Glow.
  • PHOTO BY MALCOLM SMITH
  • Glow.
I have so much to say about Seattle Art Museum's big new exhibition of art made here and around the world in response to the life and death of Kurt Cobain—it opened an hour ago and it's a landscape packed with mines and split by the tectonic heartbreak of a person killed by a persona—that I don't know where to start, so I'm just going to jump in. Many more chunks (and a full review that will appear in print and online) will be coming.

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Do I think it's a good show? Yeah, I really do. It's not what I expected; it's less spectacular, more sad, and more fragmented. But all of those seem right. And it is definitively its own environment—you feel it in there (and sometimes what you feel is the absence of feeling, which is terrifying). It will affect you even if Kurt didn't. In fact, the more Kurt affected you, the more resistant you might be to this show. Not that I think you should be—but there's some tough stuff in there. That's my theory, at least. We'll see how it pans out.

When I heard Kurt would be paired with an exhibition of Warhol photographs and films—that show's called love fear pleasure lust pain glamour death—I thought, MEH. The two seem almost too synonymous to make any meaningful friction.

In the end I was halfway right. The two shows feel like one, but in a great way, the way two people talking well are having truly one conversation. Images repeat across time, and the dialogue is sometimes unintentionally reflective—for instance, Gretchen Bennett's glowing, throbbing pencil drawing from a YouTube still of Kurt singing looks like nothing so much as Warhol wearing a fright wig. Kurt wore a fright wig his whole stardom; Warhol just put one on when he was close to death.

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And curators set up direct parallels. The most obvious is the way curator Michael Darling hung Elizabeth Peyton's painfully sweet, small, fey-looking portrait of Cobain—Darling hung it alone, all alone, on a giant wall painted silver.

The reference is to Warhol's golden Marilyn, which lives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and which is one of the few works Warhol made that is a one-off, an original in the original sense of the word—while at the same time being a deconstruction of the idea that identity can be represented at all. Marilyn's face is at the center of a field of gold, like something of intense value, and a religious icon, but the photograph Warhol chose is a bad reproduction of a highly constructed publicity shot from a film she was in. Not a portrait but an ad of a portrait. Marilyn is nothing but an endless tunnel. Seeing her gets you no closer to seeing her; in fact, it pushes you farther away.

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Peyton's portrait of Kurt is much less dogmatic. To my eye it doesn't look like him at all, except in little corners at the mouth and the eyes. Yet it does get something across of him, something delicate and not easily pinned down in a static visual. The painting works like a painting—the paint does the work. It's the opposite of the Warhol Marilyn.

Warhol's Marilyn is not at SAM, but the Peyton-Darling homage draws it into the room. You can picture all of them—Warhol, Cobain, Monroe—in some kind of heaven together.