Live from Bob Dylan’s Retrospectrum
REVIEW BY Rebecca Slaman
On April 9th,2022, Richard Thomas, Anne Margaret Daniel, Laura Tenschert, and I all converged on the Florida International University campus to meet, observe, and share our knowledge of Bob Dylan. I earned my place among these brilliant speakers by providing a voice for the youth, illuminating how Dylan is received in the internet age. Sponsored by the Humanities department of the University, the four of us were invited to check out the largest collection of Dylan’s visual arts ever assembled, and to provide some insight into the artist at a symposium. “Beyond Generations: Bob Dylan Through the Looking Glass,” was a series of events including concerts by local musicians, presentations, and the dedication of a gate built by Dylan himself. The symposium closed out the exhibit, though I am glad to have spoken on the panel before viewing the art. In the presentations, we discussed Dylan as a musical artist and his impact, though Laura Tenschert specifically provided the background on how his visual art connects to his musicianship.
The exhibit, called “Retrospectrum,” was originally shown in Shanghai in 2019. In this iteration, the existing collections of paintings, drawings, and sculpture were joined by Dylan’s latest works, called Deep Focus, completed during the quarantine stage of the pandemic. The museum also received as a gift an iron-worked gate called “Untitled.” Standing tall just outside the entrance, it joined other looming, abstract sculptures in the green courtyard space. Full of colorful toolbox contents, it cast an elongated, darkly whimsical shadow. “Untitled” welcomed us as we rushed in to check out over four hundred works crafted by Dylan’s hands.
Before viewing this exhibit, any academic, fan, or casual onlooker may have questions about Dylan’s technical skill. The greatest U.S. songwriter, one may think, can’t be so talented as a painter too. Dallying into the visual arts could be seen as a hobby; a break from his “real” work. Let me assure you, the largest exhibition yet of Bob Dylan’s visual work rebukes that notion. Aside from the sheer volume of the collection, the growth of the artist is very impressive. The curation calls particular attention to the improvement of this skill, as it encompasses a wide range of time, from sketching to painting (1973-2020.) I don’t know if I would believe Dylan was capable of creating the vast, detailed pieces of Deep Focus if not for witnessing his technical improvements over time throughout the museum. Likewise, the early forays into sketch are legitimized by the formidable paintings most recently published. The title, “Retrospectrum,” Latin for “looking back,” illuminates this concept. It’s a curious choice for Dylan, who once told a reporter “nostalgia is death.” But rather than look back with nostalgia, “Retrospectrum” enables us to appreciate a complete picture of the artist through time.
Upon entering the museum, videos and music provide background on Dylan’s impact as a musician on American culture. It first introduces you to Mondo Scripto, which transitions the musical into the visual: iconic song lyrics accompanied by drawings. Beyond this exhibit, the museum flow is not linear, so patrons can choose their own paths. The most impressive paintings, though, take some work to get to. Like a reward, Deep Focus requires one to go beyond rooms of older paintings. Just off the stairs is The Beaten Path, which is the collection released just before the latest, followed by the New Orleans series, which is from the early 2010s. Placing Deep Focus after New Orleans heightens the impact of Dylan’s skill. Being Dylan’s most recent output, Deep Focus is central, and with good reason. In the other direction is a more miscellaneous collection of older paintings, drawings, sculpture, and Mondo Scripto. The non-chronological setup flattens time, providing context to the main event.
