Mr Paintbrush Man: Bob Dylan's new paintings reveal he remains culture’s most elusive shapeshifter

'Blue Swallow': one of Dylan's recent large-scale canvases - Bob Dylan: Retrospectrum
'Blue Swallow': one of Dylan's recent large-scale canvases - Bob Dylan: Retrospectrum

Bob Dylan had a busy lockdown. One of the world’s greatest living singer-songwriters, and certainly its most intriguing, spent much of 2020 and 2021 in his California workshop painting dozens of large canvases inspired by scenes from films.

One picture features four men playing cards, another a boxing match, while a third depicts a bedraggled woman drinking and smoking alone at a bar. The paintings are snapshots of unresolved moments, populated – largely – by lonely characters in urban American settings. Films referenced include the 1981 Willem Dafoe biker movie The Loveless and the 1971 blaxploitation drama Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree. Stylistically, it’s as though Dylan has taken the realism of Edward Hopper for a big night out on Desolation Row and left it reeking of nicotine, gasoline and regret.

Forty of these paintings, collectively called Deep Focus, form a major part of Bob Dylan: Retrospectrum, an exhibition of nearly 200 artworks at the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami. It’s the first comprehensive North American exhibition of Dylan’s visual art in his 60-year career (it follows a different iteration of Retrospectrum in Shanghai in 2019, and a stint in London is planned). The show comprises seven themed sections ranging from pencil drawings to vast acrylic triptychs and from sketches inspired by his lyrics to ironwork sculptures and gates made from horseshoes, spanners and other old tools (that’s right, Bob Dylan welds gates from junk rather well, as it happens). The exhibition reveals another side – or sides– to the man who, at 80, remains one of culture’s most elusive shapeshifters.

“Seeing many of my works years after I completed them is a fascinating experience,” says Dylan in the brochure. “I don’t really associate them with any particular time or place or state of mind, but view them as part of a long arc; a continuing of the way we go forth in the world and the way our perceptions are shaped and altered by life.”

The man formerly known as Robert Zimmerman is “arguably the most iconic American artist alive,” says Shai Baitel, Retrospectrum’s artistic director, as we walk around the exhibition. More than just a poet and songwriter, the exhibition’s brochure claims Dylan to be a “true, contemporary Renaissance man” whose work spans mediums and disciplines. If comparing him to Leonardo or Michelangelo is hyperbolic, the breadth of work is impressive.

Desolation row: much of Dylan's art seems inspired by Edward Hopper - Tom Carter
Desolation row: much of Dylan's art seems inspired by Edward Hopper - Tom Carter

In one sense, Dylan’s deftness with a pencil and brush shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s often said that he paints pictures with words, so why not paint pictures with paint?

“He has no boundaries. He doesn’t want to be defined and he doesn’t want you to define him,” says Jordana Pomeroy, director of Frost Art Museum. “He notoriously doesn’t speak in the way that we as historians always want people to speak about their art or about their music.”

She’s certainly right there. Delphic Dylan has always communicated through his work. Interviews are rare, details of his private life scant. But his creative output is vast and, to many, unimpeachable. He has thirty-nine studio albums, 125 million record sales, a best-selling memoir, the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Presidential Medal of Freedom to his name.

The show has touches of the recent blockbuster rock star exhibitions about David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. There are multiple video screens and a wall of Dylan magazine covers. The Shanghai version of Retrospectrum featured a life-size recreation of Greenwich Village’s Cafe Wha?, where it all started (it’s not repeated here due to space restraints). But, unlike those Bowie or Stones shows, this is “90 per cent about the journey of Dylan’s visual art rather than him as a performer”, Baitel says.

Artist and singer Bob Dylan
Artist and singer Bob Dylan

This being Dylan, Retrospectrum works best in its depictions of American life. And this being Dylan, some of it is shot through with impulsiveness and impatience, as though he’s keen to get on to the next thing. But from railroads and empty landscapes to motel cafés and road signs, the exhibition is a picture book of Americana through the decades.

There is plenty in Retrospectrum for obsessed Dylanologists and “Bobcat” fans to get their teeth into. Mysteries abound. The painting inspired by Dafoe in The Loveless, for example, features a Harley Davidson 1200cc type 74, which came out in 1941, the year that Dylan was born. The singer was photographed on that bike as a 15-year-old. Could the painting actually be about Dylan and not Dafoe? It could be a “new sort of self-portrait” writes Richard F Thomas, the George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics at Harvard University, in an essay on the paintings.

Dylan has been closely involved with the exhibition, says Baitel. He and Pomeroy visited Dylan’s office in New York to discuss the show, and his HQ sounds like a gallery in itself. The original painting for the Self Portrait album sleeve hangs on the wall above a big lamp with Elvis on it, while the room is a cornucopia of music and artefacts. “If you put some plexi up and just kept it as is, it would be a great Bob Dylan museum,” says Pomeroy. Perhaps they could add this room to the future London version.

Lonely Americana: 'Rainy Night in Grand Forks' - Tom Carter
Lonely Americana: 'Rainy Night in Grand Forks' - Tom Carter

As we end our tour, I ask a question that has niggled me. If Dylan wasn’t the famous musician he is, would his art warrant a standalone show? Do these near-200 works stand up, artistically speaking, on their own?

“That’s almost an impossible question to answer,” says Pomeroy. “The reason this show exists is because he’s a tremendous artist and we want to look at somebody who is a global icon in his totality. So it would never develop that way; the question is like a tautology. I know you won’t be the first to ask though.”

Having seen it, I’d say this show easily stands alone. I’d go further. It’s a fascinating and compelling body of work, particularly those recent pieces. “Someday, everything’s gonna be different / When I paint my masterpiece,” Dylan sang in 1971. Forty years on, he may have just done that.

Bob Dylan: Retrospectrum opens on Nov 30 at the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, and runs until April 17 2022