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Bob Dylan: The Painter and the Photograph (1)

Bob Dylan, Self Portrait album cover, 1970

Bob Dylan, Self Portrait album cover, 1970

Since I apply a good bit of my effort here at Photocritic International to addressing issues relating to copyright and intellectual property, and am also — by my own assessment — the photo/art critic who has paid the closest attention to the life, work, and career of Bob Dylan, I consider myself qualified, perhaps uniquely, to comment on the brouhaha re Dylan’s current exhibition of paintings at the Gagosian Gallery in New York and the accumulating evidence that most if not all of them are based on identifiable photographs not of Dylan’s making — none of them recent, but at least some of which remain under copyright protection. You’ll find a synopsis of the uproar in David Itzkoff’s September 26, 2011 New York Times report, “Dylan Paintings Draw Scrutiny.”

Some backstory: Dylan, arguably the greatest singer-songwriter of the second half of the 20th century, made pen and pencil sketches even at the outset of his career. Self-taught as a graphic artist, he began painting in the 1960s; examples of that early work appear on the cover of The Band’s album Music from Big Pink (1968) and Dylan’s own Self Portrait (1970). According to photographer Elliott Landy, who spent time with Dylan in Woodstock during that period, the then-reclusive musician also produced ceramics and stained-glass works. (See “Photographing Dylan,” the 1969 Paul Williams interview with Landy, in Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan, edited by John Bauldie, an anthology of material from the Dylan fanzine The Telegraph, published by Citadel Press in 1991.)

The Band, Music from Big Pink, cover by Bob Dylan, 1968

The Band, Music from Big Pink, cover by Bob Dylan, 1968

In the spring of 1974 Dylan began taking classes from the painter Norman Raeben (1901-78) at Raeben’s 11th-floor studio in Carnegie Hall on 57th Street in Manhattan. Curiosity engendered by comments from friends of Dylan’s first wife, Sara, led him to look up the Russian-born emigré. Raeben was the son of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, best known for creating the character Teyve in Fiddler on the Roof, a musical based on Aleichem’s stories of life in a Russian shtetl under Tsarist rule. He’d studied with Robert Henri, George Luks, and John French Sloan of the Ashcan School.

Dylan first started to mention his engagement with Raeben’s teaching in 1978, during interviews concerning his film Renaldo & Clara. At first Dylan didn’t identify him, perhaps to ensure the painter’s privacy. Eventually he named this mentor, indicating that he’d spent every day in Raeben’s studio for about two months in 1974, suggesting that Raeben had taught him “how to see.” He generously credited ideas he derived from his studies with Raeben for transforming his approach to songwriting, specifically indicating that the techniques he applied to the lyrics for one of his most highly regarded albums, Blood on the Tracks (1975), derived in large part from what he’d absorbed from Raeben and translated into his own medium.

Norman Raeben, "Head in Black & White," n.d.

Norman Raeben, “Head in Black & White,” n.d.

From Bert Cartwright’s 1974 article, “The Mysterious Norman Raeben,” in the above-mentioned Wanted Man anthology, and from a 1977 interview with Dylan about Renaldo & Clara (then still a work in progress) conducted by Allen Ginsberg and published in the same volume, it seems clear that Raeben’s teachings ranged from thoughts on synchronicity and the coexistence of past, present, and future to an insistence on drawing as the primary craft of the visual artist and close, accurate observation of the material before one’s eyes as the fundamental method and obligation.

It would appear that his two months with Raeben constitute Dylan’s only formal instruction as a visual artist. However, he continued to draw and paint, using various media, from then on. None of his work received public exhibition until 2007, when a show of “The Drawn Blank Series” opened in Chemnitz, Germany. This was followed by a showing of “The Brazil Series” at the Statens Museum, Copenhagen, in 2010. The current exhibition of “The Asia Series” at Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, which touched off the present controversy, marks Dylan’s debut as a visual artist in New York.

