also a global phenomenon.9
However, portraits, like celebrity, can also condemn their still living subjects to a kind of death. In some of Warhol’s images, such as Self-Portrait [with Skull], a contemporary vanitas, or the images of violence (Warhol being punched in the face in a photo booth strip; Robert Rauschenberg with a large bandage on his head), this connection is apparent and literal, but it might also be argued to be true of other, more apparently innocuous portraits. Flatley cites a reported incident when Jasper Johns, having seen Warhol’s portrait of socialite Holly Solomon, said to her, “Hi, Holly . . . how does it feel to be dead?” Flatley reads Johns’s comment as meaning that Solomon had “died” to become an objet d’art or, less poetically, “an object, or more nearly a commodity, brand ‘Warhol.’”10 This death through objectification is, Flatley argues, symptomatic of being famous. Being a public figure is rather like imagining oneself dead or attending one’s own funeral: “You get to see yourself reified, eulogized, coherent, whole—and you get to see other people recognizing you.”11
This death in life was as profoundly liberating for Warhol as it was frightening and oppressive for Cobain and Monroe. For Warhol, who craved fame but yet found a means of protecting himself from/with it, portraiture was a means to archive and assess the progress of and responses to his greatest life work, that is, “the artist Andy Warhol.” He not only consistently, almost obsessively, created self-portraits throughout his career, but he was also happy to be the subject of others’ work, delighting in the multiple layers that these different interpretations of his image contributed to his own creation. But for Cobain, and Monroe, portraiture represented a lack of control; it illustrated their increasingly tenuous relationship with their own public images.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the verb phrase used in conjunction with both guns and cameras is to shoot. Warhol and Cobain were both shot in the literal and the figurative sense, but in Cobain’s case both camera and gun proved fatal. When Valerie Solanis shot Warhol in 1968, he not only narrowly escaped death, but also rebuilt his sense of self after the event through the use of portraiture, which often featured his sutured, patchwork chest in unflinching detail.
Perhaps the most poignant image of Cobain in the Seattle exhibition is the one that shows the least of him, Jordan Kantor’s Untitled (Forensic Scene), a painterly rendering of the notorious paparazzi photo that dominated the front page of the Seattle Times the day after his suicide. It is a blurry, monochrome image that shows the lower legs and hands of a crouching detective alongside the right leg and forearm of a prostate body. It is reminiscent of the images from Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, particularly those images featuring car wrecks, often barely discernable jumbles of twisted metal and severed limbs. If, as the exhibition publicity suggests, the name of the show indicates Cobain’s “ascendance into the pantheon of one-named American superstars such as Marilyn and Elvis,” perhaps even more indicative of his fame is that he is recognizable from only fragments of his body. But there is something missing from Kantor’s painting, an element that made the original picture even more shocking. As Kim Warnick, front woman of Seattle band the Fastbacks, observed:
You know what really got me about it? His ID. You can see his wallet opened up to his driver’s license, right by his body. Kurt didn’t want any mistakes about what he was doing. He wanted to be perfectly clear.12
From this interpretation it seems as if Cobain regarded his suicide as a last-ditch attempt to wrest back control of his identity and his public profile, to try and place some limits on his mythology. However, subsequent events, including the exhibition itself, suggest that his efforts were in vain.
Nevertheless, there is some hope here, some sense that lasting good can come from Cobain’s final shot. The constant reinvention of Cobain has facilitated the reinvention of legions of his fans, his loss of self and his transformation into public property has allowed them to discover and explore themselves. Warhol, Cobain, and Monroe were all aware of the power and potential of reinvention. All were small-town kids who moved to the big city, bleached their hair, and found fame and fortune. All were winners by the standards of a society that equates visibility with value, perhaps even with existence itself. But all were losers, too; none of them were able to successfully reconcile their fame with their humanity, and all of them ultimately sacrificed that humanity to their fame.
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1. Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol ’60s (London, UK: Pimlico, 1996), 3.
2. Quoted in Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan Press, 1986), 61.
3. Warhol, POPism, 50
4. Andy Warhol, From A to B and Back Again: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (London, UK: Picador, 1975), 83.
5. Ann Powers, “Village Voice,” in The Faber Book of Pop, eds. Jon Savage and Hanif Kureishi (London, UK: Faber & Faber, 1995), 790.
6. The Seattle Art Museum exhibited work done by artists in memoriam of Kurt Cobain as part of their show Kurt. This show was juxtaposed with work by Andy Warhol in their show Love Fear Pleasure Lust Pain Glamour Death: Andy Warhol Media Works. Both shows were on display at the Seattle Art Museum from May 13 to September 6, 2010.
7. Terry Eagleton, The Gatekeeper: A Memoir (London, UK: Allen Lane/Penguin, 2001), 12.
8. Jonathan Flatley, “Warhol Gives Good Face: Publicity and the Politics of Prosopopoeia,” in PopOut: Queer Warhol, eds. Jennifer Doyle, Jonathan Flatley, and Jose Esteban Munoz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 106.
9. From the 2010 Seattle Art Museum show Kurt.
10. Flatley, “Warhol Gives Good Face,” 107.
11. Ibid., 105.
12. Quoted in Powers, “Village Voice,” 786.