Many worlds converge within Mark Mothersbaugh. Children clamor for his wacky cartoon soundtracks. Adults scramble to see his deranged drawings. Rock fans of all ages cheer whenever DEVO is played. He serves corporate interests, yet he enriches the counterculture. It all adds up to a unique fusion of good and bad taste, seasoned with a pinch of science and schlock.

From his orbiting cerebral command post Mothersbaugh observes America’s kids as they face countless television and movie-theater screens. He pulls a few levers, turns a few knobs, and the kids all smile. So did the hipsters of 1978, when he piloted the pioneering electro-punk outfit DEVO. Adorned with orange radiation suits and goggles, the band took a desperate public by surprise with their Eno-produced debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO. Over the course of several albums they morphed into major-label stalwarts of the avant-garde. During their decade-long joyride Mark mixed a variety of artforms into a media stew still serving as the prototype for everything from Rock videos to marketing schemes.

His musical doodling blossomed into a brilliant career cranking out soundtracks for films and television — especially children’s shows, which are repositories of cutting-edge media ideas. Hollywood loved his stuff, as did the kids, and so did the music fans — and so too did the denizens of the art world. Mark skips easily along that razor’s edge between sacrifice and sell-out. He enjoys a stellar reputation across many disciplines. But at the end of the day he always returns to his secret stash of self-inflicted art damage lurking among the thousands of postcards he illustrates whenever he needs release.


At Ohio’s glorious Kent State University on an art scholarship, the Akron native (along with brother Bob) teamed up with fellow fuck-up Jerry Casale (along with his brother, also called Bob). From that union came DEVO, a hard-hitting, smart New Wave-style band (the name comes from “devolution,” a conceptual imperative by which they deconstructed Pop Culture). After a few independent releases and significant buzz about the band’s audio-visual onslaught, Warner Bros. signed them.

Starkness, a nod to Mod, and a chilly intellectualism characterized New Wave. DEVO was a product of the alienation and angst so prevalent in those days — but they didn’t let it get them down. They forecast a bright future, and a few of their hunches have come to pass. Mark: “In the mid-Seventies Popular Science predicted that everyone would have laser-disc players in a year, and we said, ‘Hell, that’s great — there’s room for a whole new art form to start.’ And we got excited by that. We predicted that ‘sound and vision’ would be the new art form.” DEVO were conceptual artists thinking of music in visual as well as abstract modes, and utilizing its immediacy and power to promote the unification of genres and media. “We were creating something new. We thought we were part of the burial of Rock & Roll.”

DEVO used an art strategy, experimental electronics, newly emergent video forms, and previously unimagined marketing by which the band became living parts of a total package. Mark: “We were inspired by the fact that technology allowed us to jump over the boundaries of, ‘This is a painting’ or ‘This is a photograph’ or ‘This is music’ or ‘This is theater’ or ‘This is fashion.’ We were excited that ideas could be the common denominator; that ideas could be the focus of our work, and we didn’t have to spend a lifetime learning how to chisel saints’ hands or something. We saw it as a really exciting time to be artists and we wanted to do products that were on the shelves in K-Mart — we thought that was more interesting and subversive than galleries. We didn’t disdain galleries or Fine Art, but we thought it was such a limited venue, and there was so many possibilities … our merchandising was part of our art.”

After reaching the stratosphere of stardom, DEVO self-destructed. The details of their demise are not important here, except to mention that it was in part predicated by their adherence to artistic integrity. On their album Oh No It’s DEVO, the song “I Desire” had lyrics by would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley. The government didn’t take too kindly to that, and thus started a subtle series of events that added up to trouble. The record company wouldn’t push the album, the FBI had a few words for the band — even actress Jody Foster, the object of Hinckley’s desires, registered her displeasure. But the guys stuck by their guns and the album came out with the song intact, to their eternal credit.

Mark launched Mutato Musika, which grew into a production company and studio occupying the coolest building on Sunset Boulevard. His music devolved. He stripped from it everything but the most personal, introspective elements. Complex instrumentals with bright themes and ironic humor were his specialty — an amalgam of Bach, Sci-Fi, Minimalism and B-movies. His sounds evoked entire spectrums of emotion, as evidenced in 1988’s Musik For Insomniaks. “I think of myself as a social scientist,” he says.

All the while Mothersbaugh’s music was seeping into the boardrooms of the entertainment cartels, where it was decided he would create the tunes for America’s children. He scored much of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, one of the most influential and far-out programs to ever grace the usually barren wasteland of television.

As the DEVO era ended, Mark’s graphics began to be appreciated by the know-it-alls of the art world. The pundits of Underground Art focused their attention on his startling graphics.

With fluorescent inks and attitude he created large prints with hidden images, blown-up clip art and suggestive drawings. It all started in college: “When the school bell rang, and all those kids scurried off to their sorority houses or their fraternity activities or whatever the fuck college kids do, they left the art department empty. I could work all night in the silkscreen room. I fell in love with silkscreen.” An appreciation of that craft, combined with the influence of Dadaists, Mexican comic-book art, and San Francisco’s psychedelic poster artists, made for a powerful style that chews up icons and assaults cherished notions. Art shows at The Psychedelic Solution, La Luz de Jesus, Sarah Baine and Parsons put Mothersbaugh’s weird work on the map.