The earliest collection of paintings, created between 1989 and 1992, were originally published in the Drawn Blank series. They have a Van Gogh like quality about them in terms of compressed perspective. The subjects are often askew, as if attempting to portray distance, but not quite getting the horizon line right. They also lack depth and shading of the subject. This gives them a flat, if fanciful, appearance. Though more abstract, the skewed perspective technique mirrors Dylan’s approach in Deep Focus, where all subjects are in focus regardless of their distance from the viewer. In the Beyond Generations presentations, Laura Tenschert commented on this philosophy across Dylan’s work. Particularly, this concept of united perspective was seen in Shadow Kingdom, where background actors and actions added meaning, if the viewer knew where to look. For example, Tenschert shared that during “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” a man moved in slow motion relative to the other actors. Paying attention to the background and context yields significant value when looking at Dylan’s art. Characters and words provide clues into what the artist is attempting to convey. The value of an academic cannot be overstated when approaching a collection of work on this scale; Tenschert’s presentation, much like Dylan’s artistic habits, brought all of it into frame and focus. I’m grateful to have been taught this concept before seeing the paintings, and luckily, future viewers of this collection will find the presentations preserved on the FIU website. Indeed, small details contain winks that feel intrinsic to Dylan’s character. Across all paintings, subjects reoccur, exposing us to Dylan’s visual world. Woody Guthrie’s name populates diner signs and newspapers, and you might spot the visage of Leonard Cohen sipping a coffee. But it’s not just Dylan’s artistic heroes – beautiful, breasty women also play a role in Dylan’s art. The female subjects are unidentifiable in the earlier work due to their abstractness, but the newer ones are based on specific actresses. The presence of these characters shows that though the style changes over his career, Dylan’s particular perspective remains.
My favorite of the collections is The Beaten Path. The first painting you see is a brilliant sunset taking up a better portion of a wall, and a road extending up into a mountain. “Sunset, Monument Valley,” the title says. Upon Googling the location, you can see the source picture, known as “Forrest Gump Point.” Just as Dylan is part of the folk tradition, where borrowing songs is commonplace, his paintings do the same. But where the distant mountain fades in the photo and the road climbs, Dylan brightens and expands the image, creating a looming effect. It’s very impressive on its own, let alone imagining Dylan physically completing such an expansive work. In this room, the paintings in frame look like snapshots of a roadtrip across America. Slightly askew, glowing with neon motel signs and brilliant sunsets, they appear both truthful and mystical. Some details are delightfully accurate, such as the font on a Coca-Cola sign, and a plentitude of words appear throughout the paintings in carefully crafted detail. In others, the words are twisted. The paintings contain as much accurate signage as they do artistic liberties. Dylan’s changes no longer portray their original subjects, but give off a more general vibe of Nowhere, America. Just as some scholars may hunt for the real-life counterparts of Dylan’s songs – Edie Sedgewick in “Just Like A Woman,” the location of “Desolation Row” – the songs’ sources matter less than Dylan’s musical alchemy, relaying an idea. In the paintings, accuracy of subject gives way to a sense of nostalgia and unreality.
The New Orleans series is a bit drab after the brightness of The Beaten Path. Slightly earlier in Dylan’s painting career, the technique is not as clear. It’s also not much out of the ordinary; it’s what you would expect Dylan to like. Indeed, in Chronicles: Volume One, he praises the locale: “There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better. There’s a thousand different angles at any moment… No action seems inappropriate here. The city is one very long poem.” Though his experience of the Crescent City’s visuals might have been interesting, I did not find the products so. The images are muted and flat. “He’s trying,” one might say, as I did to excuse my distaste. He’s clearly making more of a concerted effort here than in the earlier paintings. Still, The Beaten Path does contain a few gems, such as “Peacemaker,” which calls to mind the music video for “Tight Connection to my Heart.” Two men in beige and gray pull fists at each other while a woman in pale pink halts their action. Their clothing is reminiscent of the 80s; one man might be in the Yakuza. The composition of the image is striking, though the drapery of the woman’s cloak is not fluid enough to make sense. Overall, I call this Dylan’s flop era.
As we approached Deep Focus, Anne Margaret Daniel prepared me to brace myself. Indeed, the scale of Dylan’s pandemic output is overwhelming. Dylan completed 33 fantastic paintings in two years! As I knew from specialist Scott Warmuth, this series consists of recreated film stills, with some artistic liberties. The exhibit itself extolls “The documentary candor of photography and film, as well as their ability to manipulate reality through cropping and framing.” Not a bad description of Dylan himself; obscuring reality to get to emotional truth. The technical skill of these paintings, regardless of their source, is laudable. The brushstrokes are sometimes thick and obscuring, sometimes small and detailed, drawing one’s eye to unexpected places. In one image, “Newsstand,” Dylan repaints the film still except for one magazine, which he replaces with a cover featuring country music artists.
