rip Barry Feinstein, photographer
Je suis de nouveau entré dans ma forge pour travailler et forger en la noble matière du temps passé (Jean Froissart – 1337-1405)
BOB DYLAN ASIDES (2011)
Culled from interviews with John Elderfield in Spring 2011 triggered by three Bob Dylan art-shows: The Drawn-Blank Series; The Brazil Series; The Asia Series. Edited by Nick Ward, mimimally – with illustrations and links drawn from the world-wide web via google-search or home-made. A labour of love, Bob. A small return from Banjo Nick for all the inspiration you have unwittingly provided over the years. On going (work-in-progress, started 12th November 2011).
Bob Dylan Aside 1
On his high school drawing instructor.
My drawing instructor in high school lectured and demonstrated continuously to “draw only what you can see” so that if you were at a loss for words, something could be explained and even more importantly, not misunderstood. Rather than fantasize, be real and draw it only if it is in front of you and if it’s not there, put it there and by making the lines connect, we can vaguely get at something other than the world we know.
Bob Dylan Aside 2
On comparing the effects of The Asia Series with The Brazil Series.
These are more tranquil paintings. With that last series, you would have to assume that there is going to be movement, whether you see it or not. With these paintings, I restricted myself in a lot of ways, not only in color, but also in lines and shapes, so the effects are going to be different. And yes, you’re right, these figures are more internal—nonwestern.
Bob Dylan Aside 4
On the comment, ‘Nobody else paints like this’.
I didn’t know what to make of that statement either. What’s in or not in changes all the time, doesn’t it? Some artists are always in—Picasso, Rembrandt, Dickens, Son House, Keith Richards.
|Keef’s musical workshop – pt 1|
Keith Richards painted by Ronnie Wood
There’s nothing the authoritarian order can do about that. If you were never in, you were never out. People are only out once they’ve been in. We never hear of the ones that are truly out. They’re so out, they’re in. It’s all relative, isn’t it? I’ve always been more of a traditionalist and followed my own star—to thine own self be true and all that. What’s in or not in is mostly media-manipulated for commercial reasons anyway. You have to believe in what you do and stay dedicated. It’s easy to get sucked in to what others think you should do.
But there’s a price to pay for that.
Bob Dylan aside 5.
On contemporary art.
I don’t follow it that much. Owen Smith, Terry Allen, I like their work. I think miniature golf courses are great art forms
Bob Dylan aside 6.
On abstract art.
I like Franz Kline’s paintings.
Bob Dylan aside 7.
Situations are all struggles and conflicts, aren’t they? There are as many types of them as trees in the forest. That particular song is a one-person narrative, but they’re not all like that. “Frankie and Johnny,” for instance—”He was her man, but he done her wrong.” That’s the singer talking. “I saw your man about an hour ago.” That’s the bartender. “Roll me over, Frankie.” That’s Johnny. And some people call Johnny, Albert. A song is a prismatic thing, nonlinear. 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 aside 8. (and Bob Dylan drawn by Feliks Topolski)
On ‘quoting’ Gaugin in ‘The Game’.
I’m surprised you noticed it, but 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. Quotation is something that happens a lot in the music world. 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.
Bob Dylan aside 9.
I’ve done sketching most of my life. In notebooks, on napkins, on rough paper or cardboard, plates and coffee pots … basically when there’s something to look at—so it’s not new for me. As to exhibiting it, that has to do with Kasper Monrad, the Copenhagen Museum curator, who, through Ingrid Mössinger, convinced me to do thirty or forty paintings tied to a particular theme. As far as painting for the public, I don’t really see myself doing that. I paint for individuals—almost like a tailor makes a suit for somebody. You perform for people who identify with your work. It’s not a jury system. People from all walks of life—businesspeople, workers, other singers, college students—could be anybody. Them first. You want the general public to respect you, but they don’t need to necessarily be fans.
Bob Dylan aside 10.
On pushing himself with non-musical activities.
Yeah, to some degree. I like to restore old cars, ride horses, and sail boats, and I’m learning how to cook and can do some gardening. Maybe someday I’ll be making my own instruments. I have no idea. I probably do push too hard.
Bob Dylan aside 11.
On writing ‘Chronicles’.
Writing Chronicles was exhausting. I wrote it mostly in hotel rooms and in the backs of buses. I was moving pretty much through the whole book, and I think the pages reflect that. If I hadn’t been writing Chronicles, maybe I would have written some songs. I’ve always got ideas for songs, even while I’m painting. But sure, a painting studio is a lot quieter and more introspective than a recording studio. In saying that, though, musicians are not exactly other people. It’s more of a fraternity. Musicians have their own language and speak to each other through instruments and shorthand talk. Painting is visual. There isn’t anything Darwinistic about it, whereas making music is more like stunt flying or bullfighting.
