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Bob Dylan: The Painter and the Photograph (3)

Per Walt Whitman, “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.” I have visited the Gagosian Gallery and spent time with the paintings in Bob Dylan’s “Asia Series.” So I can now speak from the standpoint of direct, personal, eyes-on experience of these works — which separates me from 99 percent of the vociferous commentators thereon. Unlike my preceding posts on this matter, which addressed the raging argument over the legality and propriety of Dylan painting from photographs, this one will engage with the paintings as paintings.

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

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

There are 18 canvases, all 36″x48″, with the imagery sometimes in landscape format and sometimes in portrait format (some horizontal, some vertical). From the videos I find online showing exhibitions of previous works, it appears that Dylan prefers the 36″x48″ canvas for his works. The majority of the “Asia Series” paintings were done in acrylic only; half a dozen mix acrylic and oil. Dylan, in these works (as distinct from his earlier “Drawn Blank” and “Brazil Series” paintings), mostly restricts himself to a muted palette, earth tones with occasional pinks and reds. In painterly terminology, they’re painted thin, not thick — no visible brushstrokes, no layering, no impasto. (For a vicarious tour, click here for an installation video, here for an installation slideshow, here for a PDF of the layout schematic for the show, and here for a PDF of the gallery’s press release. And here, courtesy of the Halcyon gallery in London, is a PDF of critical responses to Dylan’s earlier paintings.)

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

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

As a painter, Dylan has come a long way since the naïf Grandma Moses/Howard Finster phase of his 1969 “Music from Big Pink” album cover. He’s learned a lot about shading, modeling, coloring, and other painterly techniques involved in representational rendering. So, at the very least, he’s moved from apprentice to journeyman, in term of skill level. You or I — assuming that you, like me, don’t paint — could probably create something qualitatively equal to the “Music from Big Pink” cover. I assure you we could not match these paintings. I say that regardless of the fact that, we now know, many of them use photographs as their basis.

In the opening text of the exhibition catalogue, “John Elderfield in Conversation with Bob Dylan,” we’re told that the paintings in the “Drawn Blank” series began as sketches first published in the 1994 book of the same title. (Click here for the complete text.) Some of these he later had enlarged and scanned onto canvas, which he then overpainted with watercolor and gouache, for the first-ever exhibition of his visual art.

It seems reasonable to assume he used the same method with the “Brazil Series,” and then with the “Asia Series.” Having seen the “Asia Series” canvases in the flesh, so to speak, and close up, and knowing the photographs that served as their sources, I’d say there’s no way Dylan could simply have looked at the photographs and then sketched them freehand onto the canvases. The replication of the placement of figures, patterns, and such is too exact for that. Either the photos were projected onto the canvases, and cartooned in that way, or the images were scanned, enlarged, printed onto the canvases, and then overpainted.

Bob Dylan, "The Brazil Series" catalogue, 2010

Bob Dylan, “The Brazil Series” catalogue, 2010

The current brouhaha about the most recent works may send people back to search out photographic sources for the “Brazil Series,” and even for images in the “Drawn Blank” series. (For one example of the source for the Brazil pieces, see “Favela Villa Broncos,” here reproduced in the August 18, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone, and the photograph on which he indubitably based it.) Let me emphasize, as I have before, that there’s nothing illegitimate about such methods. Painters have sketched on their canvases before painting since medieval times, at least. They’ve projected images onto canvases and walls and other surfaces ever since projectors became available. (The cameras obscurae and lucidae were, effectively, such projectors, used by artists as sketching devices before the invention of photography.) And they’ve worked from photographs in a variety of ways.

If I set aside the question of these paintings’ origins in photographic imagery, then I start by asking whether they’re resolved in and of themselves, simply as paintings. And I answer in the affirmative. They’re complete, thought-through, autonomous works. I don’t need to know the photographs on which Dylan drew for his iconography and environments in order to engage with these images, nor does knowing those photographs diminish the paintings themselves; they’re not inferior to each other, in either direction.

Bob Dylan, "Kitchenette," 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Bob Dylan. Courtesy Gagosian gallery.

