Although internationally known as a singer and songwriter, Bob Dylan is also an author, film director, actor, disc jockey and visual artist. One of the most influential and, at times, controversial figures in the music of the past five decades, he has sold over 110 million records around the world and since 1988 has played around 100 shows a year in the ‘Never-Ending Tour’. He paints mostly from life: ‘I’m pretty much interested in people, histories, myth, and portraits; people of all stripes’. Quoted from an interview with John Elderfield published in the catalogue to The Asia Series, 2011
American, b. 1941
Although internationally known as a singer and songwriter, Bob Dylan is also an author, film director, actor, disc jockey and visual artist. One of the most influential and, at times, controversial figures in the music of the past five decades, he has sold over 110 million records around the world and since 1988 has played around 100 shows a year in the ‘Never-Ending Tour’. He paints mostly from life: ‘I’m pretty much interested in people, histories, myth, and portraits; people of all stripes’.
Born into a close-knit Jewish community in Duluth, Minnesota, on 24 May 1941, Dylan was originally named Robert Allen Zimmerman. The family relocated to Hibbing when his father contracted polio, and he spent the remainder of his childhood there. Dylan taught himself piano and guitar and played in several bands; by the time he went to the University of Minnesota in 1959 he was hoping ‘to join Little Richard’. Dropping out of college after a year, he moved to New York in 1961, began to play at various clubs and signed up with Columbia Records. The following year he produced his first album and officially changed his name to Bob Dylan. After his initial interest in rock ‘n’ roll, his focus fell onto folk and protest music; he was heavily influenced by Woody Guthrie.
Many of Dylan’s early songs were made famous by other artists, such as Joan Baez, who promoted him and was his lover in the early sixties. In 1965 Dylan married Sarah Lowndes, with whom he would have four children; he also adopted her daughter from her first marriage. Divorced in 1977, he was married to Carolyn Dennis from 1986 to 1992 and had a daughter with her. He has had a number of other intimate relationships. In the late 1970s Dylan converted to evangelical Christianity, returning to Judaism in the 1980s and subsequently distancing himself from organised religion.
From his performances in Greenwich Village coffee houses, festivals and rallies in the early 1960s to his stadium rock concerts of the 1970s and subsequent worldwide tours, Dylan has built his musical reputation on the strength of live appearances. He has appeared alongside such major artists as George Harrison, the Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. Over five decades he has released more than 50 albums and written in excess of 500 songs, some of the most famous being ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. His songs have been covered more than 3,000 times by artists as diverse as Sonny and Cher, Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Jarrett, Guns N’ Roses, Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Marley, Pearl Jam and Neil Young.
Dylan’s music has been recognised and honoured with many awards. He received an honorary doctorate of music from Princeton University, New Jersey, in 1970 and another from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, in 2004. President Clinton presented him with a Kennedy Center Honor at the White House in 1997, recognising the excellence of his contribution to American culture. Dylan’s song ‘Things Have Changed’ from the film Wonder Boys (2000) won him an Academy Award in 2001. In addition to winning 11 Grammy Awards in rock, folk and general categories, he has achieved six entries in the Grammy Hall of Fame, which honours recordings of ‘qualitative or historical significance’ at least 25 years old.
The publication of Dylan’s experimental novel, Tarantula, written in stream-of-consciousness style in the mid 1960s, was planned for 1966 but delayed by a serious motorcycle accident until 1971. His autobiographical Chronicles: Volume One (2004) became an international bestseller. Dylan has both directed and acted in a number of films, making his first appearance in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and more recently co-writing and starring in Masked and Anonymous (2003).
Dylan dates the origins of his work as a visual artist to the early 1960s. In Chronicles he writes:
‘What would I draw? Well, I guess I would start with whatever was at hand. I sat at the table, took out a pencil and paper and drew the typewriter, a crucifix, a rose, pencils, knives and pins, empty cigarette boxes. I'd lose track of time completely.... Not that I thought I was any great drawer, but I did feel like I was putting an orderliness to the chaos around.’
A few drawings reached the public gaze on such album covers as Music from Big Pink (1968). Then in 1974 Dylan spent two seminal months studying art with Norman Raeben, son of Sholem Aleichem. He was attracted to the teacher’s philosophy and his ability to describe truth, love and beauty. Later, Dylan ascribed responsibility to Raeben for changing both his outlook and his technique: ‘He put my mind and my hand and my eye together, in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt.’ A book of 92 drawings titled Drawn Blank followed in 1994, and exhibitions of reworked versions of these images were mounted at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz in Germany in 2007 and the following year at Halcyon Gallery in London.