Though unschooled (aside from his encounter with Raeben), Dylan hardly qualifies as a naïf, outsider, or folk artist in his production of visual art. This man has spent time in many of the great art capitals of the world, rubbing elbows with noted visual artists in all media, visiting museums, galleries, and artists’ studios to encounter artworks “in the flesh,” studying other works in reproduction in books and magazines, owning and living with pieces by noted artists (most famously a Warhol “Elvis”), and otherwise acquainting himself with the field of ideas of contemporary art.

Bob Dylan, "The Asia Series," catalogues, 2011

Bob Dylan, “The Asia Series,” catalogues, 2011

Moreover, by my lights, once you put your work up on the walls of galleries and museums and authorize the publication of monographs devoted to it, thus laying it open to critical response (and, not incidentally, making it available for purchase through said galleries and dedicated websites), you cease to be an “amateur artist,” as Mallika Rao labels Dylan unwisely in her September 28, 2011 Huffington Post report, “Bob Dylan’s Gagosian Paintings May Be Plagiarized From Photographs.” Which means that Dylan stands to be judged by professional standards in his role as a visual artist no less than he does in his role as a composer and performer, including the obligation of responsibility for awareness of and adherence to the laws and ethics relevant to matters of copyright and intellectual property.

Bruce Gilden, "Asakasa, Japan," 1998. From his Magnum blog. Photograph copyright © by Bruce Gilden.

Bruce Gilden, “Asakasa, Japan,” 1998. From his Magnum blog. Photograph copyright © 1998 by Bruce Gilden.

I haven’t yet seen the paintings directly, just jpegs thereof at various websites. (I plan to visit the show this week, and will report thereon in a future post.) From the online evidence, however, I’m persuaded that many of the paintings are responses not to events Dylan himself observed but to assorted photographs, some of them a century old and some much newer than that, such as this 1998 Bruce Gilden image of two Japanese Yakuza.

Dylan employs lawyers to protect his own copyright for his own intellectual property. He has half a century’s professional experience with questions of influence, borrowing, imitation, derivation, appropriation, public domain, rights licensing, and other matters relating to IP.  I consider it perfectly reasonable to hold him accountable, as a visual artist, to the same strictures his attorneys would hold anyone who produced and marketed an interpretation of his work.

The question with which I plan to grapple in this series of posts concerns the substance of those strictures. In what ways are graphic artists allowed to respond to photographs — and, conversely, disallowed from responding to them — both legally and ethically? And, by the same token, in what ways are photographers allowed to respond to works of graphic art — and, conversely, disallowed from responding to them — both legally and ethically?

For an index of links to all posts related to this story, click here.

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18 comments to Bob Dylan: The Painter and the Photograph (1)

  • Hello,

    I thought you might be interested in this, if you have not already seen it.

    As a big fan of Dylan, I find all of this very disappointing.


  • Excellent article – raises excellent questions, well done.

  • Was waiting for this post! Can’t wait to read on!


  • Dear Allan,

    I eagerly await your future posts on the Dylan/Gogosian matter. I am also curious to see how this plays out legally since I know that Bruce Gilden is represented by Magnum, and I assume the agency protects the copyright of its member photographers.

  • Wax on wizard….this is definitely an interesting issue…


  • Elroy Huckelberry

    It is very curious why Dylan used other peoples photographs and didn t just take his own when traveling through the east. I live in Thailand and if you go to the back streets of Bangkok you find fantastic imigry. Then why didn t Dylan give credit. But besides all that if we look at Dylan s paintings they are the work of an amateur. The colours are muddy. He uses acrylics which is good for students but not professoinals and then he has projected the images and just traced then and filled in the colour. The n agin we now must also reexamine his songs. How many lyrics have been stollen form others and how many tunes.

    • Alas for the plausibility of your argument, many “professoinals” have used acrylics since the introduction of Liquitex and other brands thereof in the 1950s. Morris Louis, Andy Warhol, Richard Anuskiewicz, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, David Salle, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring, to name a few.

      The ignorance of creative practice in the visual arts manifested by so many Dylanologists I find disheartening, to say the least.

