Evolution of an Artist

A retrospective exhibit of Mark Mothersbaugh’s four-decade body of work comes home to Northeast Ohio, the place that shaped the subject matter and tone of his visual arts and music. From hand-drawn postcards and mutated portraits to mechanical music makers—it all began against the backdrop of the post-industrial rust belt.

by Melissa Olson

Photo by Joe Levack, Courtesy The Akron Art Museum

There’s a palpable energy in the auditorium of the downtown branch of the Akron Public Library as Dan Horrigan presents his first key to the city of Akron in his role as mayor. “There are no-brainers in life, and this was a no-brainer—an immediate yes,” he says, turning to address the man wearing distinctive glasses standing just off stage. “Your creative energy and output has been a gift to many and has shone a spotlight on the creative and innovative spirit in our city.” 

After receiving the key to Akron, artist and composer Mark Mothersbaugh takes a moment to collect his thoughts before addressing the crowd that has gathered to welcome him back to his hometown. “Whether I’m in London working on a film or in South America playing with a band, people think of us as Akronites. . . . I hope you guys don’t mind me representing you.” 

The presentation is just one of a series of events surrounding a retrospective exhibit of Mothersbaugh’s body of work that made its way to Northeast Ohio in May, after being shown at museums in Denver, Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Austin over the past two years.

Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia, conceived of and curated by Adam Lerner, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, is the first retrospective of the celebrated visual artist, musician, score composer and tinkerer, who became known in the 1970s as cofounder and keyboardist of the New Wave band Devo.

A joint presentation of Mothersbaugh’s work appears simultaneously at the Akron Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Cleveland this summer. Each venue features distinct collections from more than 40 years of drawings, films, paintings, sculpture and music. Myopia at the Akron Art Museum (partially sponsored by Kent State University) focuses on Mothersbaugh’s visual art practice, while Myopia at MOCA Cleveland focuses on his sound, performance and experimentation. Visiting both venues will give audiences a broad perspective of Mothersbaugh’s prolific output.

“The impact of Mothersbaugh’s work is only now emerging in full view,” says Jill Snyder, executive director of MOCA Cleveland. “[It] allows for discovery of an inviting alternative universe; it is a missing chapter of contemporary culture.” 

Coming into Focus

Mark Mothersbaugh grew up in a working class suburb of Akron, Ohio. Born in 1950, he lived for seven years with undiagnosed severe myopia (nearsightedness) before someone thought to have his eyes tested—and found that he couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of his face. 

Leaving the optometrist’s office with his first pair of glasses, Mothersbaugh was fascinated by the detail he suddenly could see in his surroundings. Becoming obsessed with trees, he began drawing them repetitively, and when his teacher told him he drew trees better than she did, he dreamed of becoming an artist. 

Mothersbaugh also took organ lessons as a child and hated them. Then he saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and decided that music was something he wanted to do. These limited-edition screen prints of Mark Mothersbaugh’s School Days were pulled by Kent State senior printmaking majors Casey Engelhart and Katie Metcalf under the direction of printmaking professor Michael Loderstedt.

These limited-edition screen prints of Mark Mothersbaugh’s School Days were pulled by Kent State senior printmaking majors Casey Engelhart and Katie Metcalf under the direction of printmaking professor Michael Loderstedt. Mirror imagery and repetition have been important to Mothersbaugh over the course of his career, making innumerable appearances in his sketchbooks, postcards and photographic work.

During high school, his art teacher became his mentor. No one in his family had gone to college, but she submitted some of his artwork, and Kent State awarded him a partial scholarship. 

Mothersbaugh enrolled at Kent State University in the fall of 1968 to study art, at a time when the university’s enrollment had grown rapidly, and new faculty members were fostering cutting-edge ideas. Arriving on campus, which he calls “an oasis” for students like him, he recognized an energy among his peers and the faculty: “Everyone knew they were somewhere amazing.” 

During his first semester, he took an introductory course in printmaking and fell in love with it, encouraged by his professor, Ian Short, who let him use the studio at night. Prompted by posters put up to advertise events, Mothersbaugh spent late nights printing decals and posters featuring ambiguous images that he plastered all over the campus.

Mothersbaugh met Devo cofounder Gerald (Jerry) Casale at Kent State in 1970, and they became classmates when Casale encouraged him to enroll in an experimental art class taught by associate art professor Robert Culley. “There were a lot of incredible minds that came together in that time period,” Mothersbaugh says. “We didn’t think of what we were doing as music or visual art, we thought we were doing something new.”  

He was on campus when members of the National Guard arrived on May 4, 1970, in response to a several-day student protest of the invasion of Cambodia that resulted in the death of four students. The traumatic event was pivotal in focusing his attention on de-evolution—the idea that humans are evolving in reverse. Casale and others had been discussing the concept prior to the events of May 4, but that day was a defining moment.

