devo frontman and wes anderson collaborator mark mothersbaugh on his first retrospective

Mark Mothersbaugh is vocalist of new wave rock band Devo, composer of Wes Anderson's iconic soundtracks, and visual artist. Here, Mark talks to i-D about his debut museum retrospective.

by Nadja Sayej
28 March 2017, 2:41pm

We might know Mark Mothersbaugh as the lead singer of 80s new wave band Devo and soundtracker of Wes Anderson movies, but all along this Whip It star has been a visual artist, too. Now, over 3,000 artworks made over the past 40 years are going on display at New York University's Grey Art Gallery on April 25. And this retrospective is named after an eye problem he was diagnosed with at seven years old, Myopia.

It all started in the 70s, before Devo was formed. While studying visual art at Kent State University, he met Devo co-founders Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis, who wanted to create an art movement, called Art Devo.

It was a tough sell — everyone wanted to hear pop hits, not art rock. "To get a booking we'd have to lie to a club and say we were a Top 40 band. After a few songs, we'd get paid to quit," Mark laughs, over Skype from his music studio in Los Angeles. "When we went to New York City, it was the first place people were interested in what we were doing. It was 1977 when we first played CBGBs and now it's 40 years later, but I didn't think this retrospective was going to happen in my lifetime."

The show came about a few years ago when he had curator Adam Lerner stop by his studio. Together, they went through his studio to find a story to base an exhibition around. "To me, it's a third part of my life that I thought was never going to show. It's a retrospective, yet it's introducing me to the world of art," he explains.

The show will feature his Beautiful Mutants photo series, which features 19th-century photographs altered in Photoshop, as well as musical instrument sculptures crafted from salvaged organ pipes that mimic over 200 different bird calls to create 18 new songs.

"I've been collecting organ pipes because churches and schools don't have the money to pay $25,000 to fix an organ cathedral, they're replacing them with $300 Japanese keyboards with organ sounds," Mark states. "People chop up organ pipes and turn them into spice racks and umbrella poles. That freaked me out, so I bought a bunch and filled my studio with them."

Comics have been a recurring theme in Mark's work, especially old-school, high-contrast comics from the "Dick Tracy" Chester Gold-era, which used large amounts of black. Mark will be showing over 30,000 ink drawing postcards in the show, which can be leafed through in 400 books. The size of the postcards was perfect for his vision.

"It was hard for me to do paintings because perspective is hard for me unless it's right here in front of my face," Mark says, as he's been short-sighted ever since he was a child. But the images reveal his inner world, too. "Nobody ever looked at them, not even my girlfriends," he continues. "I could draw anything I wanted, I could totally expose myself. It felt like my inner mind."

As the show came together, he edited some pieces out. "One drawing was of a unicorn nailed to a cross next to Jesus, and they both had erections. I could see how people could get upset about it," he laughs. Much of the exhibition's work is based on these postcard-sized images, which have been later blown up into larger pieces.

He is also including a large piece of ruby from Africa, which has been carved into an ice cream cone, as well as sculptures of lawn gnomes made in Guadalajara, which he calls Roli Polis.

Some pieces in the show outline Devo's past, like one sculpture which features three head pieces: a rubber baby mask from East Germany, a black plastic hairdo modeled after John F. Kennedy, and one of the red "energy dome" hats that helped define the band's look. "We wanted to set ourselves apart from rock and roll looks, that's where the yellow plastic suits came from," Mark explains. "We wanted something so uncool nobody ever thought we were a rock band, so the red energy dome hats fit into that."

The black plastic hairdo was misunderstood, however. "We wanted something that looked like John F. Kennedy but a critic once asked us 'Why are you wearing Ronald Reagan hairdos?'" Mark laughs. "We liked JFK, we knew he had his faults, but it seems like I have a more realistic view of him now I'm not a kid."

By day, Mark works as a composer who creates soundtracks for films by Wes Anderson, amongst others. If he didn't have that job, he would struggle like many other artists, some who come to him borrow rent money. But he has found it isn't just the artists, it's the American museum circuit, as well.

He draws a parallel to American culture — there are 14,000 McDonalds in the country that draw billions annually but there are 35,000 struggling museums. "I thought art museums were like record labels; ripping off artists, taking all the money, bragging about buying expensive paintings, is that what art is about?" he asks. "I was totally wrong. When you go behind the curtain, you see they're all struggling."

Read: Meet the performance artist challenging gender norms in Ghana.


Text Nadja Sayej

Wes Anderson
Mark Mothersbaugh