Purple Magazine
— Los Angeles issue #30

kim gordon

los angeles
art
kim gordon

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by JASPER BRIGGS
All artworks copyright Kim Gordon and courtesy of Reena Spaulings Fine Art, NY/LA

After the end of Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon left the East Coast and returned to her native Los Angeles. She created a new life for herself sequestered in the beautiful hills of Los Feliz, which turned out to be the ideal place for her unique way of blending writing, music, and art.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When did you move back to Los Angeles from New York? Has it been a while?
KIM GORDON — I moved two-and-a-half years ago. Well, I was living in Northampton [Massachusetts]. I actually moved out of New York over 20 years ago.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Still, it was the East Coast.
KIM GORDON — Yeah. We had a place in New York, and we’d go back and forth.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, LA’s a new life?
KIM GORDON — Yeah. I grew up here. So it’s not totally unknown to me — familiar, even. But also kind of a new discovery. I grew up in West LA, which is boring and middle class. It’s convenient, south of UCLA, but it’s a flat part of LA. Now I live on a small street in Los Feliz, up in the hills, on the Eastside. It’s totally different.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Now you’re new in East LA.
KIM GORDON — Yeah. I like it because there are hills, and it’s more irregular. Because there’s a whole thing about Silver Lake and Echo Park. They used to be called the “Red Hills.” People thought Communists lived “there,” in Silver Lake and Echo Park, or “here” in East LA because they were bohemians like [Rudolph] Schindler and [Richard] Neutra, who did a lot of building here. People thought only Communists would want or make such weird houses.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The weird Communist houses that, 70 years later, became the iconic houses of the LA lifestyle.
KIM GORDON — Yeah, yeah — mid-century modern. It’s so funny. Only now they’re outrageously expensive. It’s crazy. Real estate here is almost more expensive than in the Hollywood Hills.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell me about your first “Design Office” exhibition. It was in the ’80s, right?
KIM GORDON — When I started “Design Office” in New York, back then, I didn’t have a gallery. I had the idea to do something in an apartment and change something physically, and then make some objects and some art.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your focus on interior design seems, to me, related to the LA lifestyle, which connects design to everything — nature, architecture, music, paintings, furniture. I’m curious about this idea of design lifestyle, which seems specific to LA.
KIM GORDON — Mmm. I’ve always liked the ads for real estate developments — the tract houses…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Real estate has defined all of LA’s history…
KIM GORDON — Which was supposed to be some sort of utopian dream. Which, going back, is why people first came to America. Seeking utopia and religious freedom, and then forming cults. So it’s kind of the way things are branded.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was introducing new kinds of objects or artworks into an existing house your original concept?
KIM GORDON — Yeah. I only did a few of them, really. It was like an intervention into somebody’s lifestyle that reflected a personality. The idea was then to write about it, to put it back into a magazine — not branding, but the opposite.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Using pictures of these interventions?
KIM GORDON — It was mostly text and description. There’s a collection of essays I wrote that has a few of them [Is It My Body? Sternberg Press].

THE PITCH 18, 2018 CERAMIC ON READYMADE TABLE

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’ve always been interested in the concept of interior design? Did you want to put that back into an art magazine?
KIM GORDON — Yeah. In a way, it was like the emperor’s new clothes — the idea of wanting to talk about lifestyle and the psychology of taste. The interior designer as psychologist. For instance, I did something in Dan Graham’s apartment. He was always writing about women and rock music, but in almost a sexist way. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Rock My Religion — rock music as religion.
KIM GORDON — Dan had a railroad apartment, and he never cooked, so I got rid of his stove and got Pirelli tiles that are used in bank entrances. Dan was kind of obsessed with them and used to talk about them. [Laughs] Anyway, then I wrote about it. I also did a watercolor of Debbie Harry on typewriter paper.

THE PITCH 2, 2017 SPRAY PAINT ON CANVAS

OLIVIER ZAHM — For a magazine?
KIM GORDON — I wrote about it in File.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The magazine by the Canadian art group General Idea.
KIM GORDON — Yeah. It had the format of Life magazine, which it parodied. Then I did something in Glenn Branca and Barbara Ess’s apartment that was in Real Life magazine.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That was at the beginning of the ’80s. Were you already a musician, or part of Sonic Youth?
KIM GORDON — Ah… I don’t know what I was. I didn’t think of myself as a musician. It was more, “What activity should I do now — art, writing, music?” Jutta  Koether and I did a lot of collaborations together. I remember the day Kurt Cobain killed himself. I was at a meeting for the X-girl guerrilla fashion show we were going to do on the street. Afterward, I walked over to where Jutta was installing her show at Pat Hearn gallery, and she had asked me to install a painting within it. That was 1994. I remember also because I was pregnant. We did one in the 2000s called “The Club in the Shadow,” then “Dead Already,” at Reena Spaulings Fine Art. When I had the survey show at White Columns a few years ago, I decided to bring back the name “Design Office” and to throw everything under that umbrella: “Design Office With Kim Gordon — Since 1980.” I also wanted to lessen my persona as a musician.

