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
Bob Dylan is one of the world's most influential and groundbreaking artists. He has sold more than 125 million records around the world and amassed a singular body of work that includes some of the greatest and most popular songs the world has ever known. His first success came in the early 1960s as a live performer in the coffee houses and folk clubs of New York’s Greenwich Village. He continues to traverse the globe each year, performing more than 100 concerts annually in front of crowds who embrace his new material with the same fervour as his classic output. In recent years, his work as an author and visual artist has further burnished his popularity and acclaim: a worldwide best-selling memoir, Chronicles: Volume One , spent 19 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers List in 2004, and since 2007 major exhibitions of his paintings have been shown at some of the world’s most prestigious museums and galleries.
Born in Duluth, Minnesota, on 24 May 1941, Dylan spent most of his childhood in the iron-mining town of Hibbing. He taught himself piano and guitar and played in several bands, both in his hometown and in Duluth. In 1961, heavily influenced by Woody Guthrie and other American folk artists, Dylan moved to New York and began to play in the burgeoning folk music scene of Greenwich Village. He was signed to Columbia Records by renowned Artists and Repertoire Executive John Hammond in 1961, and his self-titled debut album was released in 1962.
Many of Dylan’s early songs were made famous by other artists such as Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary, whose versions of his classic compositions ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ helped bring the young artist to a larger audience. From his earliest performances in Greenwich Village coffee shops, folk festivals and rallies in the early 1960s to his stadium rock concerts of the 1970s and subsequent annual international tours, Dylan established an enduring reputation as one of the world’s great live performers. He has released over 50 albums and written more than 600 songs, including ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, ‘All Along The Watchtower’, ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and ‘Make You Feel My Love’. His songs have been covered more than 6,000 times by artists as diverse as Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, Guns N’ Roses, Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Marley, Pearl Jam, Neil Young, Adele and U2.
Dylan’s contributions to worldwide culture have 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 Andrew’s, 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. President Obama subsequently granted him America’s 2009 National Medal of Arts and, in 2012, the highest civilian honour in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2013, he received France’s prestigious appointment of Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.
Dylan’s song ‘Things Have Changed’ from the film Wonder Boys (2000) garnered a 2001 Academy Award. In 2007 he 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’. In addition to winning 11 Grammy Awards, Dylan has achieved six entries in the Grammy Hall of Fame, which honours recordings of ‘qualitative or historical significance’ at least 25 years old. His 37th studio album, Fallen Angels , was released to critical acclaim in May 2016, entering the charts in the top 10 in 12 countries.
Dylan dates the origins of his work as a visual artist to the early 1960s. In his 2004 memoir, 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’s gaze through various means, including the cover of The Band’s 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink . 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 the Kunstsammlungen wanting to exhibit them, he returned to the images and reworked them. 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’, commented Marisha Pessl in The New York Times [‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’, 1 June 2008]. ‘His brushstrokes are like his voice: straightforward, rough, occasionally fragile, but always intent on illustrating the treads of human experience.’
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. 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 into richly coloured depictions of countryside, cityscape and, above all, characters such as musicians, card players and troublemakers.
A further artistic landmark was Dylan’s first New York show in autumn 2011 at the Gagosian Gallery, 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. In November 2012, the artist’s controversial Revisionist Art Series opened in New York with large silkscreen works that satirised lofty public figures and celebrities within the format of famous magazine covers, re-contextualizing the familiar graphics and iconography with vivacity and a maverick sense of the absurd.
In February 2013 the Palazzo Reale in Milan exhibited Dylan’s New Orleans Series, a group of 23 oil on canvas works paying homage to the birthplace of blues and jazz in atmospheric 1940s scenes and portrayals of decadent, virtually monochrome nudes. ‘Night can swallow you up, yet none of it touches you’, says Dylan in Chronicles . ‘There’s something obscenely joyful behind every door, either that or somebody crying with their head in their hands.… The city is one very long poem.’ Dylan's first museum show in London, Face Value , opened at the National Portrait Gallery in August 2013. An exhibition of 12 pastel portraits depicting enigmatic characters conflated from memory, imagination and real life, with such names as Nina Felix and Red Flanagan, it represented a break in tradition for this august institution, which generally admits only portraiture of well-known figures in British public life. Three months later, Dylan’s fascination with metalwork came into the public arena at Halcyon Gallery’s exhibition Mood Swings , presenting his first collection of iron sculptures. Works of threshold and transition, they bar the path but simultaneously allow people to see through to the scenery beyond.
During 2014, Dylan exhibited again with Halcyon Gallery, showing Revisionist Art and Side Tracks , a running series of over 300 prints, each uniquely hand-embellished by the artist, revisiting the evocative Train Tracks image from The Drawn Blank Series . The Face Value exhibition toured, first to Copenhagen’s Museum of National History in 2014, then to the Butler Museum in Youngstown, Ohio, in 2015, followed by Kent State University Museum, Ohio, and Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz in 2016. The New Orleans Series travelled to the city that originally inspired this suite of paintings for a two-part show.
In October 2016 an official announcement by Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, revealed that Dylan was to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’. The following month, Dylan’s major exhibition The Beaten Path opened at Halcyon Gallery. In these new drawings, watercolours and acrylic works on canvas the artist depicts many facets of the American heartlands. According to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian , ‘A real artist made these drawings and paintings. Their integrity is compelling. They demand to be looked at, for their awe and wonder at the beauty and grandeur of being alive. These are the pictures of a true poet.’
In an essay published in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, Dylan muses on the democratic power of this imagery: ‘The Beaten Path works represent a different subject matter from the everyday imagery of consumer culture. There is nothing to suggest these paintings were inspired by the writings of Sigmund Freud or that they were based on any mental images that occur in dreams, no fantasy worlds, religious mysticism or ambiguous subject matter. In every picture the viewer doesn’t have to wonder whether it’s an actual object or a delusional one. If the viewer visited where the picture actually existed, he or she would see the same thing. It is what unites us all.’
Mondo Scripto opened at Halcyon Gallery in October 2018. The exhibition presents a selection of Bob Dylan’s most iconic songs, handwritten in pen on paper and accompanied with a corresponding drawing in graphite, also on paper. As Tom Piazza, a celebrated novelist and writer on American music, writes in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, ‘Dylan’s restlessly creative mind is never wholly satisfied, and those familiar with these songs will find surprise at many a new turn of phrase. The unexpected couplings of these works and images offer a surprisingly intimate door into each song, adding dimension, delight and insight into the artist’s relation to his own work’.
2018 Mondo Scripto, Halcyon Gallery, London
2017 The Beaten Path: The Silkscreen Collection, Halcyon Gallery, London
2016 The Beaten Path, Halcyon Gallery, London
2016 Bob Dylan: The New Orleans Series, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana
2016 Face Value, Kent State University Museum, Kent, Ohio
2016 Face Value, Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, Chemnitz, Germany
2015 Face Value, Butler Museum, Youngstown, Ohio
2014 Bob Dylan, CAMERIMAGE, Tumult Gallery, Toruń
2014 Face Value, Museum of National History, Copenhagen
2013 Revisionist Art, Gagosian Gallery, New York
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
2010 The Drawn Blank Series, Asahi Exhibition Centre, Tokyo
2010 Bob Dylan on Canvas, Halcyon Gallery, London
2009 The Drawn Blank Series, Halcyon Gallery, London
2009 The Drawn Blank Series, Edinburgh
2008 The Drawn Blank Series, Halcyon Gallery, London
2007 The Drawn Blank Series, Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, Germany
2016 Nobel Prize in Literature
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