I was inclined to write about Dylan’s paintings after seeing The Brazil Series, a surprisingly good exhibition at the Statens Museum for Kunst, which I discovered by accident, while working in Copenhagen last January. My first thought was to write about the work in a distant way—not academic, but distant. In other words, I wanted to make it objective. I could describe the paintings the way they do in the Friday edition of the New York Times, leaving the killer punch line for the end. I would not mention that the artist had another career for which he had become a legendary figure throughout the world. I would focus only on the tedious formal ideas—tedious because there is no way to justify Dylan’s paintings from a formalist point of view. The method, although authoritative from an academic viewpoint, simply does not fit. Finally I decided not to do this. My decision was largely based on an earlier experience I had had in 1989-91, with the jazz artist Miles Davis, who was also a painter. In talking with Miles, I discovered that this kind of separation or formal distance between painting and music was not only inappropriate, but inaccurate. When Miles spoke about his paintings, he spoke as if he were talking about music. There was a kind of overlay between the two. One afternoon I recall the two of us standing in the kitchen of his apartment near Carnegie Hall—he holding a platter of cookies—as we went through a stack of unstretched canvases piled on the linoleum floor. Miles was describing how he made decisions in the act of painting that happened in “a second of a second.” Although he was referring directly to his expressionist style of painting, it also corresponded to how he produced sound through his muted trumpet, whether in a recording studio or on stage.
In Dylan’s case, the connection between painting and music has been expressed somewhat differently, perhaps, in a more oblique way, which is often typical of Dylan. To some extent, he seems to separate what he does as a painter from how he performs music or engages in the process of writing a song. For example, in discussing The Asia Series, Dylan remarks: “Playing music is another thing. Music is loose and tight at the same time. A painting is a strongly structured picture. The main thing is, is it interesting in its own right? Is it something worth seeing? In either case, the only relationship I see between the two is the idea not to repeat yourself, not to fall into any set of patterns.” As to the question of whether or not Dylan can or does paint—admittedly and quite possibly an absurd inquiry—there are essentially two points of view: Given his overwhelming presence as a folk-rock singer and songwriter, we might ask: does he really care if his audience takes notice of his talent as a painter?
Based on Dylan’s highly individualist career to date, I would doubt whether this thought ever enters his mind. From the beginning there has been a struggle between his desire to be an artist on his own terms and a mass audience that wants to classify him as a mainstream idol, which he has perpetually refused. We know that Dylan has flown in the face of expectations in the past. One might say that a large part of his career is about defying the expectations of his audience. For example, when he decided—in all sincerity—to become a “born-again” Christian in the late 1970s and made albums such as Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981), he lost a good portion of his audience—at least, for a relatively short duration of time. Then when he returned to himself (from the surface perspective of commercial media) after a two-year hiatus, with the album Infidels (1983), it suggested that he finally worked his way through it all, that he was finally back on track.
With painting, the question is different. He’s pulling something out of the bag that his music followers may not have been aware of even on a peripheral level, even though former Chief Curator of the Museum of Modern Art John Elderfield has made it clear—as has Dylan himself—that he has been painting and drawing avidly since the ’60s. The most apparent signs being album covers for Music from Big Pink (1968) by The Band, his own Self-Portrait (1970), and finally a drawing for Planet Waves (1974). In 1994 a book titled Bob Dylan: Drawn Blank appeared, which received mixed reviews. However, these works only vaguely resembled paintings from The Brazil Series or the current exhibition of paintings, titled The Asia Series, at the uptown Gagosian Gallery. The connection between recent paintings (such as the outstanding “Favela Villa Broncos” (2009-10), of a hillside shantytown in Rio, or “Shanghai”(2010), a comparably complex view of Chinese fishing boats, or junks, parked in a secluded residential inlet) and early paintings (such as the one on the Self Portrait album cover) can be compared to the relationship between Dylan’s book, Chronicles (2004), and his earlier stream of consciousness epistle, titled Tarantula (written in 1966, and published 1971). In either case—art or literature—they are signs that Dylan has come into his own. The later works may appear more conventional, but they communicate on a whole other level, a level that, I would argue, is more successful. To use a word that Dylan mentions in an interview with Mr. Elderfield, there is a sense of “completeness” in what he is doing now, certainly as a painter.
As for the commercial media’s charge of “plagiarism” as related to Dylan’s paintings from The Asia Series, I would suggest that the commercial news media is out of touch with issues of “quotation” and “appropriation” in contemporary art—as, for example, made explicit with Pop Art in the ’60s—and that Dylan has done this with “folk songs” since the outset of his career. His paintings are simply what they are, and his deployment of photographs is not a criterion for negative judgment. It is a media problem that unfortunately reveals how uninformed they are in relation to this widely-accepted practice in art today, including John Baldessari’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (2010) and Gerhard Richter’s exhibition earlier at MoMA in 2002. Added to this is the problem of the press release for The Asia Series published by the Gagosian Gallery, which avoids making the case for Dylan’s well-known methods of appropriation both in his songs (as early as 1962) and more recently his paintings. This should have been made clear and out front.
