From John Lennon to Moby, 10 Musicians Who Have Crossed Over into Visual Art

Artsy Editorial
Aug 31, 2015 11:39PM

Long before Miley Cyrus heralded her art-world arrival with a show of her “psycho-psychedelic craft sculptures” during Art Basel in Miami Beach, musicians have been stepping out of the recording studio into the art studio, swapping their guitars and mics for paintbrushes and cameras, and building impressive resumés that extend beyond the stage. Read up on a cast of musicians who’ve turned out a full set of visual artworks alongside their recordings.

The man who brought the world its first silent musical composition, avant-garde master John Cage produced lyrical visual works late in life that are as equally influenced by Eastern philosophy regarding the chaos and chance of the universe as was his music. Cage counted Marcel Duchamp among his friends and, following Duchamp’s death, assembled a series of “plexigrams” that he titled “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel” (1969), to memorialize the artist. The works each comprise eight plexiglass panels screenprinted with random bits of text and imagery. Cage went on to create dozens of prints, working with Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press; drawings; and paintings that feel deeply meditative and possess a musicality all their own. In 2012, celebrating what would have been Cage’s 100th birthday, the National Academy Museum in New York presented a survey of his works on paper—the largest exhibition of Cage’s work in the U.S. since 1992.

Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 - negatiefstroken zwart/wit, nummer toegang, bestanddeelnummer 922-2305. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Beatles co-founder John Lennon was an artist before he was a musician. He attended the Liverpool College of Art in the late ’50s before the band rose to international superstardom, and he continued to make line drawings and illustrations throughout his life. Lennon’s first solo show, “Bag One,” mounted at the London Art Gallery in 1970, showcased a series of intimate, loose sketches documenting his wedding and honeymoon with fellow artist Yoko Ono. Scotland Yard shut down the exhibit and confiscated many of the drawings, which are now part of MoMA’s permanent collection, due to their erotic nature. Lennon and Ono also famously collaborated on anti-war projects, including their “bed-in” performances, a set of experimental protests carried out in Amsterdam and Montreal.

The Monk, 2009
Gagosian Gallery
Playboy Magazine: Sharon Stone, 2011-2012
Gagosian Gallery

One of the most influential cultural figures in American history, Bob Dylan has been producing drawings and paintings since his early days in NYC—though he did not begin exhibiting until 2007. Influenced by his experiences touring around the world, Dylan’s artwork presents portraits, intimate interiors, landscapes, and still lifes, alongside vibrant, Pop-influenced silkscreens incorporating imagery from iconic publications like Playboy and Rolling Stone. Dylan’s work has been exhibited in Europe and the U.S., with shows at Gagosian in New York and Castle Fine Art in London under his belt.

Punky poet Patti Smith has received awards for her music and writing (her memoir Just Kids was published in 2010, to critical acclaim), but the songstress has also created a vast body of visual art throughout the course of her career. Drawing influence from such diverse luminaries as French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud and infamous photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (with whom she shared a romantic relationship in the ’60s and ’70s), Smith’s artwork—which ranges from drawing to photography to installation—has been shown at the Andy Warhol Museum, the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, the Art Gallery of Ontario, MoMA, and the Centre Pompidou, among other institutions. Smith holds an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the Pratt Institute, and most recently collaborated with Klaus Biesenbach for MoMA PS1’s art fest “Rockaway!” at Fort Tilden.

Androgynous and flamboyant rock icon David Bowie changed the face of pop culture with his all-encompassing artistry. A recent large-scale exhibition charting the full arc of Bowie’s career (“David Bowie Is,” seen first at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and later at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and AGO) allowed his funky visual art to step into the spotlight. From sketches of aliens to self-designed tour posters and excessively detailed staging outlines for performances, Bowie crafted virtually every element of his pop persona. The rockstar is an avid collector, with works by legendary masters Tintoretto and Rubens among his possessions. He also co-founded a boutique art-book publisher, 21 Publishing, in the late ’90s.

Country Life, 1974
Kohn Gallery

Frontman of stylish art-rock group Roxy Music (and once-fine art student trained by Pop pioneer Richard Hamilton), Bryan Ferry created cover artwork for the band’s albums, as well as his own solo recordings in collaboration with pro photographers including Eric Boman, Karl Stoecker, and Adam Whitehead. The sultry, sometimes explicit images of women gracing Roxy Music’s albums were conceived and directed by Ferry; the glamorous “Roxy Girls” became emblematic of the band’s overall image and married the slickness of classic American advertisement with avant-garde sex appeal. Ferry also boasts an impressive private collection of British art, which was exhibited in 2010 at the London International Fine Art Fair.

Kim Gordon and Jutta Koether, The Promise of Originality, May 7, 2010 at K.S. Art, 73 Leonard Street, New York. Photo by Andrew Russeth.

Bassist and vocalist for alt-rock phenomenon Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon originally moved to New York to be an artist and has been showing her visual work since. With a BFA from Otis College of Art and Design, Gordon was recently paid tribute by White Columns, which two years ago presented a survey (the first ever) of her work since 1980. Irreverent text-based paintings, tie-dye-esque spray-painted canvases, video works, silkscreens, and repurposed denim skirts all come together in a practice that is both personal and culturally-aware.

Receiving , 2013
Emmanuel Fremin Gallery

Songwriter and producer Moby has been churning out electronic hits since the early ’90s but only recently attracted attention for his photography, a hobby he’s practiced since the age of 10. In 2011, he published Destroyed, a collection of photographs snapped while on tour—frames overflowing with the outstretched arms of adoring fans stand alongside quieter, more isolating shots of airports and empty highway tunnels and hotel rooms at dawn. Moby’s most recent series, “Innocents,” was shown at Project Gallery in L.A. and Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in New York; the images present eerie, imagined moments of life following a hypothetical apocalypse.

Lizzi Bougatsos, founder and frontwoman of experimental electro-percussion band Gang Gang Dance, joined forces with friend (and fellow BFA student at West Virginia University) Sadie Laska, of noise trio Growing, to form the drumming-centric group I.U.D. Both maintain individual visual art practices on the side of their successful musical careers, and generate artworks as loud and variegated as their music. Bougatsos’s multidisciplinary work includes sculptures, installations, and paintings that re-appropriate the imagery of consumerist culture, twisting them into sly critiques. Laska’s work takes shape in pieces that seem to build on Rauschenberg’s notion of the “combine,” melding found objects on canvases with acrylic, oil, and spray paint. The two have shown together in a group show at Entrepot-galerie du Confort Moderne in Paris, and have seen solo shows in New York galleries James Fuentes (for Bougatsos) and Canada (for Laska).

—Kate Haveles 

Artsy Editorial