I wrote my dissertation, my PhD dissertation on an American artist by the name of Gutzon Borglum. Borglum was a fascinating figure. He largely taught himself how to paint and sculpt, and he somehow worked his way into the company of such great figures as the sculptor Auguste Rodin and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. But even beyond art, he did things like campaign for his good friend Teddy Roosevelt. He trained Czech rebels on his estate in Connecticut. He conducted an investigation of airline production during WWI. He developed a plan to reinvent money, and schools too.
Oh, and he also carved these four portrait heads on a mountain that we call Mount Rushmore. This guy got stuff done. Me, it took me ten years just to get the PhD. Granted, not all of it was writing the dissertation. I did spend nine months of 1997 in the archive of the Library of Congress reading every letter that Borglum had written, and I did what we academics were trained to do: I found out how it is that Borglum’s ideas embodied ideas of modernism, antimodernism, progressivism, republicanism, organicism, and nativism.
I’m sorry, this is what we do as academics: we call it historical context, which is another way of saying find someone amazing and show how all of their ideas were actually someone else’s ideas. And that’s why it’s not surprising that I never once said, “What an amazing way to live your life.” I never once asked myself, “What did I actually learn from this guy?” Because Borglum, above all else, above his artistic talent, was capable of the freedom to imagine the world afresh. I didn’t become an academic, I became a curator. A curator is a bit more positive; we do actually ask the question, “What can we learn from this artist?” I would stand in front of a work by say, Andy Warhol, and I would say, “Andy Warhol teaches us that there is no distinction between art and life.” I would say that, but in actuality, I didn’t go to the pantry and peel off the labels of the soup cans and paste them on the wall. I didn’t try to make walking the dog into a performance art piece.
Even though I would say that Andy Warhol teaches us this or that, if I were honest with myself, I didn’t actually learn anything from Andy Warhol. You know, neither did I learn anything from the dozens of amazing artists whose work I curated over ten plus years. I mean, I learned about them, but it never even occurred to me that I could apply the lessons that I learned to my own life.
In 2001, I curated an exhibition of an artist named Bruce Conner. Bruce Conner is what we curators call a leading avant-garde artist, which is to say he is completely unknown. I was working on an even more obscure element of his work, which was these rock n’ roll photographs that he’d taken in the late 70s of bands like The Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, and DEVO. Coincidentally, around this time, the Denver County Fair, an amazing fair here in Denver, actually invited DEVO to perform here. You know DEVO. They’re the band with the funny red hats, right? You know, “Whip It?” “Whip it good?” You all look so young.
But if you weren’t teenagers and were 45 or 55 like me, then you definitely know DEVO, right? OK Thanks. So I asked my good friend, an old time punk rock photographer, Richard Peterson, if he could introduce me to somebody in the band while they were in town. Richard arranged for me to meet with the frontman of DEVO, Mark Mothersbaugh.
Alright! As you gather from some of some people’s reactions, he is beloved .There are some people who have Mark’s face tattooed on their body. Like this guy. Sorry, sorry about that. So I remember this, here I am, I’m interviewing Mark Mothersbaugh about what it’s like to work with avant-garde artist Bruce Conner. This is a little bit like interviewing Jay Z about his amazing florist. OK? But this is what I was trained to do as an academic! I didn’t know any better.
I meet with Mark, and what happens is that after 15 minutes of talking with him, I realized this is probably the most creative person I have ever met in my life. I was amazed that no museum curator had taken his art seriously, and no one had actually told his whole story. His story is really incredible.
He began as a visual artist, and he enrolled in Kent State University in 1968 in the Visual Arts. That means that he was there on May 4th, 1970, when the national guard opened fire on student protesters, killing four of them. His future bandmate Jerry Casale describes the trauma of seeing their classmates lying dead in a pool of blood. After these events, they came to think that the whole idea of progress that everyone in America seems to really be big on is nonsense. We are not evolving as a society; we are devolving, and therefore, they formed the band, DEVO.
DEVO played music, but they did much more. Mark wrote music for the band, and he collaborated with his bandmates to do set design, costume design, record art. But he himself had a much, much grander career. He himself did so much more as well. I learned just how much he did when I visited him on a regular basis to do research for an exhibition and book that I was going to do about him.
So, I discovered for example, he has four storage spaces filled with the weirdest things you can imagine and a lot of art. I went through boxes and boxes, including all of his old journals from college. In this one in particular, he outlines ideas that occupy the entire rest of his life. I opened boxes that hadn’t been opened in 40 years that had things like decal art that he made in the early 1970s before decal art was even a thing. I saw all of the films, and learned about the films that they made as a band before music videos were a thing.