It was 50 years ago last month when a New York Times critic gave a big boost to Bob Dylan, effectively kickstarting his music career. But it was quite a different critic today who wrote about his art show in a gallery there.
Already the Times had written about “The Asian Series” at the Gagosian Gallery, noting that some of the images seemed exactly copied from historic photographs of artists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, though the gallery had said they were the result of direct observations from his travels.
But Holland Cotter’s notice Friday dismissed all that saying the problem with the show “is that not even whispers of potential ethical impropriety can make these paintings interesting to look at.”
Rather, he says “the color is muddy, the brushwork is scratchily dutiful, the images static and postcard-ish. The work is dead on the wall.”
The show is not a disaster, he says. “It’s just dull, and in the context of the present pervasive dullness and unoriginality of a lot of painting in New York, it fits in all too well.”
Dylan has answered this criticism in a roundabout way, publishing on his website the day of that first Times article, excerpts of a long and illuminating interview that appeared in the show’s catalogwith the art historian John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, who helped organize the current Willem deKooning exhibit there.
Elderfield had noticed some similarities too to Gauguin, in one of his paintings, “The Game.”
Of that, Dylan said, “the Gauguin reference is basically underpainting and muted color. I had intended to paint over it, but it was so intriguing. I might even have been tempted for a second to paint out the rest of the picture in that style, but I’m not Gauguin, and the painting had already made its point.”
Dylan had been cited for “borrowing” lyrics for songs on his recent albums. So he addressed that issue unprovoked as well.
“Quotation is something that happens a lot in the music world,” Dylan says. “Merle Haggard can mimic Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson perfectly. The Beatles, in ‘Back in the USSR,’ mimic The Beach Boys.
“Quotation is a phrase that is used all the time in jazz solos. It happens a lot in old-time string band music too. One song is always using a line from another song to brace it. But then goes off on another tangent. Minstrels did it all the time. Weird takes on Shakespeare plays, stuff like that. It’s just done automatically.”
The interview, while mostly about art, did show some light on his own songwriting and how its lyrics were never meant to be so fraught with so much meaning.
“A song is a prismatic thing, nonlinear,” he says. “Writing songs, you are looking for rhymes that feel right—things that come to you even as you are singing. They come to you quick-like. Sometimes even in a scatological way.
“You don’t have time to distill meanings or ideological fallout. You want to make sure that the feeling is there, but you can create feeling out of tone, texture, and phrasing, not only words.
“You want to make sure that there’s camaraderie between the lyric and the rhythm. That just has to be, or you wouldn’t have much of a song.
“All that profound meaning stuff—that comes later. And truthfully, that’s for other people to experience. Believe me, the songwriter isn’t thinking of any of those things.”
“Bob Dylan: The Asia Series” continues at the Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison, New York, through Oct. 22.