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.
Mr. Dylan’s latest exhibition at Gagosian, which opened last week, is fittingly titled “Revisionist Art.” He’s silk-screened 30 canvases with the logos of iconic American magazines—Time, Life, Rolling Stone and Playboy, the same publications that used to scrutinize Mr. Dylan’s lyrics looking for secret messages that might lead to world peace, and asked him ridiculous questions like, “Why do you think rock ’n’ roll has become such an international phenomenon?” (Playboy really did ask him that in 1965.) Beneath the logos are invented covers, some of which approximate the real-life insipidness of the glossies. “Bare-Bosomed Courtney Love Strikes Back!” announces the headline on a cover of Mr. Dylan’s Rolling Stone, dated April 9, 1999, and graced by a photo of someone who is bare-bosomed but is not Courtney Love. (The real cover of Rolling Stone roughly coinciding with that date had a 17-year-old Britney Spears, wearing a bra and underwear and clutching a purple Teletubby doll, as photographed by a 36-year-old David LaChapelle, with the headline “Inside the Heart, Mind & Bedroom of a Teen Dream,” although this knowledge does not elevate Mr. Dylan’s work to anything approaching meaningfulness.)
Some of these pieces work slightly better as satire. A cover of Architectural Digest from January 2008 has an image of a woman in a black cocktail dress and pearls. She looks how you would expect a wealthy homeowner to look on the cover of a magazine, except that she’s pulling up the hem of her garment and revealing the hair of her mons pubis. The caption reads, “Houses of the East Coast.”
But others come across as adolescent humor, the kind of doodling and obviousness you’d expect to find in a high school notebook. A fake cover of Life dated August 23, 1996, shows a close-up of a performance photo of two members of the Rat Pack, splashed with the words “Frank Sinatra and Joey Bishop have a laugh at fundraiser for presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani.” The pieces just don’t come together.
Maybe that’s the point? If there’s anyone who should have a few bones to pick with the incoherence of American media, it’s Bob Dylan. In a recent interview in Rolling Stone leading up to the release of Tempest, he responded to some of the accusations that he had failed to “cite his sources” in his lyrics, an accusation that fails to remember that folk music especially is a circular craft based on quotation:
Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing—it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.
“Judas” here refers to the most famous heckle in the history of music, when Mr. Dylan was finishing up his electric set at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall during his 1966 tour and an audience member shouted that “most hated name in human history” at him.
All of which is to say that that’s about the closest I could come to finding a crux to this exhibition—that Bob Dylan is doing a critique of the media machine that has lambasted him for 50 years. When his commentary works, it works only slightly; when it doesn’t, it’s just plain dumb. And I write this as someone who can find something redeeming in the worst Mr. Dylan has to offer, like the paper I wrote in college about how the 1985 album Empire Burlesque was intended to sound over-produced and cheesy, that all the reverb and multi-tracked reggae guitars and choruses of ridiculous backup singing had to exist in order to make way for the spare and brilliant closing track “Dark Eyes,” the impact of which is only fully felt after having suffered a bit. (“Poorly argued,” was the comment I received.)
I tried studying these canvases for secret messages. They couldn’t just be half-hearted parodies of magazine covers. No way. I scanned dates and images and the names and residences of the addressees (subscriber mailing labels are printed in the corners of most of the pieces). I searched for a “Mr. Orville” residing at 573 Tuxedo Terrace and found no listing. I tried to convince myself that “Richard Staehung” was a coded identity and not just an immature dick joke. All I could come up with was a conspiracy theory cooked up by a friend, that both of Mr. Dylan’s shows at Gagosian are actually the work of Richard Prince using “Bob Dylan” as a pseudonym, making the ultimate statement on art and artifice, and proving once and for all that Bob Dylan is whoever you want him to be.