Kim Gordon at home in Los Feliz

OLIVIER ZAHM — As a member of a group? [Laughs]
KIM GORDON — Exactly! You know, when I first moved to New York, I didn’t move together with a peer group of students or artists. Dan [Graham] was the one who said, “You should have a group.” So we came up with the “Design Office” idea.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What you were doing was the continuation of a very avant-garde attitude of putting your name or your identity as an artist in the shadows and creating an extension of what art can do beyond simply making an art object.
KIM GORDON — Yeah. It defied specificity. Now, names like Claire Fontaine and Reena Spaulings represent collaborative artist groups and activities, with people working under a single name. They defy the myth of the individual artist…

OLIVIER ZAHM — And create bridges between art, music, literature, design…
KIM GORDON — Right, blurring the lines.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s something that is still very avant-garde, particularly in opposition to the overvaluing of painting and sculpture, where everything is about selling art merchandise.
KIM GORDON — Like gift stores at MoMA, only much bigger gifts. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Very expensive luxury items.
KIM GORDON — Gagosian is kind of like a luxury brand. It all started in the beginning of the ’80s. The ’70s were
more about process and conceptual art, and the art was more about risk-taking then.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And experimental, too, but here we are 40 years later.
KIM GORDON — Mm-hmm, and people still need really expensive accessories for their really expensive houses.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you embrace the idea about the context of where art is positioned?
KIM GORDON — Mm-hmm, sure.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Can you tell me about your new show in Los Angeles?
KIM GORDON — John [Kelsey] and Emily [Sundblad, cofounders and directors of the Reena Spaulings collective and gallery] wanted to have a very LA show. I was working on a similar idea, and I loved their LA space, which is like the one they had in New York, also like a stage that you stepped up to enter.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, for all these new “Design Office” shows, what was the pitch? You say it’s a noir story — Gordon noir — like someone who wants to do a TV show.
KIM GORDON — Well, yeah. An artist pitching a TV show, then she disappears. That’s a kind of noir metaphor. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Of what you become if you become a star? The ghost of yourself?
KIM GORDON — Yeah. [Laughs] It’s silly because there are art stars. But I suppose there are always people who captivate the imagination, like Yves Klein. They aren’t necessarily stars, but play with a persona.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Or playing with the idea that you can appear and disappear?
KIM GORDON — Yeah. But art has also become entertainment. You see museum shows in which everything is so geared toward success.

OLIVIER ZAHM — If a museum show isn’t successful, it won’t be done.
KIM GORDON — That doesn’t mean there aren’t great shows. But it’s almost like the presentation and the museums themselves have to be renovated all the time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In this show you did little ceramic sculptures of the heroine of your future TV series.
KIM GORDON — Well, it’s not my first venture into ceramic work. As a teenager I made ceramic figures and other such things.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are these tiny figures self-portraits?
KIM GORDON — No. Not literally. I didn’t mean it to be a self-portrait. They’re just supposed to be her art, including the paintings.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The show was also the occasion for a new set of paintings, with iconic elements of LA, like the palm trees.
KIM GORDON — These paintings almost felt like props for the Reena Spaulings gallery because they need paintings to sell.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you don’t consider yourself a painter?
KIM GORDON — No. I don’t. Just an artist. Painting has always been like problem-solving. But it’s also nice to have an object that contains everything you want to say, instead of a whole installation. You can do it with sculpture, too. For me, ultimately, paintings are kind of decorative, at this point in time. It’s just hard to make a context for painting. It’s not enough for me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you afraid that paintings ultimately become decorative?
KIM GORDON — Not every painting is decorative. But it’s hard to think of painters who won’t, or paintings that don’t, ultimately end up being decorative, even if it’s digital. Ultimately it becomes a decorative element in a room.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It also seems that your paintings are connected to a design and lifestyle concept, even though they are not design. They have their own status. But I wonder if, or how, LA might have changed your approach to art.
KIM GORDON — I don’t know. My art’s not really different since I’m back here. I’ve always carried LA around in my head, even when I was living in New York.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have more time to focus on it?
KIM GORDON — Yeah. I mean, I love LA as a city — just to drive around and look at things. It’s always been my favorite.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s like a permanent vacation?
KIM GORDON — [Laughs] But the juxtaposition of things — I get ideas from that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Going back to the “Design Office” story, is it also ironic or critical of pop culture, TV shows, and the cult of celebrity?
KIM GORDON — Yeah, maybe. You know, I started by writing a novella, but I didn’t have the noir part in the beginning. I only put that in for the show. The writing was just a catchall — a device to write about my life. But then I decided to throw in some surrealist things, and now I’m still writing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it difficult to write a memoir?
KIM GORDON — Oh, yeah, it was. I thought, “This is so boring.” I didn’t want it to be boring, so I tried to think of ways to not make it about me. Like making a portrait of LA in the ’70s, and the different communities.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was Mike Kelley an influential art-world person for you?
KIM GORDON — We were friends. In the sense that he wasn’t stuck on the aesthetic of minimal and conceptual art and the generation before him, yes. I liked artists like John Knight and Dan Graham and their relationship to architecture.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It seems that coming to LA was also a way to put your persona as a rock star behind you and to reinvent yourself.
KIM GORDON — I guess so. I don’t know. I never really thought of myself as a rock star. I wasn’t living in a city. I was in Northampton and couldn’t really move back to New York. Plus I was sick of the cold. And also the New York art world is so intense. It’s a kind of…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Constant competition?
KIM GORDON — Yeah. And I got used to Northampton and the feeling of being outside of the middle — outside the eye of the storm. LA is a place where things are so spread out. And yet you’re so on the edge. That used to make me nervous. Now I’m getting used to it. I like the idea that you can get lost here, and things can become more eccentric. Whereas New York is a fishbowl. And because of that, things end up being more formal.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You can feel very isolated here. It can almost seem scary.
KIM GORDON — Yes. Especially if you live in one of those glass houses up on the hill…