Nor do I consider the paintings “amateurish,” as several other commentators have said in condemning them. Given the extraordinary range of what the art world today tolerates and even applauds in terms of skill at and style of representational rendering, the term “amateur” has become almost terminally problematic. Dylan has achieved a professional level of competence in that regard. He certainly can’t compete with a virtuoso like Jenny Saville, whose stunning “Continuum” series of drawings and paintings adjoins Dylan’s at Gagosian. But these pictures of Dylan’s have mood, and atmosphere; the faces and figures are convincingly expressive; and those who think such effects can get easily “copied” or “traced” from photographs, or from sketches, need to think again.

In short, these aren’t Red Skelton’s clown paintings, a product line of cheerful celebrity kitsch. Nor do they merely constitute a pastiche of other people’s styles. I can detect traces of Cézanne, Gauguin, Ben Shahn, even David Stone Martin, but I don’t find myself looking at these canvases with works by those others springing to mind. The best of them, such as “Kitchenette,” immediately above, have an undeniable energy and presence. So I don’t agree with Holland Cotter of the New York Times, who views them as “dead on the wall.”

With that said, they also have an inescapably retro or, more precisely, time-displaced quality. Several reviewers have asked whether we would be paying attention to these paintings if they didn’t have Dylan’s name attached to them — see, for example, “The Joker to the Thief: Gagosian Goes Electric With a Show of Paintings by Bob Dylan” by Michael H. Miller, in the September 20, 2011 New York Observer. This isn’t exactly unfair, but it isn’t necessarily the right question either.

Secret Life of Bees poster, 2008

Secret Life of Bees poster, 2008

In the past four or five generations of creative figures in the west — writers, photographers, musicians, actors, painters, and more — many have put in some serious time exploring media other than those in which they made their reputations. True, they might not have had access to the highest levels of presentational venues in which they made their alternative-media debuts had their achievements in their original media not opened doors. So what? Should we class Steve Martin as an amateur playwright, Queen Latifah as an amateur actor, David Byrne as an amateur filmmaker, or devalue what they accomplished in those ancillary pursuits, because they made their names first in other artforms?

If Martin’s plays had flopped, if Queen Latifah had no urgent screen presence, if Byrne had made dismal movies, they’d have disappointed the fans and the critics would have savaged them. For all of Madonna’s celebrity, and the impact of her music and its accompanying videos, she’s repeatedly shown herself incapable of acting her way out of a paper bag, can’t direct films well either, and has been assessed accordingly. When you put your hat in such a ring, even trailing clouds of glory from another medium, you get judged by current standards.

Bob Dylan, "Drawn Blank," cover, 1994

Bob Dylan, “Drawn Blank,” cover, 1994

More to the point, then, where would we be looking at Dylan’s paintings if they didn’t have Dylan’s name attached to them? Not at Gagosian; not at Germany’s Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, where “The Drawn Blank Series” first opened; and not at the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen, where the “Brazil Series” premiered. And not because they’re bad paintings, but because they’re irrelevant paintings. I’m no breathless fan of the current art scene, but I don’t see a resurgence of Ashcan School-meets-Expressionism as an answer to madcap pluralism or the doldrums of postmodernism. Do I think any major gallery or museum would show these based purely on the paintings themselves, if an unknown painter had shown up at the door with them? Not likely.

This isn’t the same as Dylan mining the roots songbook, recuperating forgotten gems while connecting his own astonishing musical oeuvre to its seedbed. Nor equivalent to his rummaging in the work of Civil War poet Henry Timrod and giving it a voice and form that make it newly persuasive and relevant a century and a half later. They may offer some retinal pleasures, but these paintings are devoid of ideation. This is nothing more than rehashing the past, to no productive end.

Even at his worst musically, Dylan has never proven less than instructive. These paintings teach us nothing about Asia, about painting, or about photography as source material for visual artists. They simply tell us that Dylan, in private, has worked hard at learning the craft of painting. That may be of interest to someone who, like me, finds it rewarding to track Dylan’s activities; but it’s not enough to sustain a public show at a high-profile venue.

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

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6 comments to Bob Dylan: The Painter and the Photograph (3)

  • History of artists using (and even painting OVER) photographs. It isn’t new…and it is common.