The original Drawn Blank sketches date from 1989 to 1992. Dylan explains that he drew them as a way of relaxing and refocusing his mind while touring America, Europe and Asia. When approached by a gallery wanting to exhibit the works, he returned to the images and reworked them. Digitally enlarging the drawings, he transferred scans onto deckle-edged paper and in eight months during 2007 created 320 paintings in watercolour and gouache. A single picture would emerge as a set, coloured sometimes delicately, sometimes brilliantly, with different elements emphasised. ‘He riffs with color across the same simple black-and-white sketches the way he plays songs in concert, sometimes making subtle changes, other times brutally overhauling them’, comments Marisha Pessl. ‘His brush strokes are like his voice: straightforward, rough, occasionally fragile, but always intent on illustrating the treads of human experience.’
In 2007 Dylan received Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts and in 2008 a Special Citation Pulitzer Prize ‘for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power’. His album Together Through Life (2009) entered the charts at number one in America and Britain, reaching the top position in a total of 15 countries, and he was granted America’s 2009 National Medal of Arts.
Two important exhibitions of The Drawn Blank Series took place in 2010 at the Accademia Albertina delle Belle Arti in Turin, Italy, and at the Asahi Exhibition Centre in Roppongi, Tokyo. At Halcyon Gallery, the works were exhibited both as limited edition graphics and, in Bob Dylan on Canvas, as the artist’s first-ever paintings in acrylics. Paul Green, president of the gallery, commented that they were ‘the culmination of everything Dylan has done with The Drawn Blank Series so far, signalling a new phase in the artist’s career’.
As this fresh medium opened up to Dylan during an intensive burst of artistic activity, he completed a significant new group of some 50 paintings, The Brazil Series. In the subsequent exhibition at Copenhagen’s Statens Museum for Kunst from September 2010 to April 2011, visitors saw how Dylan had developed preliminary studies executed on tour in Brazil into richly coloured depictions of countryside, cityscape and, above all, characters such as musicians, card players and troublemakers. ‘It would appear that a strong fascination with the exotic settings he encountered in Brazil proved a major incentive’, writes curator Kasper Monrad in the exhibition catalogue. ‘Here, he found motifs and scenes that would strike Northern Americans – and Northern Europeans – as “southern”. This is to say that they have an exotic quality that can seem challenging and tantalising, partly because they are so different from everyday life at home and because they appeal to the imagination. They often invite you to continue the narrative, embellishing the scene played out in front of you.’
A further artistic landmark for Dylan was his first New York show in autumn 2011, where The Asia Series was exhibited. These 18 works reflect on his time spent in China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea but also quote from art history, including works by Édouard Manet, Paul Gauguin and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
During 2012, Dylan released his thirty-sixth studio album, Tempest, and was awarded America’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by Barack Obama.
In February 2013, The New Orleans Series, a new exhibition of 23 works on canvas, opened at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. Created between 2008 and 2011, Dylan’s latest paintings featuring dramatic ‘film-still’ scenes, portraits and nudes set in the city in 1940s and 1950s pay tribute to the American home of blues and jazz.
Later in the year, in March 2013, Dylan was elected American Honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This was followed in August 2013 by the opening of Bob Dylan: Face Value at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The collection, created specifically for this Dylan’s first British museum show, features 12 pastel portraits of real and fictitious characters. Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, comments: ‘Bob Dylan is one of the most influential cultural figures of our time. He has always created a highly visual world either with his words or music, or in paints and pastels.’
Mood Swings, a major exhibition of new works by Dylan, opens at Halcyon Gallery in November 2013. This is the first public showing of the artist’s iron works, seven gates that will be exhibited alongside original works on canvas and signed limited editions. Created from vintage iron and other metal parts, they reveal the artist's lifelong fascination with welding and metalwork. As Dylan comments: ‘I've been around iron all my life ever since I was a kid […] And I've always worked with it in one form or another.’
2013 Mood Swings, Halcyon Gallery, London
2013 Bob Dylan: Face Value, The National Portrait Gallery, London
2013 The New Orleans Series, Palazzo Reale, Milan
2011 The Asia Series, Gagosian Gallery, New York
2010 The Brazil Series, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
2010 The Drawn Blank Series, Accademia Albertina delle Belle Arti, Turin, Italy
2010 The Drawn Blank Series, Asahi Exhibition Centre, Roppongi, Tokyo
2010 Bob Dylan on Canvas, Halcyon Gallery, London
2009 The Drawn Blank Series, Halcyon Gallery, London
2009 The Drawn Blank Series, Edinburgh City Centre
2008 The Drawn Blank Series, Halcyon Gallery, London
2007 The Drawn Blank Series, Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, Germany
SELECTED ART FAIRS
2013 Art Stage Singapore
2013 American Honorary member, American Academy of Arts and Letters
2012 US Presidential Medal of Freedom
2009 US National Medal of Arts
2008 Special Citation Pulitzer Prize
2007 Spain's Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts
2004 Honorary Doctorate, University of St Andrew’s, Scotland
1997 Kennedy Center Honor
1970 Honorary Doctorate, University of Princeton, New Jersey, USA