“Nice glasses,” the front man of Devo, prolific soundtrack composer, and accomplished visual artist remarks approvingly, checking out my vintage eyewear. Of course, the compliment must be returned. Mark Mothersbaugh’s own specs are spectacular: A mad-scientist model called the Akronite that he designed, they are shaped like heavily framed midcentury TV screens and made from beryllium with a reflective stainless steel chrome finish.
There is a point to all this chatter about cheaters: Mothersbaugh may have had the foresight to turn a Dada-influenced performance-art music combo into a platinum recording group that has left its sticky fingerprints all over pop culture, but it was his utter lack of vision — and the aid of prescription lenses — that set him down the path to becoming a multimedia artist. Acclaimed as a musician and cultural theorist orchestrating smash-ups at the intersection of human performance and technology, Mothersbaugh, who has obsessively completed some 30,000 postcard-sized artworks since the 1970s, has been less recognized for his visual output.
That oversight has been addressed in the aptly titled “Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia,” a major retrospective of his work on display throughout the entire Museum of Contemporary Art Denver until April 12, 2015, with a companion book published by Princeton Architectural Press that includes a foreword by Mothersbaugh’s comrade, director Wes Anderson. The exhibition, curated by Adam Lerner, Director & Chief Animator at MCA Denver, will travel through the spring of 2017 to Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Austin, Santa Monica, and New York City, and includes prints, drawings, paintings, computer-generated mutations of antique photographs, video animations, and fiberglass sculptures.
A group of these sculptures, squat and bulbous humanoid creatures with big eyes, pointy noses, and upturned forelocks that Mothersbaugh calls Roli Polis, greet visitors to Mutato Muzika, his acid green lair shaped suspiciously like the Jupiter 2 ship on Lost in Space and perched with a view of Los Angeles’s famed Sunset Strip. Inside the circular building, which was once a plastic surgeon’s office, Mothersbaugh has created a recording studio (in the former operating theater) and administrative offices.
His HQ is decorated with a flair befitting a man who has written music for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Rugrats, Rushmore, and The Lego Movie. Past a 21 Jump Street poster, in which stars Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are crowned with Devo’s famed red Energy Dome hats, one wall contains the work of Bob Zoell, a series of parking signs that describe the horrors of dishing out cat food. On the maestro’s office, a business card pronounces: Dr. Mark A. Mothersbaugh, Specializing in Humane Letters and Subhuman Oddities.
The doctor, who is nearly old enough to qualify for Medicare, looks annoyingly youthful with a full head of silvery hair and a goatee configuration that simultaneously says hep-cat and father-of-two. (He and spouse Anita Greenspan have two daughters, Hope and Margaret, adopted from China.) He speaks with just a trace of his Akron, Ohio, roots, pinballing from subject to subject, past to present, serious to bemused. In laying out his life and work to view, he generally begins with a transformative childhood story. It’s a tale he likes to tell, so I let him:
I was born with extreme myopia that nobody noticed. It was very common in my age range, especially if you were in a factory town. I could see a fog and colors. It was like looking through the pebble glass in a bathroom shower door. When somebody would come to our house, I’d be one inch from her face going, “Grandma!” And they were all like, “He’s the most intense kid in the family.”
At school, I was a discipline problem. The teacher would say, “Would you add the numbers on the board?” And I’d go, “What’s the board?” And then I’d have to stand in the corner. Right before second grade was over, I got my eyes tested, and they said, “Your son is legally blind.”
I remember coming out of that building with my first pair of glasses and getting in a car. And when we got to the top of the hill, I could see my school for the first time in my life. I saw the little woods I walked through every day on my way to school, houses with roofs and chimneys and smoke coming out of them, telephone poles with wires, trees and clouds, birds flying. I was like, “This is fucking awesome!” And so, I started drawing things. I was drawing trees in class the next day. And my teacher, who had been disciplining me every day, looked over my shoulder and she said, “You draw trees better than me.” I remember going home that night, and I dreamt I was going to be an artist.
—David A. Keeps