In addition to greeting you at the beginning, peppered throughout the museum are Mondo Scripto pages. What a profound moment it was to round a corner and see Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woody’s granddaughter, quietly gazing at “Song to Woody” in Dylan’s own hand. As these pages are scattered throughout the exhibit, they act as reminders of Dylan’s occasionally mysterious intentions. Reviewers remarked when the book was first published that Dylan is unusual in his juxtapositions of image and lyric. While some combinations are obviously linked, others are dense and cryptic, such as “All Along the Watchtower.” Next to image-heavy lyrics of jokers and princes, Dylan features a woman in a medicine cabinet. Someone can probably find the connection here, but not this reviewer. Weirdly, when I went to look up this song’s drawing online, a different image came up, one of businessmen drinking wine around a card table. How did this happen? Why was it changed? What’s more curious, in a review of the Halcyon Gallery version of the exhibit, blogger Richard Williams commented on yet another version, a drawing of Jack Nicholson’s Joker. As Dylan fans know, even his classics are never complete: you have to keep an eye out for Dylan’s quick hands. Whether in the background of a painting or a work morphing over time, his decisions can be dizzying. In the writing, you can also see the slight handwriting differences across songs, some of them more loopy and swirly and some more straight and pointed. These discrepancies prepare you for how different the art styles in different series can be from one another; it’s all a part of form fitting content, all part of the journey.
Despite these differences, there are connecting themes. There are many open roads depicted across Dylan’s visual art, including in Mondo Scripto. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” both feature empty streets. What’s fascinating about the road trip motif is it’s often solitary in the piece; just one open road in the center of the frame, stretching out onto the horizon line. The effect is lonely, but beautiful. I often found myself trying to dissect Dylan’s attention to women subjects. In the earlier works, they are often close to the viewer, sometimes looking straight out. They’re often seductive. One painting, cheekily titled “Two Sisters,” depicts women nearly naked in bed together. As the collection goes on, women begin to occupy a space of intrigue, often looking off in the distance. The voyeuristic framing is replaced with a more distant appreciation of beauty. This progression makes me think Dylan is saying, I have given up claiming to understand women.
It’s a testament to the curators that they were able to make the exhibit so cohesive. Shai Baitel, who originally conceived the exhibit for the Modern Art Museum (MAM) Shanghai, gave a riveting talk at the Symposium that encompassed these themes. He alluded to the motif of the train, which appears in many of Dylan’s works. It also is a powerful symbol that provides an “in” to the perspective of Dylan-as-painter. As with his other art, the man himself is incredibly intriguing. I and the other speakers often found ourselves pondering the “why”, as we often do. Why did Dylan use this subject, this reference, this still? Why does his signature change across paintings? Viewing his painterly perspective as a train ride is a perfect way through; what we see is what he sees.
What struck me as a bit obscuring by the curators, and maybe by Dylan, is the lack of labels beside the artwork. All the information about the exhibit was presented with corresponding numbers in a thick book, printed in both English and Spanish. In the exhibits themselves, the walls were blank except for the art, the collection titles, and a few quotes from Dylan about his process, printed large on the wall. In the same vein as his untitled gate, perhaps he does not find the art’s titles and dates important. From the curators’ perspective, perhaps they want the art to stand on its own, to establish Dylan as a “real” visual artist. As with “Sunset, Monument Valley,” knowing the title can reveal how close his painting is to a photograph, which could discredit it. Or it could be the desire to establish the art outside of Dylan’s written work. Even through titles, his writing may have been enough to distract attention from the paintings on their own. This decision did make it more difficult to follow Dylan’s framing of the works. As a writer, I missed having that information while taking notes, but it did create visually pleasing, clean rooms.
As they probably were for Dylan, these works are an escape. The man took from images he could project in his own home, and painted his way to a new place which straddles reality and imagination. Dylan takes us on a journey through his perspective, and to find it, you just have to look at the details.