How Many Paintings Can One Man Make Before He Decides to Stick to Music? Bob Dylan Gets a Second Show at Gagosian

The paintings in Bob Dylan’s first exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, on view last fall, showed scenes of everyday life throughout Asia that the artist purportedly witnessed “first-hand,” according to press materials, during breaks from his touring schedule. The exhibition caused a bit of an uproar—by art-world standards, anyway—when viewers got wise to several paintings’ spot-on resemblance to iconic photographs by the likes of Leon Busy and Henri Cartier-Bresson. To say that Mr. Dylan has reappropriated the work of others in his music is a vast understatement—it’s more like the music’s reason for being, and Mr. Dylan’s primary stylistic trait. As just one example, take “Duquesne Whistle,” the opening song from his 35th album, Tempest, released earlier this year. In it, he takes elements of the melody, chorus and structure of a 1929 Memphis Jug Band song, “K.C. Moan,” and also toys with its lyrics. “I thought I heard that K.C. when she blow/She blow like my woman’s on board,” goes the original. Compare that with Mr. Dylan’s “Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing/Blowing like my woman’s on board.” Then this line is slowly rewritten in a repeating structure over several verses before becoming unrecognizable as a traditional folk song in the penultimate couplet: “The lights of my native land are glowing/I wonder if they’ll know me next time around.” But whatever mastery Mr. Dylan has achieved as an editor of musical traditions, from prewar blues to Mexican ballads, it couldn’t really help his Asian paintings. The line is thin between appropriation and plundering, and even if he didn’t cross it, the work seemed pretty phoned-in.
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