He's canonized for his music, but Nirvana's Kurt Cobain was interested in visual art long before he picked up a guitar. In Heavier Than Heaven, biographer Charles R. Cross recounts how a six-year-old Cobain boasted that he'd drawn a perfect image of Mickey Mouse from memory. The work was so good that his grandfather Leland accused him of tracing it. "I did not," Cobain said, and promptly pumped out Donald Duck—and Goofy, too, for good measure. Leland was astonished.
Never-before-seen paintings by Cobain, sealed until now in the Cobain Estate archives, were the main event at the Seattle Art Fair earlier this month. Nearly 100 galleries from ten countries brought their most saleable wares to the Pacific Northwest's leading art market, but Cobain's paintings weren't for sale—they provide a new perspective on Cobain as a musician who also expressed himself on canvas.
In school, Cobain earned praise and support from his art teachers that he didn't receive at home, venting angst at his parents' failing marriage with illustrated comics in his journals. "He was constantly doodling," classmate Nikki Clark told Cross. He gravitated toward forbidden imagery, from violence and monsters to Satan. He showed a photorealistic drawing of a vagina to seventh grade classmate Bill Burghardt, who responded, "What is that?"
Cobain's visual art also permeated Nirvana's rise, from the band's first stickers to the painting on the cover of Incesticide—both of which were on view at the fair.
The United Talent Agency unearthed Cobain's art when it began to represent his estate last year; the agency's fine art director Josh Roth was given access to hundreds of Cobain's personal effects in a storage center "somewhere in LA." A sliver of his findings made their debut at the CenturyLink Field Event Center on August 3, including notebook pages containing an early draft of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a letter pledging eternal devotion to Courtney Love, and a collaboration with William S. Burroughs (pictured below), to which Cobain contributed four bullet holes. There are also two paintings: a gaunt, amphibious humanoid splayed before a yellow backdrop called Fistula, and a piece millions of Nirvana fans already know and likely own in miniature: the painting on the album cover of—and titled—Incesticide.
Seeing the paintings in person at UTA's Seattle Art Fair Booth was magical—a rare glimpse into a corner of Cobain's mind that hasn't been exhaustively analyzed in the 23 years since his death. The brushstrokes are precise yet rough, and the paintings are displayed in Cobain's original wooden frames. If one had time traveled from March 1994 to the fair in 2017, they might assume Cobain had parlayed his childhood passion for drawing into art world fame.
Cobain's work has earned glowing attention everywhere from Rolling Stone to culture blogs and local news outlets, but the booth also featured accompanying work from kindred spirits such as Mike Kelley, Richard Prince, Elizabeth Peyton, Dennis Hopper, and Dash Snow. "We wanted to show established artists alongside Kurt," Roth says. He claims that a solo Cobain art show is in the works—but for a fair taking place in the city where Cobain gained fame, he "thought it would be interesting to do something that was bigger picture." Through the artwork he curated, Roth asked a tempting question: What if Kurt Cobain had lived? What if, in addition to his musical genius, he had become an art star?
The 27 artworks on display suggest that he would've been in good company. Displayed alongside Fistula and Inscesticide is one of Kelley's Garbage Drawings, based on the piles of refuse that populated Sgt. George Baker's army comic Sad Sack. Kelley's early life parallels Cobain's; he grew up working class and began his career in the Detroit music scene with noise band Destroy All Monsters. Both artists favored irony in their work, embraced imperfect and raw aesthetics, struggled with clinical depression, and took their own lives. "He's a quintessential starving artist," says Roth of Kelley.
Also displayed in the booth is a painting by portraitist Elizabeth Peyton. Along with legends like Chuck Close, the School of Visual Arts grad is known for helping revive portraiture after the dominance of abstract expressionism. Her career took off shortly after Cobain's suicide, when she painted the late singer and guitarist from photos shot for Rolling Stone; her red-lipped depiction of the controversial Oscar Wilde paramour Lord Alfred Douglas, Lord Alfred Douglas at Age 5, hangs a few frames from Fistula in the UTA booth. The portrait recalls her rendition of Cobain in its mesmerizing gaze—while also serving as a reminder that, had he continued painting through the 90s and 00s, they likely would've been contemporaries.
Roth compares Nirvana's potential to the superstardom of U2 and Bruce Springsteen, and he ponders what Cobain could have accomplished as a musician with Bono's decades of experience. However, the man whom Roth feels most resembles Cobain is another musician and visual artist: Bob Dylan. "He's a great example of what Cobain could have become," Roth adds. "But we, unfortunately, don't get to know that."
In a way, Roth's Seattle Art Fair booth was pure wish fulfillment for Nirvana fans—but, more important, it stood to spark imagination, creating an exciting world that was a pleasure to get lost in. When exiting the booth, the illusion of Kurt Cobain as art star is broken, leaving only afterthoughts about what could have been. "This is the tragedy of a life ending way too soon," Roth says. "I think he was just getting started."