'Sympathy for the Devil' explores how rock 'n' roll has inspired generations of visual artists since 1967

By Kevin Nance
Published in Chicago Sun Times
Sep. 7, 2007

For most people these days, rock 'n' roll and contemporary art seem to exist in alternate universes. The cerebral hush of a gallery or museum is a world apart from a raucous rock concert. And although rock musicians are commonly referred to as "artists," there's a widely perceived gulf between them and people who paint, draw, sculpt, make photographs or practice other forms of visual art. 

It wasn't always so. As illustrated in "Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock 'n' Roll Since 1967," continuing through Jan. 6 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, bridges have been built for decades between the two art forms. 

That was particularly true in the 1960s and early '70s, when many visual artists, who often played in bands themselves, were inspired by the rebellious irreverence of rock music. The relationship shifted with punk and crested in the early '80s with New Wave (and its more experimental counterpart, No Wave), which saw the rise of a generation of rockers with art- school backgrounds -- notably David Byrne -- and the visual artists whose heads they flooded with images. 

"Beginning in the late '60s, rock music became an intrinsic part of the basic makeup of a lot of people, including artists," says the exhibit curator, MCA's Dominic Molon. "Those artists absorbed a lot of things from the music that would wind up in their work. Art is always trying to be progressive, to find new ways of doing and saying things, prompting us to see ourselves and our society in a different ways, so there's always been this overlap and this kinship with rock 'n' roll." 

Named for the Rolling Stones song from 1968, the exhibition features pieces by Andy Warhol, Tony Oursler, Richard Prince, Robert Longo, Dan Graham, Christian Marclay, Adam Pendleton, Raymond Pettibon, Kai Althoff, Pipilotti Rist and Yoshitomo Nara, among others, along with a small group of Chicago-based artists including Ed Paschke, Karl Wirsum, Pedro Bell and Melanie Schiff. 

In some cases, the pieces in the show are the result of literal collaborations between musicians and the artists who produced their album covers, posters and, later, music videos. We see, for example, work by Pettibon, who designed several Black Flag album covers before developing into an artist widely collected by museums. We also get an eye-popping look at the work of Bell, whose Afro-Futurist covers for Funkadelic albums (such as 1981's bizarre "The Electric Spanking of War Babies") represent a direct link between artists and the music they loved. More often in "Sympathy for the Devil," that link is looser and more subtle. "There have been other exhibitions about art and rock that have failed because they were too literal," Molon says. "I didn't just want a collection of artworks that had rock references in them. I was looking for a different kind of connection, the kind that embodies in a more abstract way the intensity of rock." 

Rock as 'primordial ooze' 
"Sympathy for the Devil" is loosely organized in six geographical sections: New York, West Coast/Los Angeles, the Midwest, the United Kingdom, Europe and "The World." Ground zero for the art/music connection, however, is New York, where at certain periods the art and rock scenes blended to a striking degree. 

"The irony is that when I moved to the city in 1977, the art world I thought I was going to join was dying -- the real art scene was in the rock clubs at night," recalls Longo, who has done album covers for The Replacements and music videos for New Order, REM, Megadeth and other bands. "For me and my colleagues, the New Wave/punk music scene was the primordial ooze for the art that ended up coming out of us. There was all this cross-pollination, all this collision -- not pastiche -- with the sensibility that existed in the music world, which ended up helping me a lot in my own art." 

The evidence includes the artist's quasi-triptych of gestural drawings in "Sympathy for the Devil," which shows a series of figures dancing in the spasmodic, herky-jerky style associated with New Wave performers and their followers. 

"I wanted to make work that happened when you looked at it," says Longo, who lived for a time with the photographer Cindy Sherman. "The drawings for me were not figurative; if you took the clothes off these people, you'd end up with a series of abstract lines. Yes, they look like people dancing, but they also look like people being shot -- at the point of impact. There were these psychotic impulses I was trying to capture, like the way people would compete with each other to see who could fall dead the best." 

'My own fantasy supergroup' 
While much of "Sympathy for the Devil" focuses on the art/rock nexus from a historical perspective, the exhibit also shows how rock continues to inspire artists today. 

One example is "Sound Digressions in Seven Colors" (2006) by Oursler, who has collaborated on projects with David Bowie and Beck, among others. The piece is a seven-channel video installation, using sound and images projected on and from seven translucent panels of Plexiglas and aluminum. The work features seven different 45-minute video loops of musicians improvising independently on various instruments, including Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon on bass guitar, Tony Conrad on bells and Zeena Parkins on electronic harp. Usually the sounds form a cacophony in the manner of a John Cage composition, but occasionally they coalesce intobrief moments of unexpected harmony. 

"Cage was the inspiration of the piece in a way," Oursler says, "but I was also thinking, 'Wouldn't it be great if I could make my own fantasy supergroup?' I've been fascinated by the idea making an artwork that captures the way an audience member has their own perspective on an artwork or piece of music, and at the same time facilitates an interaction with the artwork itself. So the artwork is kind of spinning in its own universe, and also inviting people into it so that you have this collaboration between the two. It's special, in more ways than one, for each person who comes in to see it. And it has its own life -- it's almost Frankenstinian, in that it just goes off on its own." 

Then there's Schiff, whose "Neil Young, Neil Young" (2006) shows the artist standing in the woods holding Young's eponymous first album from 1968 in front of her face. In an interview, Schiff says the photograph is both a tribute to Young and a meditation on the relationship people have, or once had, with rock music. 

"It's about being a fan, and being in awe, and the nostalgia for something that, in my case, I've never really experienced," says Schiff, who was born in 1977. "There's a lot of romance in the way people relate to rock music, and I don't think that art generally has that kind of relationship with its audience, which is too bad." 

In fact, "Sympathy for the Devil" arrives at a historical moment when the connection between art and rock, already loosened by the transition from vinyl to CDs, is being tested further by digital music delivery systems. What relevance does album-cover art have for rock fans in the age of the iPod? 

"It'll be interesting to see whether there's still going to be an importance that musicians attach to retaining a visual identity matched with the music we hear," Molon says. "In the pop world with its cult of the performer, it may not matter what images 50 Cent or Gwen Stefani use with their music. But rock bands still often set themselves up to be more challenging than that, and their visual identity tends to be dealt with in a much different way. We'll see."