Please note: The Drawn Blank Series exhibition is touring the UK, first at The Lightbox in Woking from 25 November2008 to 11 January 2009; and then Edinburgh City Art Centre from 31 January to 19 March 2009. To purchase copies of the catalogue and for any enquiries about the availability of original art works, please contact Halcyon Gallery direct. Andrew's catalogue essay is printed here:
The Italian Futurists believed modern art should embrace the modern world, and cursed museums as the dead repositories of a dead past. They dreamed of firebombing the Uffizi and of razing the Louvre to the ground. Bob Dylan in the 1960s had his own doubts about museums too, calling them “cemeteries.” He believed “paintings should be on the walls of restaurants, in dime stores, in gas stations, in men’s rooms. . .”
But museums have a way of absorbing such attacks. They also have a way of absorbing the work of their fiercest critics as well. Most of the paintings of the Futurists have ended up in museums. The manuscripts of Dylan’s own song lyrics will no doubt wind up there too, and the same fate probably awaits Dylan’s hitherto little known work as a draughtsman and painter. The best of it is forthright, sincere, immediate and surprisingly accomplished. It has the added appeal of being a kind of diary, kept in images, by one of the most celebrated songwriters and musicians of modern times. It has already been shown once in a museum – the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz Museum, in Germany, to be precise, which staged the first serious exhibition of Dylan’s work as a fine artist in the winter of 2007.
Yet the essence of Dylan’s “The Drawn Blank Series” is its spirit of resistance to a certain idea of the museum and what it represents – the idea of becoming, oneself, a kind of institution, fixed and frozen by illusions of self-importance. These pictures are the work of someone famous who is emphatically not buying into his own mummification as genius or guru. That is implicit in their sheer matter-of-factness, their informality, their glancing encounters with the stuff of everyday existence. They are grounded in the ordinary and the mundane and might almost have been created by the artist in order to remind himself that, no matter what anyone says, he is (as the Tammy Wynette song goes) just a man.
There is also a shyness, or a profound aloofness – hard to say which – in the type of looking that made these images. The Dylan “look”, characteristically, does not seek eye-to-eye contact. It is directed restlessly away or sideways, to dwell on the ordinary things anyone might absent-mindedly fix on – an arrangement of chairs by a motel pool, a family restaurant seen from across a street, a house on the top of a hill. The ordinariness is much of the point. Dylan draws and paints as if no one has noticed him. One dream that his pictures might embody is that of being disregarded.
There is also an undeniable melancholy about many of the pictures in “The Drawn Blank Series”, a sense of rootlessness and transience. This may have something to do with their origins, which are a little complex. All of the images have been created recently, since 2007, but they are without exception based on templates which Dylan drew in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During those years, he made a large number of drawings in spare moments while touring the United States, Mexico, Europe and Asia. To make “The Drawn Blank Series”, he had those drawings scanned on to scaled-up sheets of paper and proceeded to work them up in a variety of media, including pencil, watercolour and gouache. Each might be compared to a fresh performance of an old song; and the series continues to grow. Halcyon Gallery has extended the number of works first shown at Chemnitz, to incorporate another 75 originals made exclusively for the exhibition that coincides with the publication of this book. In these new pieces, Dylan explores further ways of working with the images. But no matter how great the transformations of line and colour in each one, the lineaments of the originals continue to set the emotional register of the series as a whole.
They record the disconnectedness of life on tour, a life lived out of a suitcase, with every day punctuated by the abrupt rhythms of upheaval from one place and adjustment to somewhere new. The artist sees boats dancing on the water, beyond the balcony of his hotel room. He visits the hallway of a baronial castle. He eats a meal in the restaurant car of a train. He looks down at a back alley in Chicago. He looks across the street at a family restaurant. There are no links between the different things that he sees, except the fact of his seeing them. One day he gazes at the bulk of an ancient cathedral, which he paints as a dark and heavy silhouette, forbiddingly monumental – all the more so by contrast with the truncated glimpse of a human leg, perhaps his own, that he includes in this cropped and snapshot-like composition. The contrast between the solidity and stability of the church and the artist’s own footloose existence is implicit.
The sequence of pictures includes portraits of people met on the way – a driver, a pair of sisters, a sturdy woman seen from the back in an English pub called The Red Lion, a half naked girl in a room – but there is rarely the sense of any strong and deep affinity between the artist and his sitters. Their faces are often mask-like and impassive (although in the case of one or two portraits of women there is light in the eyes, and a flicker of affection can be felt). The artist seems to reserve his truest feelings of identification for unpeopled views and inanimate objects. His pictures of railroad tracks seem particularly charged with romantic feeling. The dynamic perspective of these images, together with their varyingly dramatic skies, evoke the sense of picaresque adventure long associated with travel through the wide open spaces of America. The railway paintings are like pictures of the feelings embodied in the itinerant folk songwriting traditions of the United States – the tradition of Woody Guthrie, among others – to which Dylan has always felt close.
