Kim Gordon, courtesy of the Warhol Museum.

Kim Gordon's Paintings Are An Encyclopedia of Cool

The 'Sonic Youth' bassist has a whole separate career in visual art—but don't call it a side hustle.

by Nadja Sayej
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May 17 2019, 5:25pm

Kim Gordon, courtesy of the Warhol Museum.

We know Kim Gordon best as the bassist from Sonic Youth, but 16 albums and 46 music videos were all a distraction from her art.

“I never thought of myself as a musician,” she said recently. “I kind of always thought: ‘I’m an artist making music.’ Now I’m an artist making paintings.”

After a 30-year detour, the experimental post-punk superstar, who has written a memoir, modeled for Kenzo and starred in a Gus Van Sant film, only recently made her long-awaited return to painting. Now, her first North American museum solo Lo-Fi Glamour opens today at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The 66-year-old artist is showing her deadpan text-based paintings to Twitter drawings and a new series of nudes.

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Kim Gordon, Pussy Galore, 2015, Courtesy of the Artist and 303 Gallery, New York

Naturally, there’s a Warhol component to the show. The exhibition includes a pair of Gordon’s boots, autographed by Warhol in 1978. Gordon was also commissioned to score Warhol’s screen test for “Kiss,” where he filmed 14 couples kissing from 1963-64, for a limited-edition LP available at the museum called Sound for Andy Warhol’s Kiss, which was recorded at museum’s Warhol Theater, performing alongside guitarists Bill Nace, Steve Gunn and drummer John Truscinski.

“I was interested in the lo-fi take on popular culture that Andy Warhol represented,” said Gordon on the title of the show.

Gordon was an art student in the 1970s at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where she befriended Mike Kelley (whose artwork graced the cover of Sonic Youth’s 1992 album “Dirty”) and Pictures Generation artists like Cindy Sherman, whose couch she crashed on in the 1980s.

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As Sonic Youth formed in 1981, Gordon was one of the first women to play bass in rock bands that saw their rise in the 1990s (along with the Pixies’ Kim Deal and later, D’arcy Wretsky from the Smashing Pumpkins). Though she first showed her paintings at New York’s White Columns in 1981, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that Gordon returned to artmaking.

Her paintings are a kind of encyclopedia of cool. She scrawls out the names of noise bands on white canvases for her “Noise Paintings” series, including Detroit group “Destroy All Monsters” and “The Poetics,” which was a collaboration between Tony Oursler and Mike Kelley, not to mention “Pussy Galore” and the “Weak Sisters.”

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Benaki Museum in Athens

She has also painted the names of rock bands that have broken up; including The Stooges and Sonic Youth (which is a crumpled piece of paper, sitting on the floor). A dramatic address, considering the band, and her marriage, came to a halt after uncovering Thurston Moore’s cheating scandal (“it ended in a kind of normal way—midlife crisis, starstruck woman,” Gordon said in 2013).

Maybe some of her paintings are a kind of hit list. She painted the names of gallery owners, from Larry Gagosian (who she worked for, and recalls him saying“faster, faster!” to his employees) to White Columns, in dripping red paint. Her Twitter paintings are amusing, as she quotes tweets from Stephen Malkmus (“Who is Derrida?”) to Jerry Saltz (“Just pretend Jeff Koons is a real artist”). They’re all scrawled with black ink on paper and are dusted with makeup, like bronzer or iridescent blush.

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Benaki Museum in Athens

Gordon (who is on Twitter) said there’s more to life than retweets (something she’s guilty of). “It’s just kind of boring and gross to use it just self-promotion,”she said in 2017. “It’s just not the most interesting use for it. But it is to the point where you almost don’t have to do interviews anymore. Because you can just tweet about what you’re doing.”

Among her sculptures, Gordon’s “Black Glitter Circle” had a witchy vibe, and her album art for her girl band project Free Kitten shows portraits of women in ink and watercolor. Besides Warhol—and his work with the Velvet Underground—her influences include Martha Rosler and Yoko Ono, as well as the text art master Lawrence Weiner (who once wrote “How Much is Enough” as an art piece).

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Kim Gordon, Black Glitter Circle, 2008.

It’s not all Gordon, on June 14, the museum will screen Raymond Pettibon’s 1989 film “Sir Drone,” a lo-fi, D.I.Y. film that follows Mike Kelley and a character named “Goo” as they try to form a punk band in Hollywood.

Probably the biggest surprise is the museum’s disclaimer for Gordon’s exhibition—which is more than just visuals. “This exhibition includes a sound and video installation,” writes someone at the museum. “For those with sound sensitivities, noise canceling headphones are available upon request.” (Right! Noise is at the heart of Sonic Youth, remember).

Perhaps the silver lining of this exhibition is something she wrote in her memoir, the evolution of grassroots to corporate feminism.

“The term ‘girl power’ was coined by the Riot Grrl movement that Kathleen Hanna spearheaded in the 1990s,” she wrote. “Girl power: a phrase that would later be co-opted by the Spice Girls, a group put together by men, each Spice Girl branded with a different personality, polished and stylized to be made marketable as a faux female type. [My daughter] Coco was one of the few girls on the playground who had never heard of them, and that’s its own form of girl power, saying no to female marketing!”