  • Rob Geurtsen

    Mr. Coleman, very likely there’s nothing better available than your three part commentary on Dylan’s Asia series and exhibition at the Gagosian. The artistic review of Dylan’s visual work, pertaining to both technique (professional) and its well deserved meaningless place in the field of art, is fair. For many Dylan fans who dream of the Nobel prize for Literature for Dylan’s work your article provide an informative well argued point of view. They should learn to apply in the field of literature.

    I very much liked your exploration on how artists produce their art compared to the scanning techniques Dylan seems to use for his paintings reveal a lot to me. The comparison of how Dylan ‘using’ someone else’s art whether in the public domain or not is instructive. As you wrote: “(giving) Civil War poet Henry Timrod … a voice and form that make it newly persuasive and relevant a century and a half later” is to be appreciated as art in its own right. Creating technically professional paintings from scanned pictures with no new emotional of cerebral dimensions makes this artistic expression not a fraud but irrelevant. It is like with so many covers of Dylan’s song work. Covers of ‘All along the watchtower’ or ‘Mr. Tambourine man’ are mostly irrelevant except the version Hendrix and The Byrds.

    Your analysis of the Dylan’s failure, or that of his management, to present the art in ways consistent with the commercial and artistic context of the field is spot on.

    Good stuff! It deserves mentioning by many other and a place on

  • Colleen Thornton

    Regardless of the actual sources of Dylan’s images, these paintings are crude, amateur and empty of any real artistic value. If you compare these attempts at making fine art with the work of the photorealists, you can see how lame this hyped up attempt to capitalize on fame truly is. This is the stuff of night classes for senior citizens at the local Y.

    Under no circumstances would these paintings be pimped by Gagosian if there wasn’t a fan-based, deep pocketed audience. It’s all about the $$ and deluded ego. Why does Dylan need to be validated as a painter anyway? Music not enough for him?

    And to cynically misrepresent the ‘artistic process’ to imply actual skill and originality is – to put it politely – disengenuous. Bad art is bad enough, but it’s especially gross when pushed on the public as nothing more than a “brand name” with inflated price tags. The targeted collectors for this stuff should be insulted, but methinks this stuff is just added to the wall with the paintings by Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra, Slyvester Stallone and Tony Curtis. They’re that good Bob!

    With thousands and thousands of worthy artists who cannot get a a foot in the door in the artworld, such celebrity schlock trotted out (once again) at the highest level of art commerce defines decadence.

  • Re Colleen’s comments, I’ve known alot of artists and painters that couldn’t keep up with Dylan’s stuff. And i agree with her that there are probably many artists who are better than Dylan but he’s the famous guy. Picasso got famous. In Barthelona I went to a museum of his stuff and got to see it close up. He was a terrible painter. he became famous and he could turn out ridiculous stuff in which he didn’t have to paint well and it’s worth millions. His later stuff is really bad. Then of course we have the ridiculous paintings of many others. Jackson Pollack’s sp? is really just a sham. worth millions. He became famous and could sell anything. Is Chagall a good painter? Not really. But I think the important point in this whole thing is that successful people can continue doing other things and keep suceeding. They know HOW to succeed. Those thousands of “worthy” artists don’t know how. They sit and brood. In Dylan’s down years he continued to work. It’s almost like you are saying a successful person in one field shouldn’t be allowed to do other things in the arts. I’ve never heard Dylan say he was a great painter. But it’s something he’s done for 40 years and some people are interested. I think it is neat that all the people you mention have got into painting. I think Picasso is celebrity schlok. He sold ceramics he never painted but got huge sums for them. He didn’t paint them. Who are all of you people judging this guy? Arbiters of what? I think dylan has done a real good job and he obviously likes painting. And you haven’t seen the last of him yet. YES, his fame lets him get this attention. But at least he’d doing it. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.

  • Michael More

    The best drawings and paintings I know by any singer are by Woody Guthrie.

    His infectious so-long-been-good-ta-know-ya style sits on nearly every page of *Woody Guthrie Artworks* by Steven Brower and Jeff Tweedy. They add to the impressions of the Billy Bragg low-budget documentary biography. The well-executed best have serious weight, and all share a zesty affection for the world that makes it hard to take up the book without smiling.

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