Objects associated with travelling, with staying on the move, clearly appeal to him. An old bicycle, propped just so, detains his attention for quite some while. It fits his eye. He draws it as if it were the poignant skeleton of an animal encountered on a country walk.
He also dwells with particular sympathy on the rickety panels and bent stovepipe exhaust of an old truck, parked at some kerbside or other with no one behind the wheel. He revisits the image several times, colouring it in different ways, enhancing the beaten-up quality of the bodywork and the uneven layers of retouched paint. These apparitions of a much-travelled vehicle, battered by its passage through life but still dauntless, prompt the vague suspicion that these might be disguised self-portraits, of a kind.
Dylan’s work as draughtsman and painter is unlike that produced by most occasional artists because it has such a strong look of authenticity. It is engaging precisely because it is not the fruit of some misguidedly self-conscious attempt to live up to some ideal of “art”. In fact it is a hallmark of his creative activity that pretty much everything he does to express himself – painting, writing, singing, presenting a radio show – feels of a piece with everything else. That is not to say that his pictures are on the same level as his music. But they are true to their creator’s sensibility, uncompromised by sentimentality or ambition – which is why they amount to considerably more than celebrity memorabilia, the modern equivalent of a saint’s relics.
There is plainly no great divide between Dylan the writer and Dylan the creator of visual images. Chronicles, the first volume of his autobiography, is a compellingly visual book. Its prose frequently takes the form of sequences of word paintings, and Dylan writes in general with an uncanny sense of apparently total visual recall.
Describing New York, in the first winter that he spent there, he compiles a brusque, staccato anthology of quickfire images, each one like a picture etched in the memory:
“Across the way a guy in a leather jacket scooped frost off the windshield of a snow-packed black Mercury Montclair. Behind him, a priest in a purple cloak was slipping through the courtyard of the church on his way to perform some sacred duty. Nearby, a bareheaded woman in boots tried to manage a laundry bag up the street. There were a million stories...”
Elsewhere, remembering his friend Ray’s New York apartment, where he would sometimes stay, he can summon up the image of a particular piece of furniture in virtually photographic detail:
“There were about five or six rooms in the apartment. In one of them was this magnificent rolltop desk, sturdy looking, almost indestructible – oak wood with secret drawers and a double sided clock on the mantel, carved nymphs and a medallion of Minerva – mechanical devices to release hidden drawers, upper side panels and gilt bronze mounts emblematic of mathematics and astronomy.”
Dylan’s paintings demonstrate the same strong sense of detail, the same strong interest in the mood and the specifics of a place as his prose – and indeed his lyrics, which often turn on the vivid memory of an unusual object (such as, say, a leopardskin pillbox hat). The difference is that so many of the things that he paints and draws in “The Drawn Blank Series” have a singularly disenchanted aura about them, a feel of unresisting and unrewarding blankness – the bland sixties chest-of-drawers in Carbondale Motel, or the switched-off television set in the shuttered interior of Lakeside Cabin, with its distinctive, old-fashioned, potbellied screen of thick glass (to give just two of a hundred examples). It is hard, albeit not entirely impossible, to imagine such objects being transmuted into the stuff of poetry or song. One of the paradoxes of Dylan’s art is the fact that while it squarely addresses the world of everyday things and experiences it also speaks of reticence and even reclusiveness. It is an art that seems, frequently, to confess its creator’s inability to engage with the world, for much of the time, at a more than superficial level. That is the sadness at its centre.
Dylan has said that his favourite artists are Donatello, Caravaggio and Titian – a red-blooded triumvirate, united by their depth of feeling for life and their virtuoso ability to conjure illusions of physical and emotional reality. But his actual style and sensibility seem far closer to the art of late nineteenth-century France than that of Renaissance Italy. His coiled and slightly nervous manner of drawing, which often teeters on the brink of the cartoon or caricature, is in a line of descent that goes back to the work of artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas and Van Gogh – all of whom deliberately played, themselves, on the borders between the caricature or cartoon and the work of fine art. In fact, Dylan’s Man on a Bridge might almost be a pastiche of a Van Gogh drawing; the figure even has something of a Van Gogh look about him.
