Ric Ocasek is calling to talk about art, but he’s happy to talk about music, too.
This weekend, Ric Ocasek: Abstract Reality opens at the Wentworth Gallery at the King of Prussia Mall. The Cars’ leader’s brightly colored drawings, paintings, and prints will be on display, and the “Good Times Roll” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” songwriter will be on hand to meet his people between 6 and 8 p.m.
Visual art as an avocation is a common rock star pursuit — Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp, Tony Bennett (a rock star among saloon singers), Paul Stanley of Kiss and Rick Allen, the one-armed Def Leppard drummer, all dabble with a brush.
Ocasek, the 74-year-old Baltimore-born guitarist and front man for the Cars who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, says he has been “drawing and doing things with art and photography since ... always.”
“If I did a drawing and finished it, I would probably just put it away,” the unschooled artist says, on the phone from New York.
“I used to do a lot of collages. I had a big stack, but I never intended to show them.” Instead, he’d keep them in a drawer, or gift them to people like Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, whose 1994 and 2001 self-titled records Ocasek produced.
“I pulled some of them out and a gallery owner saw them and I did some shows in New York,” he says, “And then I got some offers and I wound up going with Wentworth,” who have a network of galleries around the United States and the world.
Ocasek’s method is to draw sometimes representational shapes on paper — the works are not purely abstract — usually using colored markers. He might cut and paste photos to “collage up” the piece. He then does a hi-resolution scan of the image, blows it up big, and paints on top of it.
He’s a pop art and Andy Warhol fan. But Ocasek isn’t an art history buff. He says he rarely listens to music, when making art or otherwise, to avoid the temptation to borrow or even be unduly influenced. “It’s kind of neat being naive about it. I think you get more creative that way.”
When he started showing at galleries, "People said, ‘Your stuff looks like Kandinsky,' ” the Russian abstract art pioneer. “I said, ‘Who’s Kandinsky?‘ When I saw his art, I was flabbergasted. Not that they’re that similar, but there were also these shapes that take on other forms, that he was a master of.
“The creative process for making art is really no different from making music,” Ocasek says. “You’re developing from something that wasn’t there to something that is — and hopefully is appealing. Or maybe not even, but still good.”
Ocasek started making music in the 1960s, after his family moved to Cleveland when he was 16. In Ohio, he met Benjamin Orr (who often sang lead on Ocasek’s songs in the Cars), and the two moved to Boston in 1972, starting out as a folk duo.
A succession of bands followed — Milkwood, Cap’n Andy, and Richard & the Rabbits, the latter named by Jonathan Richman. When drummer Richard Robinson of Richman’s Modern Lovers joined, the Cars were born in 1976.
At the peak of the band’s new wave-era popularity, taut, jittery, irresistible hits like “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Shake It Up” were ubiquitous on FM rock radio. Ocasek remembers Philadelphia being “one of the top three places for us to play in the entire U.S.”
When the band played the Spectrum, the venue would show them on video screens, at the time not a common practice.
“They would shoot the concert and sell us the tape,” he recalls. “It was like, OK, that’s what we look like onstage.” When Ocasek put together a DVD called Unlocked in 2005, “a lot of that footage came from Philadelphia.”
The Cars broke up in 1988. Ocasek carried on with a solo career, releasing seven albums. In 2006, Ocasek says the Cars’ manager told him the band was going to tour and asked if he wanted to come.
“I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘Well, we’re going to do it anyway.’ ”
Ocasek said they couldn’t call it the Cars, and joked they could use New Cars instead. “And they took it,” with Upper Darby’s Todd Rundgren in his place. Ocasek was a regular on Cars fan Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central show, and came on to put Rundgren “On Notice.”
Ocasek is more studio and songwriting creature than touring animal. “I never needed to do it,” he says. “I never needed to feel the applause.” Still by 2011, any bad blood “had long healed” and the Cars returned with an album, Move Like This, and a tour.
Being inducted into the Rock Hall was a big deal, Ocasek admits. “I didn’t think it would mean much, maybe because I didn’t think I would get in. But then once I did, it meant quite a bit. It’s a lot of other artists that I appreciate and love. It’s nice to be in that group in my lifetime.”
But that didn’t mean that Ocasek — who has six sons and is separated from his third wife, supermodel Paulina Porizkova, whom he met making the video for the Cars 1984 hit Drive — was in a big hurry to capitalize on the honor.
“People are really pestering me to tour, and I feel bad for the band because I never wanted to go on tour as much as they did. I don’t want to do a ‘It’s the Cars with the Cure’ or ‘Three bands from the ‘80s tour.”
He’s not saying never, though. “Time’s getting late,” he says. “I’m not planning on it, but if I felt so inspired, I would.”
Those same rules guide him making visual art, he says. He’s a musician first, but not just dillydallying in the visual arts.
“I’ve always cared about art that’s real and not fake,” Ocasek says. “All the people I’ve ever followed or liked — singers, artists, poets, painters — were all like that. Everything has to feel that way, or I can’t do it because I’m not interested. I’m not goofing around. I take it seriously.”