Bob Dylan aside 12
On the 1970 album cover ‘Self Portrait’ phase.
That was a great painting, wasn’t it? No, I wasn’t doing a lot of painting, but I was doing a lot of sketching in diaries. There was one I did when I was traveling with The Band in ’74, but that sketchbook diary was stolen. That was years ago.
Bob Dylan aside 13.
On the influence of taking art classes with Norman Raeban in 1974.
Maybe what the old guy said about painting did have something to do with the Blood on the Tracks record (‘look at a vase for thirty seconds and then draw it from memory.’) But basically, that whole period has been blown out of proportion by people writing about that record. I could have picked up things in that class, but it was sort of an advanced class, and I wasn’t on the same level as most of the others. What he tried to pound into your head was painting the light, and the model looked different from every angle in the room. The thing was to paint the light, whatever your perspective was, and the figure would fall into place. I wasn’t too successful at that, and I spent a lot of time cleaning my brushes and getting my paints muddy. It was frustrating. He wanted you to do that with only a few colors and white with lead in it. Then he’d go around the room critiquing everybody’s work, in a personal way. Devastating critiques. Extremely loud and shocking. Embarrassing. He could get to the heart of the matter in no time, and tell all about a person by seeing their work. He told some people that they were murderers, thieves, charlatans, and a lot worse. I dreaded him looking over my shoulder. And when he did it, it was horrible. He asked me why I wanted to paint in the first place. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I told him I wanted to replicate life, and he became quite angry.
(Norman Raeben ‘Head in black and white’ undated)
Like, “What makes you think life needs to be replicated?” He told me I was self-centered, and a real artist is anything but that. After a couple of those sessions, I don’t think I went back. I think I was a poor student, and I never did grasp how to paint the light. But it was a privilege to be there. The man was a force of nature.
Bob Dylan aside 14.
On the ‘neo-Expressionist, beat style’ painting ‘Queen of Hearts’ (unattributed).
I don’t know anything about that painting, but I like that term “neo-Expressionist, beat style.” Where did you come up with that? Maybe that is my style. Maybe you’ve hit on it.
Bob Dylan aside 15.
On paintings bringing songs to mind.
There’s one painting in The Brazil Series called Skull and Bones. I studied it for a while after I’d done it, and it reminded me of the Hank Williams song “You Win Again.” Especially the first verse. So I guess you can equate the two.
Bob Dylan aside 16.
On the sketches of Woody Guthrie.
Wooody made simple sketches for small publications, and he was a sign painter before becoming a musician. But I never did talk to him about it.
Bob Dylan aside 17.
On American artists George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton.
Benton is the Uncle Dave Macon of painting. Most of his pictures have a knee-slapping, banjo-riffing, farmyard quality. And it looks to me like he knew something about the camera obscura, though to what degree it’s hard to say. Whether he painted his models upside down, I don’t know, but that style has always fascinated me. As for Bellows, I just like his themes and his color combinations.
Bob Dylan aside 18.
On American artist Red Grooms.
I think I talked about Red Grooms in my book. I saw a few of his exhibitions back in the ’60s and have always marveled at his ability to create excitement out of mundanity. Fantastic dreams, mass wealth on a little scale, preposterous and satirical, but very imposing.
Bob Dylan asides 19.
On Andy Warhol in the 60s.
Back then all sorts of elements were mixing together—jazz, folk music, filmmakers, photographers, Robert Frank, Jack Smith, Monk and Coltrane, the Clancy Brothers, dancers, dance groups, off-Broadway theater, Julian Beck and Judith Molina, the beat poets, civil rights, Vietnam, the Cold War. Battle lines had been drawn between the old and the new, and there was a lot going on. Everything was pretty interconnected. This was before corporate-sponsored culture. The walls Andy was busting down were from a different planet than the walls I was busting down, but it was in the same solar system. He was a maverick, like myself, I guess, so there would be some kind of affinity.
Bob Dylan asides 20.
On Face in the Crowd and other 1950s American movies.