“[It] was key to all of us connected to Devo,” says Mothersbaugh. “How do you change things in the world? If you rebel, they can just shoot you. . . . So Devo was looking around wondering who does change things in the world?”

Many themes in Mothersbaugh’s early work (even prior to 1970) suggest answers to this question—and criticize contemporary culture. He’d noticed advertising jingles being used to persuade consumers to buy certain products, and it appeared to him that those were the things that change the world: persuasion through repetition and manufactured emotional response. 

He also became interested in masks, and one became the face of his lifelong alter-ego Booji (pronounced Boogie) Boy, a masked man-child that Mothersbaugh, who says he didn’t want to grow up, used in his visual work and later as a central character in Devo. 

As curator Adam Lerner observes in his introduction to Mothersbaugh’s artist’s talk at the Akron Library, “On the one hand, there’s this repetitive uniformity that is a mirror of our society’s mass production—on the other hand, this man-child (Booji Boy) . . . was able to find freedom from that mass society.”

De-Evolution’s Influence

At Kent State in the 70s, the De-Evolutionist art collective was working out ways to share their ideas with a broader audience, and an opportunity presented itself. Two English professors were organizing the Creative Arts Festival, and the De-Evolutionists asked if they could play music for the event. 

When their request was accepted, Casale asked Mothersbaugh to take part. After only three days of rehearsal, his first performance with the group occurred on April 18, 1973, in the Kent State University Recital Hall. He played keyboard wearing a doctor’s coat, a pair of Converse sneakers and an ape mask. 

The band—known as Sextet Devo during that first musical performance—was formed merely as a soundtrack to amplify the idea of de-evolution, Mothersbaugh says. “We thought of Devo as Art Devo. We wanted to be a clearing house for artistic ideas.”

After settling into their line-up of five members‚ Devo set off for L.A. and secured a record contract with Warner Bros. in 1978, releasing their first album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!. Devo also appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1978.

Tracks from the debut album—“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Mongoloid” and “Uncontrollable Urge”—were hits in several European countries. The single “Whip It” from their third studio album hit the top 20 U.S. Billboard charts in 1980.  

The band still maintains a cult following. Devo released Something for Everybody—their first album in 20 years—in 2010, and they released a collection of demos from the 2010 album sessions, Something Else For Everybody, in 2014. 

Mothersbaugh’s participation in the band encouraged and inspired his visual art, giving him a vocabulary and an audience for the concepts he had been working on in his decals, journals, postcards and found-image collages. 

Go Forward, Move Ahead

Mothersbaugh, who was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Kent State University in 2008, has made a career of composing scores for television, film and video games—beginning with Pee-Wee’s Playhouse in 1986—and he established Mutato Muzika, a commercial music production studio in Los Angeles. He has built instruments to create unique sounds for various scores, and he continues to create visual art that includes an eclectic array of screen prints, mutated photographs, sculptures, postcard diaries and rugs.

With two daughters, ages 11 and 14, Mothersbaugh believes young people today have a sense of optimism, amplified by the technology now available. “It took [Devo] a year to make a seven-minute film,” he says. “I watch my daughters playing with an iPad, and they’re making movies with their friends. . . . It’s amazing the tools the internet has given young people. Now a kid has more power with their phone than the Beatles had when they made their first record.”

Museum retrospectives for active artists aren’t common events in the contemporary art world. For years Mothersbaugh avoided museum shows in favor of pop-up and alternative galleries, assuming he had to work with younger artists to find people who matched his level of enthusiasm about working as an artist. But in his time working with Adam Lerner to prepare the Myopia exhibit, he’s realized the importance of museums for a community: “[They] inspire the youth to keep their minds open and active in a creative way.” 

Lerner says, “In Mark’s art, you see that if we could find our child self, then we could find our artistic self—and that’s what you see in so many of his works.”

In closing his artist’s talk at the Akron Public Library, it’s clear that Mothersbaugh is grateful for a supportive and responsive audience. “I feel so fortunate that I even get this part of my life,” he says. “It’s like a surprise bonus.”

Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia is on exhibit at the Akron Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland through August 28. Visit akronartmuseum.org and mocacleveland.org for more information.

Resources for this article include the books We Are DEVO! by Jade Dellinger and David Giffels (SAF Publishing Ltd., 2003) and the exhibit catalog Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia edited by Adam Lerner (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014).

Back to Summer 2016

POSTED: Friday, July 08, 2016 10:50 AM
UPDATED: Thursday, December 08, 2022 05:44 PM
Melissa Olson