  • david desmond

    interesting article. i’ve been following this at expecting rain. in one of the articles after all the empty talk of plagiarism died down, it said Dylan had paid for the rights to use some of the photos. but on the old stuff there is no copyrights. so i think most of the stuff being written about this is silly. some of the photos are at a website but the guy himself doesn’t own the paintings. people can use old photos as ‘models’. i believe these paintings and using mostly old photos show the romantic in him. those places are often disappointing today. I’ve lived in Asia. Also you show the selfportrait painting. i believe I saw where he painted it up on OHayo Mt Rd in Woodstock. I saw a couple of easels and some of his stuff in a large bay window. I think what he is doing is interesting. I dont see he’s done anything illegal or unethical.

    • jean coughlin

      I always look forward to your comments David.

      What must it be like to live in a fish bowl. You know what they say, all publicity is good publicity. Think how many people now know the guy can paint, that would otherwise be oblivious.

      I saw the paintings in the flesh. Most Visual artists are more interested in the process, in this case I think he is successful in the process of creating good impressionist paintings, the subject is somewhat secondary in my opinion. But everyone has there perspective on it. Did Warhol have permission from Campbells? And regardless, was it just copying, or was it original art?

  • Carl Nagin

    This issue of Dylan’s “appropriation” or use of photographs seems based on misconceptions and literal notions of originality. Copying is a component of the creative process in ALL art forms. The fetish of originality and the “unique” artistic product is a western prejudice that goes back to the Renaissance whose masters appropriated all manner of Graeco-Roman images. And since the advent of photography, painters, graphic artists, and even photographers have used photographs both as the basis of their work with and without attribution as hommages, imitations, teaching devices, or playful appropriations (think Cindy Sherman).

    The advent of copyright laws complicates this somewhat as a matter of who gets “credit” for what. But if you start deconstructing even canonical modernist works like Guernica or in the 19th century, Goya’s Cinco de Mayo you find references and recycling. Think of Van Gogh’s “copies” of Hokusai. Does this diminish their “originality”?

    Rembrandt, Shakespeare were masters of artistic thievery if that is what you need to call it. They took the best and sometimes the best of what was around and used it. Imitation and appropriation are inherent in the creative process; only journalists and literalists and lawyers like to confuse this issue.

    What’s important here with respect to Dylan is whether the works succeed in “making it new” or is it simply slavish imitation to a model; the key is what he sees and what the paintings do or do not teach us about seeing. And I suspect the son Sholem Aleichem would agree and say l’chaim.

    Listening to Dylan’s music, there’s a lot of recycling and synthesis of tradition, some obvious, some not so obvious. Think of
    High Water Rising, his homage to Patton or his version of Rollin’ and Tumblin’, a blues that countless singers have performed and recorded with or without attribution. But Dylan’s stamp on these works is his own, what in the world of flamenco which I play, is called “sello”; his stamp and mark are unmistakeable and notoriously hard to cover or surpass. Those who have pulled it off (Hendrix/Watchtower) have done so by “re-inventing” it. And Dylan, no purist, has been doing that all along in the most “original” of ways. He needs no defense, aesthetic, moral, legal.

    And to boot, the version her performs of Watchtower is more like Hendrix than his own “original” recording on John Wesley Harding (or is it Hardin’?)

    But we tend to privilege and idealize a literalist notion of originality, that is contradicted in aesthetic traditions all over the world. Is a photograph of a toilet more original or more realistic that say a drawing of same by Antonio Lopez Garcia whom Robert Hughues has called the greatest realist painter? (Study his drawings if you really want to understand what Raeben meant by seeing!). What this modern spanish master sees in the toilet is more reality, truth, and interest than any photograph could reproduce or evoke!

    There’s a famous story about Picasso being asked by a hapless GI why he painted such distorted images of women in his cubist paintings. Picasso responded by asking the soldier if he had a photo of his girlfriend. The soldier proudly produced a wallet-sized snapshot. “She’s very pretty,” said Picasso, “but she looks so tiny — no bigger than my thumb.”

