Some people are just plain hard to pin down. Some other folks — Mark Mothersbaugh is one of them — play by a completely separate set of rules than the rest of us.
I don’t mean he follows the beat of his own drum. No, I truly believe the universe bends to some extent to his will and redefines itself through him. Yup, this guy is as transcendental and trans-dimensional as all that.
It’s not his size. I’m not even sure how tall Mothersbaugh is, as I’m usually sitting down when I talk to him and just trying to focus on what he has to say. Rather, it’s his energy and the way he draws power from the universe that sets him apart. I don’t know if he’s a creative genius, but if he isn’t one, I’m not sure I know what a creative genius is.
The result of this endless creative energy is on display in Myopia, a retrospective of Mothersbaugh’s work on view through Aug. 28 at the Akron Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.
Mothersbaugh’s life as a young person and how he chose to be an artist reads like something out of legend. Unable to see very well until the second grade, Mothersbaugh’s world changed when he got his first pair of glasses. Not only did his vision transform, but also his teacher, who he describes as punishing him every day until that moment, made an important supportive comment.
“I was drawing trees, because up to that point I only knew the part I used to run into. However, after getting glasses, I was just blown away by trees, and my teacher who up to that point had been fairly tough on me, walked up behind me and said ‘You draw trees better than I do.’ That line went in like a bolt and I went home and dreamt I was going to be an artist that night.”
Mothersbaugh’s time as a rock star is fairly well documented. However, he credits his time around the Kent State University School of Art with helping him and others start to figure things out as artists. “There was just a lot of energy around the school … I remember the conceptual artist Morton Subotnick taping money to trees, and Robert Smithson doing the Partially Buried Woodshed. It was because of that vibe that we came up with this interesting thing that was the springboard for the rest of our lives.”
While the music is of course interesting and is what made him famous, it’s equally fascinating to see how he has evolved as a visual artist. Mothersbaugh has worked and produced out of the artist’s studio, so much so that his own personal aesthetic, while familiar to those who know this other work, does stand on its own power.
When asked how his visual art has managed to evolve with all that he does, Mothersbaugh said, “I did 125 gallery shows in street art and graffiti art venues over an eight- to 10-year period. I was seeking out places that had the M.O. of being run often by young people who were just out of college and would soon have to get a job. However, before that happened, they wanted to prove that they had just as good a street art in Raleigh, N.C., or wherever city, as anywhere.
“They’d open a gallery, not where other art galleries were, but rather in some old abandoned storefronts or something and call it ‘Blurr.’ This name and location would ensure that people who had money to buy art would not show up, but the people that loved art would.”
It’s an important learning tool for artists to show their work. A musician needs to perform, and a visual artist needs to produce artwork and display it. Mothersbaugh’s insightful method, to take the work he was making and just show it in a way that suited him and his personality, was smart and insightful.
Some of the reasoning behind it came from the initial way he saw museums. “I thought I had no need for museums at all,” he said. “It took Adam Lerner, the curator for this show, to re-educate me about what museums were about. I thought they were this elitist thing, and the reality is they’re more like public radio. You go inside and there are people who are dedicated to what they’re doing and working hard to pull these shows together.
“I became very humble and I felt honored to get to do this. Especially when I met all these incredible teams of people who work so hard to put these shows together and it’s just for the love of art.”
Talking to Mark Mothersbaugh is a little bit like riding a roller coaster that flips you around and around, but it’s a coaster that runs alongside another coaster that travels a straight track. Meaning, the conversation is going to go all over, but there will be a steadying element. It’s just that for Mothersbaugh, his steadying element is his creativity. For most of us, creativity is what would be the roller coaster.
When asked why he has produced so many postcard-sized works — about 30,000 are on view at the Akron Art Museum — Mothersbaugh is refreshingly candid. “The postcards have a lot to do with my vision. Though I’m ignoring it, from this far away [he looks up] the ceiling bends in about 6 feet. I just get used to processing that. However, because of that, it is more comfortable working on a smaller scale.”
Robert Mothersbaugh, Mark’s father, passed away last week at age 90. It’s important to note, because of the way Robert nurtured Mark and his siblings to choose their own path. “My parents were great. My dad was like, ‘It’s America! You can be anything you want to be.’ He never said, ‘But don’t be an artist.’ ” (Mark isn’t the only one who pursued an artistic life: brother Bob is also a member of Devo, and sister Amy owns an art gallery in Cuyahoga Falls. Robert himself played the part of “General Boy” in Devo videos.)
Talking to Mothersbaugh, it’s hard not to feel a little emotional, especially this week. As someone who truly believes we live in one of the most beautiful, powerful and important parts of the United States, I found it exciting to see this “kid from Akron” having his artistic career celebrated in the area that has supported him and cheered him.
“I remember that when I was at KSU there was this thing called mail art. Artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Indiana would send you artwork back if you sent them something. I loved KSU because I went from being pointed at and having people say ‘Kill him, kill him!!!’ to being anonymous. Then Robert Indiana sent me a postcard after I sent him something, and I realized I could have my own voice, career, etc., too.”
It’s Mark Mothersbaugh’s aesthetic and vigorous approach to art making that helps to set him apart. It’s also his clear desire to keep learning, researching and to stay connected to colleagues, as well as emerging artists who seek him out, that informs and embolden his ideas and gives them life.
He truly lacks creative fear. If you walk through either of the venues that his art is featured in this summer, you will pick up on that energy. It can be funny, and even a little sad, but always purposeful and distinct.
Like the artwork on display, here is an artist who can be cherished, shared and celebrated, right here in his hometown.
Contact Anderson Turner at email@example.com.