Face in the Crowd—that’s so current, isn’t it? You can watch any of those TV personalities, and if you’ve seen Face in the Crowd, you know there’s probably some Lonesome Rhodes in all of them. The whole country is like their flock of sheep. I grew up in a small town hidden from the outside world, and the films from the ’40s and ’50s were like a window into the future, like classic literature, and had great meaning. It’s hard to explain that, especially in this age of narcissism and self-surveillance. A lot of people wouldn’t know they are alive unless they have photos of themselves to prove it—from the cradle to the grave, actually. The movies that we grew up watching seemed to be tuned to a higher vibration. They weren’t about us, they were about people bigger than us, living more on the edge than us—strange morality tales, more like Greek theater. Individuals overcame problems instead of merely surviving them, so you knew you could do that too. The people we saw on the screen were more real than real people. They were exemplary. Cult figures. Heroes and heroines. Anti-heroes. Top of the world. Brute force. Themes of salvation. Echoes of Shakespeare and of Aeschylus. Those films had a powerful effect on all of us who grew up with them. Like schoolboy lessons. Sure, I see a relationship. There’s always been a relationship.
Bob Dylan asides 21.
On Jim Jarmusch saying that Dylan’s film Masked and Anonymous is ‘the visual art closest to musical performance’.
Film is a great art form, but it’s not comparable to a live musical performance. There really is no reason to equate the two mediums. They’re vastly different. There’s nothing tactile about film. You can’t smell it or touch it. It’s an illusion. A magic trick. A film is abstract. A great painting or musical performance is visceral.
Bob Dylan asides 22.
On the relationship between his filmmaking, like ‘the wonderfully ambitious Renaldo and Clara’ and his paintings – and his songs.
Many people can do a number of things. Winston Churchill made a lot of paintings, mostly landscapes and cottages. Nobody compares his artistry with his diplomacy. He said that he knew of nothing else that more completely occupied the mind without exhausting the body. That’s probably a clue to why people paint. Miles Davis did a lot of painting too, and no one judged his painting by his horn playing. Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie—a lot of musicians paint.
(David Bowie)I know a doctor who paints portraits and a university professor who does landscapes. Playing music is another thing. Music is loose and tight at the same time. A painting is a strongly structured picture. The main thing is, is it interesting in its own right? Is it something worth seeing? In either case, the only relationship I see between the two is the idea not to repeat yourself, not to fall into any set patterns. Every standpoint has to be different. It’s like boxing—a fighter doesn’t always fight the same fight. A pitcher doesn’t always make the same pitch. Sometimes you make adjustments and sometimes you force adjustments.
As far as films, I’m not really a filmmaker in any right sense of the word—certainly, I have never directed or anything like that. Not that I ever wanted to. It would be a lot of responsibility.
Bob Dylan asides 23.
On Dylan’s process as a painter.
…there’s lots of different kinds of paintings, depending on what your intentions are in doing them—what you are trying to signify. I’m pretty much interested in people, histories, myth, and portraits; people of all stripes. But dance-hall atmospheres, shacks in the Allegheny Mountains, farm fields in Iowa … I can identify with that too.
(Mount Ararat On The Lincoln Highway, Elevation 2,464 Feet)
So my technique, if you want to call it that, pretty much runs the gamut. I seldom, if ever, change my mind on the purpose of what I’m trying to accomplish. Compositional changes? If I do that, I do that without thinking too much about it. I’ll do it if I have to.
Bob Dylan asides 24.
On Dylan’s sources as a painter.
I paint mostly from real life. It has to start with that. Real people, real street scenes, behind-the-curtain scenes, live models, paintings, photographs, staged setups, architecture, grids, graphic design. Whatever it takes to make it work. What I’m trying to bring out in complex scenes, landscapes, or personality clashes—I do it in a lot of different ways. I have the cause and effect in mind from the beginning to the end. But it has to start with something tangible. For instance, you can paint your own version of the Last Supper and use the same person as a model for all thirteen characters. Different light, different angles make a person appear differently. Hats, wigs, glasses, beards—all change a person’s appearance. Anything can vary—age, race, sex—you can use the same one person for all of it and fill in the rest.
Bob Dylan asides 25.
On intentionality versus intuition in the creation of perspectival effects in Dylan’s painting ‘The Emperor’.
…it’s mostly by intuition. I work within geometric patterns and have a very mathematical mind. I can feel where things are without seeing where they are. It just comes natural. Let’s not forget that the universe operates on mathematical principles. There’s a strict order to it. One mistake puts everything out of balance. A twelve-vehicle pileup begins with something being out of place. The idea is to keep everything where it should be.
Bob Dylan asides 26.
