11 July 2019

Whether it’s Wolfgang Tillmans, Angela Bulloch or Jean-Michel Basquiat - a lot of artists find themselves in music. And often put on spectacular shows with their bands.

By Maria Sitte

The connections between visual art and music are close but the boundaries are fluid. You need only think of Yoko Ono, Kraftwerk or Björk, or of Andreas Gursky’s jam-packed photograph of a Madonna concert, which captures the mass phenomena of pop culture, as well as Rosemarie Trockel’s designed covers, which are adapted by bands like Kreidler. The list of examples of artistic and musical crossovers is long. So it is all the more interesting to take a look at contemporary artists, who not only use visual art as a means of expression, but also play out their emotions via music with their own bands.

1. Gray

Before his breakthrough as an artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat sprayed his SAMO© graffiti in the streets of New York and formed a band called Gray together with Michael Holman in 1979. Named after the anatomy textbook “Gray’s Anatomy,” which often inspired Basquiat’s paintings, the band combined musical elements from industrial, noise, rock, no-wave, ambient and jazz. Gray performed at legendary nightclubs such as CBGB or the Mudd Club and provided the soundtrack to Glenn O’Brien’s cult film “Downtown 81,” in which Basquiat played the leading role. For two years up until his artistic breakthrough he played clarinet and synthesizer, before devoting himself primarily to his work as a visual artist.

2. Destroy all Monsters

Melancholy and rebellion. This is how you could describe the music by Destroy all Monsters in two words. Originally named after a movie, the four art students Mike Kelley, Cary Loren, Jim Shaw and Niagara (Lynn Rovner) teamed up in 1973. However, their first provocative performance was a resounding flop: They were asked to leave the stage after just ten minutes. They expanded their musical repertoire with the help of coffee tins, vacuum cleaners and occasional meowing. Yet before their first release the founding members Kelley and Shaw left the band and subsequently made a name for themselves as installation artists. With a new band lineup, Destroy all Monsters released their first single “Bored” in 1978. After numerous solo projects, the band finally split up in 1985.

3. Trabant

The musical affinity of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson is more than obvious in his hypnotic films and performances. With a lot of irony and charm he has his ten performers, play guitar as dreamy bohemians or he himself slips into the role of a romantic Hollywood dandy singing about Weltschmerz as in “Sarrow concers happyness.” His electric band founded in 2001 expounds the same light-hearted humor in its performances. For example, in the song “The One” (voted “Music video of the year” at the Icelandic Music Awards in 2006) they sing fervently about their belief in love while performing in an overflowing fountain. Tip: On July 19th Ragnar Kjartansson’s exhibition „Scheize – Liebe – Sehnsucht“ opens in Stuttgart.

4. Martin Creed & Band

Alongside his visual works, starting in the 1990s Martin Creed has repeatedly devoted himself to producing musical compositions. In 1995 there was the album “Nothing” produced with his three-member punk band Owada and in 1999 the album “I Can’t Move,” whose title song was used for the TV program “Weeds.” In the two-chord track “Thinking/Not Thinking” (2011) he describes in continuing repetitions how the main thing in life is to think and not think. This minimalist condensed simplicity can also be found in his installation “Work 227: The lights going on and off” (2000), which consists of a light incessantly going on and off; in a similar manner to his lyrics it represents a certain reading of everyday life.

5. Gang Gang Dance

As a musician, Lizzi Bougatsos lends her voice to bands like Gang Gang Dance, of which she is a founding member, and to the psychedelic I.U.D., where she plays together with painter Sadie Laska. According to Bougatsos the creative process is a response to various stimuli from her native city of New York. In her artistic and musical practice, she does not hesitate to demonstrate her critical position vis-à-vis symbols of Western society. This is especially clear when she penetrates posters of Mickey Mouse with a plastic dildo or adds two wooden crutches to a latex bodysuit.

6. Fragile

In the course of his career as a photo artist Wolfgang Tillmans has produced many portraits of musicians, including American R&B singer Frank Ocean. Since 2014 Tillmans has been focusing more strongly on music. Next to his iconic images of the club generation, music is not only the motif; it has meanwhile also become an active part of his output. In the song “Anderes Osterlied” by his band Fragile, Tillmans takes a critical stance towards society, as we have come to expect from him. For instance, one line translates as “That would surely suit the masters of this world if justice were only to come after death.” It may therefore be no coincidence that his musical debut coincides with his political campaign against Brexit.

7. The Wired Salutation

If we think of Angela Bulloch’s listening stations, which invite visitors to play records and listen to the tracks they themselves composed, it is not really surprising that the artist also launches musical collaborations like “The Wired Salutation.” This is an audio-visual performance the artist realized together with musician David Grubbs. Their performances at Centre Pompidou in Paris and Theater der Künste in Zurich revealed the close intermeshing of the visual and the musical: Their joint live show was accompanied by an animated avatar quartet. Bulloch, who already played bass in the band Big Bottom, also draws heavily on light, sound and text in her conceptual works.