OLIVIER ZAHM — And if you start to have love problems. I experienced that. You really need someone here.
KIM GORDON — Yeah. That’s true.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you sad about what’s going on in New York? Your own identity was more connected to New York and the East Coast. To me, you were one of the people who embodied New York.
KIM GORDON — Inside I’ve always felt more like New York, even though I carry LA around in my head in a Joan Didion–ish sort of way. [Laughs] Although when I’m here, I don’t identify — only when I’m away.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s great is that during your career and life, you never abandoned art. It was always with you.
KIM GORDON — Well, that’s always how I identified. That’s why I moved to New York:
to make art. I just really got distracted. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — By music?
KIM GORDON — By the music. And I was a little intimidated by the art world when I saw how commercial it was. The music, I felt, was more free and experimental. At the same time, Andy Warhol was a big influence on me, and — it’s funny, next year I might be doing something at the Warhol Museum, in Pittsburgh.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I always wanted to go there.
KIM GORDON — It’s pretty cool. The archive is insane — what they have. The foundation [The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts] owns most of the art. The museum has all the films and archives. They have everything, including the Velvet Underground’s sheet music. Warhol used to put everything in boxes — just everything, like clearing the desk and stuffing it away. They have stuff from his hospital room. They have his pink Calvin Klein underwear. They showed them to me. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — I guess putting everything in boxes is one way to get rid of things.
KIM GORDON — Yeah, he would label them by year.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Beautiful. It’s like a memoir in the form objects.
KIM GORDON — Yeah. With no explanation, no context. But it was interesting going there. Especially because of his relationship to pop culture and to music. I felt that once I decided to stand outside of pop culture, it would be interesting to make comments about pop culture from the inside. That’s what interests me about music. But our music wasn’t mainstream or really all that much a part of pop culture. [Laughs] Except in the sense of being a performer in a band.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes. The music was not meant to be commercial, but now Sonic Youth is a major reference for young generations.
KIM GORDON — Although we never really cared about reaching young people. We didn’t care at all. I remenber Lou Reed saying that he didn’t want to be around young teenagers.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Becoming a celebrity, being in a system of self-promotion. Warhol created a superstar concept that, for the first time, introduced irony, the psychic distance of the public persona.
KIM GORDON — Yeah. We —  Sonic Youth — were so ’90s, so ironic, about all that. Maybe that dates us.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And really anti-star.
KIM GORDON — Natasha Lyonne and I are doing a project together. She’d watched the faux–rock documentary we did so long ago, called 1991:
The Year Punk Broke.
Her reaction was, “Oh, my god, the irony of everything!” We brought a friend, the filmmaker Dave Markey, to shoot everything. It’s funny but also very self-indulgent in the context of a “rockumentary.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you keep in touch with all your New York friends? Natasha Lyonne and Chloë [Sevigny], Lizzi [Bougatsos], Rita [Ackermann]…
KIM GORDON — I try to. I’ve known Chloë since she was 18 or something. It’s amazing to see her evolution. Chloë to me is like a performance artist. All the different things she does. It’s interesting, her photo shoots.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s like a club. Is it important to keep these long-term friendships — women friends?
KIM GORDON — Yeah. Nothing’s more important.

END

[Table of contents]

Los Angeles issue #30

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