It is not particularly surprising that Dylan’s art should have its most obvious debts there. The Parisian painters of the late nineteenth century were inspired by a particular ideal of modern, urban realism that was to have an enormous influence on the whole world of the arts – music, dance, literature, poetry and music, as well as painting. Their ambition to be “painters of modern life”, to catch the teeming and multitudinous spirit of “modernity” itself, to celebrate the lives of whores and courtesans and dockworkers as well as the lives of the careless rich, would reverberate through the culture of the twentieth century. An American painter such as Edward Hopper was heir to the ideals of realism forged in the aesthetic workshop of nineteenth-century Paris. The same holds true for an author such as Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road applies the principles of modernist realism to the theme of an American odyssey. And it holds true too – in spades – for the young Bob Dylan, songwriter and poet-musician of the multiplicity of lives around him. So it makes perfect sense that, as a painter and draughtsman, he should hark back to the early modernist tradition that was always a kind of spiritual home for him in the first place. But it also needs to be said that what is going on, in “The Drawn Blank Series”, is a little more complicated than just a harking back.
The aesthetic ideals of classic early modernism were most eloquently enshrined in Charles Baudelaire’s essay, “The Painter of Modern Life”. In a celebrated, virtuoso passage of writing, Baudelaire personifies the ideal modern artist’s creative and open approach to the chaos of modern life in the figure of the flaneur – one who wanders the city’s streets and boulevards, immersing himself in the sights and sounds and above all the infinitude of lives that surround him there:
“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito... Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life. He is an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I’, at every instant rendering it and explaining it in pictures more living than life itself...”
Change the word “pictures” to “songs”, in that last sentence, and you have a near-perfect description of the young Bob Dylan as songwriter – his sensibility, his methodology, his kaleidoscopic (and ventriloquistic) gift of reflection. Dylan’s own autobiography, Chronicles, is a nearly uncanny confirmation of his Baudelairean heritage. It is a book that recounts, on page after page, his picaresque progress through life as a modern, American version of the flaneur, a man immersed in the world but almost invisible to those around him, gathering the materials for his art from the teeming lives of the city – guys in leather coats, priests in purple cloaks, women struggling with their laundry, “a million stories” on all sides.
But something happened to compromise Dylan’s sense of engagement with the world, something that struck home to him in about the mid-1980s – not long, in fact, before he did the drawings that form the basis of “The Drawn Blank Series”. The realisation had been gradually dawning in him that his own celebrity had cut him off from the very subject matter – raw and actual life, in the immediacy of its unfolding – that was the wellspring of his imagination. He described the process in an interview rather grudgingly given to a documentary-maker named Christopher Sykes, for a film transmitted in the BBC’s Arena strand in the autumn of 1987. As Sykes attempted to elicit answers from him, Dylan simply drew a portrait of his would-be interviewer, refusing to respond with more than a monosyllabic response. But in the end he opened up for a few brief seconds. His theme was fame and why, for an artist such as him, it was a kind of curse. “It’s like when you look through a window – say you’re passing a little pub or inn – and you see all the people eating and drinking and carrying on. You can watch outside the window, and you can see them all being very real with each other, as real as they are going to be. Because when you walk into the room, it’s over, you won’t see them being real any more...”
That sense of being on the outside of life – a life that will change and become artificial as soon as you walk in – is everywhere in the images of “The Drawn Blank Series”. It is there in the deliberate solitariness implied by so many of the pictures, documenting as they do an existence spent holed up in hotel rooms or other places of refuge. It is there in their frequently unsettling, liminal perspectives – threshold perspectives, which suggest the point of view of someone hovering on the point of going into a place but never quite going through with the intention. A house is seen from across the street, a tenement building is viewed from the fire escape side, a street is viewed, through the railings of a balcony, and from above.
One writer responded to the first exhibition of pictures from “The Drawn Blank Series”, at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz Museum by remarking that nearly all of the paintings exhibit what in German is known as “schwellenangst” – the fear of entering a place. It was a perceptive comment. Dylan does have a constant habit of framing images through doors or windows or passageways, from the half-seclusion of balconies or verandas – or to be strictly accurate that is what Dylan did, some twenty years ago, when he originally composed these images, which seem in so many ways like the visual expression of the consuming melancholy so evident in his remarks about how he felt, those days. The truth is that the pictures in “The Drawn Blank Series” are palimpsests, or memories revisited at a distance and altered in the process. In many cases he has cheered up his original drawings in the act of reworking them – adding little touches of humour or anecdotal detail, or enlivening them with bright colour schemes that seem to evoke the decorative compositions of an artist such as Raoul Dufy. Dylan is no longer the melancholic that he was, back in the 1980s, when he began "The Drawn Blank Series". But in the end there is no concealing the essential melancholy that is written into almost every one of its compositions. These pictures are the lament of a flaneur who can no longer plunge into life in the way that he used to. They are the sad song of a spectator-prince who has lost his incognito.
The images reproduced above are (in order of their appearance) Man on a Bridge 2007, In New Bedford 2007, Red Lion Pub 2007; all 76 x 71 cm, all mixed media on paper, all Copyright 2007 Bob Dylan.