Gerhard Richter and Five Other Artists on Sonic Youth Album Covers

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Kerze (Candle), Gerhard Richter
  • "Kerze (Candle)," Gerhard Richter
A documentary about painter Gerhard Richter is opening this weekend at The Belcourt, and I wrote a review of it for tomorrow's issue of the Scene. What my review doesn't include is that my introduction to Richter's work, along with work by a large chunk of other contemporary artists, was what I imagine must be a phenomenon among secluded young art-lovers: Sonic Youth album covers.

Richter's 1983 painting "Kerze" was used for the cover of Daydream Nation, and it's probably the first — and maybe only — Richter painting that a lot of people ever see. But it's not a fluke: Sonic Youth's discography could double as a primer in Contemporary Art 101.

Below, I've compiled a list of other great artists whose placement on Sonic Youth LPs have introduced contemporary art to underserved kids everywhere.

1. Raymond Pettibon

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In high school I had one of those massive posters hanging on my wall of the Goo album cover, and I would practice drawing it over and over. Years later I realized that I had been studying Raymond Pettibon, spooky scary brother of Black Flag's Greg Ginn who I swear was on acid when I saw him give a talk at Cooper Union this one time. Pettibon based the drawing on a paparazzi photo of Maureen Hindley and David Smith, witnesses in the case of the "Moors Murders" serial killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley (who is herself the subject of a famous portrait by artist Marcus Harvey). I had unknowingly begun to figure out the web of contemporary art's six degrees of separation, all from the comfort of my largely artless East Tennessee hometown.

2. Richard Kern

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The cover image from 1986's EVOL is actually a still from "Submit to Me," a film by Richard Kern. It's really sexy, so consider yourself warned: NSFW.

3. Mike Kelley

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The late Mike Kelley was a longtime friend of Kim Gordon's, and the packaging of the 1992 album Dirty includes a bunch of his photographs of stuffed animals, and even a portrait of the young artist. This episode of Art21 digs into the process Kelley uses to create, like a focus on ritual and collective trauma. Every kid who had a Dirty T-shirt, and I knew a few, was (probably) unknowingly championing Kelley's views on child molestation and other perversions. Fun!

Here's a video piece by Kelley and Paul McCarthy that was part of a video installation at Cheekwood in 2010. While not technically NSFW, it is creeeeeeepy, so watch at your own risk.

4. Marnie Weber

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Marnie Weber's "Hamster Girl" was used as the cover image for 1998's A Thousand Leaves. It isn't my favorite cover — it's just so twee — but man, she's got some great work under her belt that more than makes up for it. I'm posting a couple images of recent works here, just because.

Animal Costumes, Marnie Weber
  • "Animal Costumes," Marnie Weber

Giant Finger Puppets, Marnie Weber
  • "Giant Finger Puppets," Marnie Weber

5. Richard Prince

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Prince is probably the best-known of Sonic Youth's artist roster. His famous Cowboys series from 1980-92 appropriates photographs from Marlboro cigarette ads, but without any of the original text. The Nurse Paintings were based on pulp novel covers, and debuted at Barbara Gladstone Gallery just one year before Sonic Nurse was released. By the time this album came out I had switched my allegiance from indie rock to art, and I remember getting angry that all these dumb teenagers were going to know about Richard Prince now, like Sonic Youth was selling him out. Which is pretty hilarious, considering.

Student Nurse, Richard Prince
  • "Student Nurse," Richard Prince

Cowboy, Richard Prince
  • "Cowboy," Richard Prince

Cowboy, Richard Prince
  • "Cowboy," Richard Prince

And of course, Kim Gordon was an artist before she was a musician. I'm including some of her sort-of-recent work here, because if it's true that an artist's work is an amalgamation of their influences, Gordon's drippy watercolor statements must contain bits of both Pettibon's black-and-white simplicity and Prince's dirty brushstrokes. It's pretty obvious, right?

Kim Gordon
  • Kim Gordon

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