Another question relative to “Can Bob Dylan paint?”—some would argue—relates to whether he has the technical and formal ability to be a painter, an issue that has virtually no meaning for him. Last month in the Rail, I dealt with the same issue in a review on the painter Julian Schnabel’s who is also a filmmaker. The point that I raised was whether Schnabel would continue to be accepted as a painter after he burst into Hollywood with an Academy Award nomination for Best Film. With Bob Dylan, the case is similar yet from a different, perhaps even more strongly biased, perspective. In posing this question of whether an omniscient folk-rock hero can actually paint, it is further relevant to assume that some New York painters may harbor a certain resentment that such an exhibition would even be mounted, or that the subject—Bob Dylan—is somehow cashing in on his fame and fortune. While other movie stars, singers, and performers have painted in the past—ranging from David Niven to Sylvester Stallone, from Frank Sinatra to Tony Bennett (Antonio Benedetto), from Kim Novak to Juliette Binoche, among countless others—to explain this phenomenon is more complex than meets the eye. The motivations are varied and not always same. Also the commitment varies from one artist to another. I like what the German critic Jens Rosteck has to say about the phenomenon of the multi-talented artist. This is a phenomenon that we cannot ignore in many cases, as the serious examples range from Jean Genet to Jean Cocteau, from Paul Klee to Ai Weiwei. To explore these issues “objectively” is a nearly impossible task, but one that needs to be addressed.
Art has in recent decades entered into the domain of mediated pundits, uniformly present on the global stage, all blathering in various tongues less about language than ideologies, each verging toward anarchy, fraught with disconsolate tremors, enunciating stereotypical arguments as to why artists should stick to a single medium and not snoop around—as if that were the case—namely, to fit neatly and squarely within the predictable expectations of a hypocritical, yet rigorously sacrosanct, art market. This was hardly the case in the Beat generation as Dylan has occasionally posited himself in relation to numerous poets ranging from Allen Ginsberg to the painter/poet Jack Micheline. Then there is the beloved antecedent of the Beats, William Blake, a late 18th-century painter/poet of the highest caliber and an envisioner of what was to come in industrial society, offering a message in metaphorical terms that could sustain the hope of artists to fulfill their dreams and expectations.
But to talk of Dylan as an artist—a performer, composer, writer, and painter—is to comprehend that there are no limitations, other than what he decides for himself. Such liberty got Ai Weiwei into trouble in China, but Dylan is another case. While he carries a breadth of knowledge that has expanded the legacy of folk music further than any other artist, he also sees the connections between writing, performing, and painting. As with his music, he plays no-holds-barred. I find this especially true in The Brazil Series, in paintings such as “Songbird, Politician, Skull and Bones,” and “Argument,” all painted 2009-2010. In “Songbird,” a woman performs in a happy vernacular with two male guardians on either side who are insidiously stoic, even grim in their expressions, thereby suggesting they will cheat anyone they can, including the songbird between them. Like in his early songs—particularly in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll—the viewer of “Songbird” gets the sense that there is some absurd twist in the air, a bizarre but tragic infringement on human rights. In “Skull and Bones,” a nude woman sits in solitude, spread-eagled on a couch, chugging a bottle of liquor with her other hand on the brow of a human skull. “Argument” is a tense narrative between a lonely man and tempestuous woman who are separated in their desire for the moment—a feeling often portrayed in songs of departed love, such as those in Blood on the Tracks (1975) or the taut, understated aura throughout Oh Mercy (1989), one of Dylan’s most poignant, spiritual, and outstanding achievements.
In The Asia Series, there are fewer paintings. (After all, it’s a gallery show of less than 20 in contrast to the Statens Museum for Kunst of over 40.) Here the work runs on a different set of chord changes, secretly piercing in its insight into human nature yet redemptive in the details that beg to see the light of day. The evidence is present in paintings such as “Cockfight” (2010), “Kitchenette” (2009), “Big Brother” (2009), and the oddly hedonistic quatrain of two men and two women in “LaBelle Cascade,” one of Dylan’s most disconsolate paintings. Reminiscent of Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’Herbe,” “LeBelle Cascade” (2009) is an outdoor gathering in nature impaled with subtle irony and heaps of absurdity—qualities in which Dylan continues to excel as a songwriter, and apparently in his paintings as well. What do we make of these people? The two standing male nudes seem to glitter in their identity with the out-of-doors while two women seated in silk robes appear to smoke opium as if to alleviate their boredom. Is this the new entrepreneurial generation in China, where success breeds narcissism and disdain, where the good life elevates entropy to greater heights of emptiness through material despair? A somnambulist epitaph, perhaps? A reckoning with disaster on the verge of perpetual craving for infinite gluttony and sloth? Much the same could be said about the harrowing “Big Brother” (2009), where two men in dark suits—one older, one younger—project an uneasy grin, an unsteady ambivalence in the process of lighting a cigarette. What did they just do? We don’t know whether they committed a crime or celebrated a birthday, but their expressions suggest something atavistic, if not discomforting.
In either case, we can say that Dylan’s paintings are direct and inhabited. Their narratives become the focal point of the human condition. As in “Barber Shop” from The Brazil Series, or “Luncheonette” from The Asia Series, we sense an aura of emotion difficult to decipher, but definitely present. Dylan paints as if to unravel the consequences of what he observes through poetic insight. What appears insignificant therefore becomes significant. What may appear as an askance view from the sidelines of existence suddenly becomes the preeminent subject matter of how we choose to live our lives. Dylan paints in a manner that is parallel to his songs: He visualizes allegories of a sleight-of-hand destiny, filled with irony and the necessity of compassion.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.