Here’s something that I never anticipated contemplating this year: Did Richard Prince paint paintings under the pseudonym Bob Dylan?
To answer that, let’s take another trip into the land of Bob Dylan, Painter.
Having written about a couple of Dylan museum shows, I skipped over Dylan’s first significant gallery show in 2011 because I didn’t have a copy of the catalogue and I didn’t see the show myself – I had too little to go on. Let’s do a little resumé of that show now.
In 2011, Dylan showed work at Gagosian Gallery. Larry Gagosian, of course, is one of the biggest names in contemporary art. He has eleven galleries, including three in New York and two in London. He is a worldwide art-dealing phenomenon. After moving from LA to New York in the 1980s, he became the dealer for many of the best known artists of that decade, including Eric Fischl, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and David Salle. Since then he has expanded backwards in time to venerated minimalists (Richard Serra) and abstract expressionists (Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock) and internationally. If you go to the wikipedia page for his galleries and scroll down to the artists represented section it is literally a who’s who of 20th – and 21st – century art. Oh, and also Bob Dylan is listed there.
Dylan’s first show with Gagosian was his “Asia series”. Ostensibly painted from life while he was on tour in Asia, in reality the paintings were copied from photos. I’m not sure how long it took for this to come out – here’s a Rolling Stone article about it – because these are based on very well-known photos. Like, there’s no attempt to hide this fact, any more than Duchamp was trying to hide the inspiration for L.H.O.O.Q. Anyway, art reporting being what it is, people went bonkers saying that the Dylan was a plagiarist, and others pointing out that he was just doing what artists have been doing since, well, Duchamp, and certainly since the 1980s at galleries like Gagosian’s.
The Dylan plagiarism charge is an interesting one, and the one that I feel like I may spend more substantial time with once this project is done. Here’s Dylan from the 2012 Rolling Stone interview with Mikal Gilmore on the topic:
MG: Before we end the conversation, I want to ask about the controversy over your quotations in your songs from the works of other writers, such as Japanese author Junichi Saga’s “Confessions of a Yakuza,” and the Civil War poetry of Henry Timrod. Some critics say that you didn ‘t cite your sources clearly. Yet in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. What’s your response to those kinds of charges?BD: Oh, yeah, in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It’s true for everybody, but me. I mean, everyone else can do it but not me. There are different rules for me. And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? Who’s been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it’s so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.
Ok, so that goes a little off the rails at the end. I’m not sure if it’s the person who yelled “Judas!” in 1966 that is actually out there criticizing Dylan for plagiarism, but is interesting to hear Dylan equate the two.
Let’s take a step back from the issue and come at it again. Listen to “Roll on John”, the final track on Tempest:
The song, clearly, is about John Lennon. Anyone can see that. Because we know that it is about Lennon, we are not surprised by lines like: “I heard the news today, oh boy”. We recognize that as a nod to “A Day in the Life”. It’s not plagiarism, it’s a citation. Similarly, in the same song, Dylan sings “Tiger, Tiger burning bright”, which we recognize as a reference to William Blake, and we know that Dylan is adding depth to his song be drawing an equivalence between the pop star and the Romantic poet. It is up to us, of course, to give flesh to that comparison, but the quotation is so well known that it isn’t hidden. There is no desire to deceive, which is the key to accusations of plagiarism.
But here’s the thing. To understand “Roll On John” from Tempest we also have to understand that Dylan previously played a song called “Roll on John”, and that song is a folk song. Here he is playing it on Cynthia Gooding’s radio show:
The Tempest version doesn’t make any sense without that earlier song, and, indeed, I would suggest that is imperative to our reading of the latter song (this article in The Atlantic offers an interesting reading of this song as being not really about John Lennon the person so much as John Lennon the myth – I am very sympathetic to this interpretation).
So, there are lines here that are very self-evident – thus citational – thus not plagiarism. There is a deep structure that is necessary, but also citational – if you happen to know it. And there’s the rub. Dylan knows all of this stuff – and I think that he thinks that you should too. I think his exasperation over the Timrod accusations stem from his exasperation that we are not keeping up! Read Henry Timrod, for god’s sake, and then you’ll know what I’m talking about. But don’t say that he’s trying to rip off Timrod and hide it – he’s not hiding it any more than he’s hiding Blake, it’s just that nobody is reading Timrod. That’s not on Dylan, that’s on us.
That’s the short version, at least. Dylan has been recycling older tropes from the very first moment that he wrote a song, and he has never stopped. Now he does it in his paintings too.
So, in the “Asia Series” he paints versions of well-known photographs and then presumably marvels that people don’t realize that the photos are well-known.
So, in 2012, along comes his second Gagosian show: “Revisionist Art”. This is a major aesthetic change from the earlier shows. Dylan isn’t painting here – he’s using appropration techniques (self-evidently) and silkscreen. All of the images are collages of well-known magazine covers – Rolling Stone, Playboy, Architectural Digest – that have been detourned with unlikely text and even more unlikely imagery. Photos of bleeding professional wrestlers and female nudes adorn the covers of Time, with non-sequitur headlines. For the most part the women are sexualized and the men are beaten up. The images themselves run to the garish. These are not images that I enjoy (I wouldn’t want one in my house) but I get them – or at least I get the trajectory of art history that they come from.
Since the work is so different than what Dylan has previously done – sketchy modernist portraits – it’s not surprising that there was some question about the work. Some critics suggested that perhaps the works weren’t even by Dylan, they could be by Richard Prince (who has worked this line for a long time). Prince, after all, is a Gagosian artist who wrote the catalogue essay for the “Asia Series”, so maybe it is an elaborate hoax?
Maybe it is. All of the coverage of the show indicated that Gagosian didn’t even price these Dylans – if they were even for sale we don’t know what was being asked. Prince commands a high price in the contemporary art world – probably even more than Dylan would, so I’m not sure what the benefit of this hoax would be, unless it is just to pull off a hoax, which, of course, would be a work itself. I just sort of doubt it.
The Revisionist Art catalogue has a nonsensical (deliberately so) essay by Luc Sante, and is annoying laid out since the images are inset on pages that are smaller than the rest of the book. Dylan (or Prince? or Whomever?) has continued to work in this style. His show at the Halcyon Gallery in London offered a greater number of works – and, I think, many that were a lot better. As a visual artist Dylan is becoming more interesting all the time.