He scored more and more TV and films, and about three-hundred commercials. He did The Rugrats Movie, Rocky And Bullwinkle, 200 Cigarettes, Bottle Rockets, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Happy Gilmore, The New Age and, for TV, Power Puff Girls, Dawson’s Creek, Rugrats, Liquid Television, Last Rites, South Beach et cetera. But that wasn’t enough. He had to draw dirty pictures, in order to placate an ongoing obsession to spew out the dizzying contents of his mind. Mark made music for children, but on the same day he drew things that shouldn’t be shown to them. He drew on thousands of postcards, which he hoarded and loved, and which now constitute the world’s largest collection of mental snapshots.

Postcards — placid messengers from other places, showing us the great sights, sent to us by friends and family. Pleasant pictures of tourist traps and sunsets … but Mothersbaugh twisted all that into an introspective onslaught of art sickness. For decades he relentlessly adorned the backs of postcards: “I’ve done post cards on stage. I’ve done them in just about every situation you can imagine.”

The images he creates intrigue us, for we too have recurring pictures floating around in our own heads. Mothersbaugh documents those mental pictures, over and over again, and in the process he provides a riveting view into his exposed mind.

“I was interested in doing art that was unconscious. It didn’t have to have a point; it didn’t have to mean anything. I liked doing art that came from somewhere inside me, and after I did it I said, ‘What the hell’s that?’ I felt I was exposing something that wasn’t controlled by the superego. It was connected to my guts and the goo and the primordial ooze inside. Either I was doing art for an outside audience with DEVO, or I was doing art for which I was the only audience. And to this day the majority of it has never been seen by anyone other than myself or whoever I was living with at the time who might have looked over my shoulder and said, ‘Oh my god — you’re still doing that?’ In my bedroom there are a hundred and sixty-two binders that each contain at least a hundred postcards — and they were done by hand, one at a time, starting in 1971.”

The roots of Mark’s style — and the unusual format for it — are extraordinary. “I was legally blind when I was a kid. Nobody knew it until I was in second grade. They thought I had Attention Deficit Disorder. I didn’t even look at the blackboard. After coming back from the optometrist — after having been fitted with glasses — for the first time I saw the clouds, the sun, the birds, the rooftops and trees all at the same time. Fascinated with all the things I saw, I started drawing pictures. I drew obsessively.”

“I never got over daydreaming. Now I can take my glasses off and go back to a world that’s a fog of color. That’s a nice escape.”

The postcards keep coming. “Drawing this stuff is therapeutic. I’m still trying to figure out what the fuck it is,” he explains. He’s probably drawing one as we speak over the phone. I ask him if it’s an obsessive behavior, like constantly washing one’s hands or tapping one’s fingers. “I’ve allowed it to become something of an obsession. I mean, it’s a discipline, because I’ve put myself in a place where I constantly think about it — and other things I should be doing that would probably be more beneficial to me as an organism fall to the wayside.” Does he start jonesing to draw? “Yeah, daily.” Why? “I think it’s complicated enough so that I haven’t been able to analyze it. They’re satisfying on different levels at different times — including the very childish, very immature.” How about sexual? “I don’t find my artwork sexy — I find it interesting or funny more than I find it erotic. I’d be concerned if people thought of it as erotic. I don’t think you can get a boner from looking at it … actually, it offsets the agony and frustration of double-think.”

The postcards tell their stories through hieroglyphic codes of recurring ideograms — vaginas with teeth, decapitated chickens, sweating breasts, tense faces, erect penises, lovers embracing — what kind of art is this? “I see it as confetti out of someone’s brain. If you could photograph a brain spraying out through the forehead, it’s like one little bit of it contains a hundred thousand of these images, thoughts and feelings at different moments in time. I’m like this senile old guy. There’s something that squirts out of his head every day, and he manages to save piles of it for a long time … it’s definitely a diary. I’m creating a world that I can review.

“I really like low stuff and things that screw around with high art. I like making fun of everybody and everything — including myself.”

Mark’s hyper-personal postcards are for now an obscure footnote to his prolific music career. But even the busiest of days in showbiz don’t deter him from drawing — discreetly, even as he conducts business: “Oh yeah, because most people just go, ‘He’s somehow doin’ that and he’s got a ninety-piece orchestra playin’ in the next room, and he’s got clients from a film company sitting there …’ It counter-balances what’s happening to me in the music world, where I have patrons. My postcards are diametrically opposed to patron-driven art. It’s a whole different monster I wrestle. It’s an escape. I create a certain amount of unhappiness for myself, but I also have ways of being happy.”

Mark Mothersbaugh’s a wonderfully mainstream artist with a mind-blowing edge. His continuous spew of unimaginable images are slowly percolating into public view. As the work matures, he wants to share it. He wants to show it off. “Yeah, now I do. I think so,” he says with assurance.

What else? “The happiest time of day is when I’m drawing for myself. I don’t think of it as something as glorious or super cool. Jeez, now I think it’s something I ought to be cured of.”