    In China, artists learned to paint by copying old masters. All the great work, they believed, had been done in the past, and a painter’s “originality” was measured by how well he recreated the “spirit of the past.” Artist reinvention continued down to the present day, with artists copying and forging ancient masters. China’s foremost 20th century painter, Chang Ta-chien is also acknowledged as the world’s greatest forger of ancient Chinese scrolls, and his daubs of Tang, Sung, Yuan, and Ming masters fill collections in China, Japan, Europe, and the West. His fakes — those that have been unmasked – are so well-regarded that they sell at Sotheby’s for high prices. And he utterly confused the field of academic scholarship of Chinese art with his dazzling craft. I would argue that his fakes are often more interesting than his “original” work.

    But I don’t think Dylan was trying to fool anyone by using photos as inspiration for his paintings. The question to ask is what, artistically, he was seeing in them and whether he has something to say in how he used them.

  • There’s nothing wrong with using photos as reference or even tracing photos (hopefully your own photos), as long as you’re adding something new to the picture. But as far as I can tell, all Dylan did was trace the matrix of the photo (or have someone do it for him) and then color it in. I guess you can call that art if you also consider a five year old with a coloring book an artist.

    What is even more galling is that he gave the impression that these were paintings that he actually painted based on his own impressions during his travels. When Andy Warhol painted a soup can and dollar bills he certainly didn’t imply that these items were his own designs…

    • I’m equally perplexed and disappointed by the presentation of these works as resulting from Dylan’s own direct observations of Asian culture.

      However, since you run an etching studio, and presumably know a bit of art history, I’m no less perplexed by your comment that “all Dylan did was trace the matrix of the photo (or have someone do it for him) and then color it in. I guess you can call that art if you also consider a five year old with a coloring book an artist.” Many of the greatest artists ran workshops, studios, or ateliers, in which assistants trained by doing much of the prep work, which included “cartooning” (sketching in the figures, underpainting, sometimes painting in parts of setting and the figures, sometimes even doing all of it for the master who employed them. Both Raphael and Leonardo studied their craft that way, to give just two examples. They did so while apprenticing to artists respected in their own day and still respected today, who are not considered five-year-olds with coloring books.

  • jean coughlin

    I don’t think if you view the paintings in person, and observe the brush work, that you could believe they were just traced and colored in. Even if they were super imposed on the canvas, the brushwork is certainly not childish. I think the guy completed this paintings in less time than was probably required for such an undertaking, he tours a lot. In addition he is a water colorist and he treats the canvas as a piece of paper, leaving blank the highlights, a carnal sin in oil painting circles. But as a water colorist myself, I get that, we train ourselves to leave the highlights uncovered. I think what people are trying to fault him for is having a whole lot going on, and having the guts to agree to a show like this for his paintings. In the US no less, exposing himself once again to the press at home who love to tear him up.

  • Well, I don’t know exactly what went on in the ateliers of the old masters. But I fail to see the difference between coloring a coloring book and coloring a tracing of the outlines of someone else’s photograph on a canvas.

    Sure, I’ve used photographs (my own) and even traced them to make my etchings. But I’ve always added something else to the equation. All Bob added was brushwork.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a huge Dylan fan for over forty years. I go to see his shows at least once as year. I’ve defended him against all the usual attacks. But this just bothers me…

  • Charlotte Carlin

    “Since I apply a good bit of my effort here at Photocritic International to addressing issues relating to copyright and intellectual property, and am also — by my own assessment — the photo/art critic who has paid the closest attention to the life, work, and career of Bob Dylan, I consider myself qualified, perhaps uniquely, to comment on the brouhaha”

    Your article is good enough to speak for itself – it is obvious that you are well versed in Dylan, having at least read “Wanted Man”. You might like to know, then, that “The Brazil Series” was exhibited in Copenhagen, not in 2008, but in 2010 (4. September 2010 – April 2011)

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