The news that Bob Dylan will exhibit a show of 200 recent paintings at Germany’s Chemnitz Museum, opening Oct. 29, 2007, recalls the significant role of art and the act of painting in Dylan’s worldview. Dylan made these paintings after looking again into a book of his sketches, Drawn Blank, which Random House published in 1994.
In 1974, after living in Woodstock with his young family for seven years, Dylan moved back to MacDougal Street and began taking intense painting classes with a mystic Abstract Expressionist named Norman Rabin in a studio above Carnegie Hall. Dylan enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow art students, whom he described as "cops and housewives," and learned from Rabin a mysterious world lesson, which Dylan characterized as "the past, present and future being in the same room" simultaneously, presumably without the reverse dialectic of T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton.
This essential realization, experienced through the act of intensive painting, inspired Dylan’s great disc, Blood on the Tracks, especially the color-drenched series of snapshots, Tangled Up in Blue. Stylistically, Dylan’s painterly output has stuck close to his two most famous paintings, the album covers of Self-Portrait and the Band’s Music from Big Pink. The first is stark yet droll stripping away of the musical icon Bob into a fleshy, pink blob; the second a raucous party scene, complete with vaulting piano player and laughing elephant reflecting the genius of Basement Tapes party tunes such as Million Dollar Bash and Yea Heavy and a Bottle of Bread.
Like many primitives, Dylan has always felt more liberated by color than form: In this, his work is kin to the watercolors of Henry Miller, who exulted in gathering his "mistakes" from his Big Sur studio floor and selling them to friends for a couple of greenbacks. Musicians such as John Lennon and David Bowie have zealously pursued visual art as a zone of freedom from their tuneful callings. With Dylan, it has been more a matter of his Gemini personality wrestling with the physical world in a Johnsian sense, grabbing something and doing something to it, again and again.
The most notorious example of this is Dylan’s "editing" of his revolutionary 1966 World Tour, in which Bob and his pal Howard Alk supposedly took D.A. Pennebaker’s only film footage of the tour and cut it up with scissors for the film Eat the Document (and its outtakes), tossing huge chunks in the waste basket. Fans, who waited 40 years to see this stuff, were frustratingly tantalized by sections of 1966 performances in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home. Were these sections all there was or did someone retrieve the sliced footage from Bobby’s garbage?
The Chemnitz curators are guarding images of Dylan’s new paintings until the opening. Based on Bob’s career actions, the work should be disappointing in toto and exhilarating in specific points, like tokes on a joint on a rainy day. It will be the task of future generations to crawl out from under Dylan’s opus, in all its manifestations, and try to figure it out.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).