Kurt Cobain and Jenny Holzer on 42nd Street

A chance decision made an iconic photograph. Thirty years later, what does it reveal?

Bob Nickas

Image Content Callouts

  • Public art here was notably initiated with The Times Square Show, a freewheeling exhibition organized by the artist collective Colab in a former massage parlor, in June 1980. But a few years earlier, the public-art organization Creative Time commissioned Alex Katz to create a monumental billboard painting in the Square. Nine Women, which debuted in fall of 1977 at 42nd Street and Broadway, loomed above the Rialto Theatre’s marquee, which offered Hard Candy and Heat Wave—“a super sexual scorcher.” The Times Square Show featured dozens of artists, including works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jane Dickson, Fab Five Freddy, Karen Finley, David Hammons, Keith Haring, Lady Pink, and Jack Smith. (According to critic Don Shewey, Smith’s Exotic Landlordism of the World, had a title far superior to the performance.) Holzer’s marquees were part of Creative Time’s 42nd Street Art Project which ran from 1993-1994. Among others were Lyle Ashton Harris’s The Victory Parade at the Victory Theater and designer Todd Oldham’s transformation of Peepland’s facade.
  • Cobain may have related to Holzer’s text due to his turbulent childhood, which was marked by his parents’ divorce when he was nine, their custody battles, his mother’s lack of interest in him until he became famous, and her relationship with a physically abusive boyfriend—violence Cobain witnessed. There was also his father’s eventual distance, as a line in the song “Serve the Servants” suggests: “I tried hard to have a father/But instead I had a dad.” Other Holzer texts along 42nd Street could have spoken to Cobain, given punk’s anti-authoritarian stance, which affected his own philosophy: LAUGH HARD AT THE ABSURDLY EVIL and LIFE IS NOT A REHEARSAL. The latter was installed on the marquee of the Lyric Theater, which three years prior had been the site of a wild show by a favorite band of Cobain’s, the Butthole Surfers. In Times Square today you would only see Nirvana t-shirts.
  • The 42nd Street of the past may have been seedy but it had more texture and resonance. Its great movie palaces and theaters dated back to the 1890s, when Times Square became the city’s entertainment center. These were almost all razed, and with them their history was erased. Where, we ask, is the resonance today? Peep-O-Rama is now the site of the Bank of America tower, Playpen is a Shake Shack, and Show World Center is a haunted house attraction, Times Scare. And what of the beaux-arts style Liberty Theater, opened in 1904? Stand where Cobain was photographed. What you will see is even cheaper and more unfortunate than what was there before: NY Gifts, Hilton New York Times Square, and an Applebee’s. Nearby: Disney’s New Amsterdam Theatre and Madame Tussaud’s.
  • No editor would have chosen this picture of Cobain for a cover. The man striding by is just about to pass between the photographer and his subject. Tall and well-built, he makes the average height, slightly slouching Cobain appear even smaller than he was. It’s clear who the street belongs to, not to a rock star who doesn't look like one. In the movie that is New York there are those who command the scene; the rest are extras in the background. The city once had character actors, such as those captured in photos by Weegee and Diane Arbus. Now there is a greater uniformity. Blame it, as some do, on the popularity of the mid-1990s television show Friends, which shifted the perception of New York for many who had been afraid to move here before.
  • The car in the background would be an early to mid-1980s Chevy Camaro Z-28 T-top. Is the driver cruising along with the radio on? What’s the passing unheard soundtrack to this scene? Is it WKCR’s Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show—Wu Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Eminem, the Fugees? Or Funkmaster Flex, on Hot 97, the first hip-hop program? CBS-FM was then a 1950s and '60s oldies station. Cobain had grown up with and loved The Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Only Z100 would have played Nirvana at the time. But maybe the driver was listening to all-news radio 1010 WINS? Its slogan: “Give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.”
Courtesy Stephen Sweet

In A Closer Look, a writer annotates a piece of art or an archival object. Mouse over the image and click on the blue circles to learn about the object’s history, provenance, and cultural relevance today.

This picture of musician Kurt Cobain was taken on West 42nd Street in New York City on July 22, 1993 by Stephen Sweet, a photographer on assignment for the British music weekly Melody Maker. He was to photograph Nirvana, then one of the most successful bands in the world, and to take a portrait of Cobain alone; the magazine needed two or three cover options. According to Sweet, the pictures almost didn’t happen. Nirvana was to be scheduled to be shot by several photographers over the course of the day. He was fifth in line, but traded places with the photographer who was first and nervous because he didn't know where to pose the band. Sweet had seen unusual texts on the marquees of the condemned movie theaters along 42nd Street and thought they would make a good backdrop. Sweet didn't know it at the time, but these texts were by the artist Jenny Holzer, from her Survival series. (Holzer’s work Light Line is currently showing at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, a reinterpretation of an installation she made there in 1989.) He had responded to them and expected Cobain would too. As the photographer later recalled, when Cobain saw men don’t protect you anymore emblazoned on the marquee of the Liberty Theater, he said, “Take my picture in front of that.” Now, on the 30th anniversary of Cobain's death, this picture comes back into view.

July 22 was hot, a high of 90, more uncomfortable factoring in humidity, wailing sirens and blaring horns, tempers frayed by the heat, sweat, trash, exhaust fumes. Smells like 42nd Street. For many in New York at the time, having arrived in the decades prior, movies such as Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, and Cruising had set the stage, with a soundtrack of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” The New York Dolls’ “Jet Boy,” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman.” Drug dealers, prostitutes and hustlers, thrill seekers, and animated neon signs in and around Times Square were part of the area’s visual character. Times Square does not look much like this today, apart from the billboards and flashing lights. How recognizable would it be to Sweet as to veteran New Yorkers? Nor to the Square’s great chronicler, Samuel R. Delany, whose book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue led us to recognize how libidinal energy is linked to collective well-being and to interclass social relations. Returning to Holzer: what urge will save us now that sex won’t.

The once-sordid Times Square area has been rehabilitated, private property has been seized for public use—or, rather, for the financial and political gain of developers and the mayors who enable them. Is there a filthier phrase than eminent domain?

Bob Nickas is a writer and curator based in New York, where he has lived since 1984. He is the author of four collections of essays and interviews, Live Free or Die, The Department of Corrections, Komplaint Dept., and Corrected Proofs: Previously Unpublished, Uncollected, Unwanted, as well as Yesterworld: 2019 Diary.
Originally published:
June 19, 2024


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