Well, sure, I would like to try my hand at marquetry. I’ve never done that. I can definitely see myself creating panels of elaborate scrolling—doing high-style inlaying work—wood mosaics, stuff like that. I would like to make solid wood clocks if the opportunity came up. I like glue, and I like to cut with saws. And working with dye has always fascinated me. But painting is painting and marquetry is marquetry. I can suggest certain types of detail and design here and there, but I do it in kind of an offhanded way and don’t focus on it. It would be detracting. I couldn’t do a painting like Manet’s portrait of Zola. Manet is so good that he can put it all in, big and small—the central figure, Japanese print, quill pen, reclining nude on the wall—Zola was the man of letters, and Manet paints the painting to prove it. Everything is in focus.
As far as the internal quality, that’s the challenge, isn’t it? External paintings are less baffling. You know you can use gestures and facial expressions, among other techniques, to create tension.
Bob Dylan asides 27.
On mixing the direct and the mysterious.
Yeah, sure, but everything in life, directly or indirectly, has a great degree of mystery. To paraphrase Warren Zevon, “Some days I feel like my shadow’s casting me.” Persons, places, things … time itself is a mystery. You know, like, who can explain it? It’s really difficult to define anything. What’s slow can speed up. Love can turn into hate. Peace can turn into war. Pride can turn into humility. Anger to grief. How would you define a simple thing like a chair, for instance—something you sit on? Well, it’s more than that. You can sit on a curb, or a fence. But they are not chairs. So what makes a chair a chair? Maybe it’s got arms? A cross has arms, so has a person. Maybe the chair doesn’t have arms? Okay, so it’s a post or a flagpole. But those aren’t chairs. A chair has four legs. So does a table. So does a dog. But they’re not chairs either. So a chair is a mystical thing. It’s got a divine presence.
There’s a gloomy veil of chaos that surrounds it. And “chaos” in Greek means “air.” So we live in chaos and we breathe it. Is it any wonder why some people snap and go crazy? Mystery is ancient. It’s the essence of everything. It violates all conventions of beauty and understanding. It was there before the beginning, and it will be there beyond the end. We were created in it. The Mississippi Sheiks recorded a song called “Stop and Listen.” To most music aficionados, it’s but a ragtime blues. But to me, it’s words of wisdom. Saint Paul said we see through the glass darkly. There’s plenty of mystery in nature and contemporary life. For some people, it’s too harsh to deal with. But I don’t see it that way.
Bob Dylan asides 28.
On Max Beckmann.
Max Beckmann’s paintings are of a certain European time, a time when humanity was under the gun, the world was coming to an end. They are filled with sadness, loneliness, maybe claustrophobia. I think of them as sort of Anglo-Saxon impressionism. The opposite of Frenchism. His colors are great and the figures are boldly drawn, but do we care to live in that world, or even make contact with it? I guess it depends on who you are.
As far as what’s going on in LeBelle Cascade, it’s what tourists see when they go into an amusement arcade in Tokyo or Osaka. There’s one next to the Kabuki theater in Tokyo. It’s a set-up scene with a backdrop showing scenes of the earlier eras in Japan. People pose like statues.
Bob Dylan asides 29.
On developing skills with devoted practice.
Well, yeah, we are always trying to uncover new aspects of ourselves—seeking new skills and perfecting old ones. Some of us are born with certain skills inherently—George Foreman, Howard Hughes, Valentino. And some of us discover them as we go along. Everything seems to come easy for the ones who are born into it. And for others it’s never going to be easy. Progress is going to be slow and disappointments can multiply. A lot of it is just trial and error.
Bob Dylan asides 30.
On the difference between Dylan’s painting and song-writing.
The aspect of concentration is different. Outside of that, I’m not sure there is a whole lot of difference. In either case I figure that if it works, I don’t let myself get in the way of it—I just keep going. Sometimes you do get it right all at once and nothing needs to be corrected. And there’s the other side, where the inspired idea gets lost and you might have to deal with it. You try to get it right, but as a practice you rarely do.
Extracts from a timeless interview.
Taken from the catalog published on the occasion of the release of Bob Dylan’s The Asia Series.
JOHN ELDERFIELD was born in Yorkshire, England; studied Fine Art at Leeds University; and received a Ph.D. in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London University. He is Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, where he has organized numerous exhibitions over the past thirty years. These range from such specialized projects as “Manet and the Execution of Maximilian” (2006) and “Henri Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-17” (2010), to major retrospectives devoted to, among others, Kurt Schwitters (1985), Henri Matisse (1992), Pierre Bonnard (1998), and Willem de Kooning (on view at The Museum Art until January 9, 2012). His writings include, in addition to catalogues for these and other exhibitions, an edition of Hugo Ball’s Flight Out of Time (1974, rev. 1996) and The Language of the Body: Drawings by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1996). His essay, “Across the Borderline,” was published in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen catalogue, Bob Dylan. The Brazil Series (2010).