John Elderfield: Interview with Bob Dylan, spring 2011
... other than the world we know.
—Bob Dylan, 1994
Bob Dylan has been sketching and drawing since he was young. He began painting in the late 1960s, and has continued to do so ever since. Over the past few years, however, he has been exhibiting his paintings. First, in 2006 Ingrid Mössinger asked him if he would allow the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz in Germany to exhibit the drawings reproduced in his 1994 book Drawn Blank. But he couldn't find them. (It is well known that Dylan has, or had, a habit of leaving drafts of songs in other people's apartments: when something is finished, you leave it and move on.) In the foreword to the 1994 book, he had written that the drawings were "sketches for paintings that either never were painted, have yet to be painted (or more likely never will be painted)." But now he decided that they should be painted, and in 2007–08 the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz presented the Drawn Blank Series, comprising watercolors and gouaches painted on top of scans of drawings from the book.
I am not sure exactly how this happened—except that Raymond Foye had something to do with it—but I was asked to take a look at these works before they were sent to Chemnitz. This led to my going to see the next group of works that Dylan made, the paintings that comprised The Brazil Series, which would be shown at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen in 2010–11, in an exhibition curated by Kasper Monrad. While I was writing an essay for the catalogue of that exhibition, Bob and I began a conversation about his practice, statements from which are quoted in my essay. This exchange led to the extended conversation that took place at intervals this spring, occasioned by The Asia Series paintings shown in this exhibition and recorded in the following pages. It is the first interview that Bob Dylan has given about his engagement with visual art.
At the time of the Chemnitz and Copenhagen exhibitions, some critics tried to find ways of linking people or scenes represented in the paintings with those in Dylan's songs. What they said was preposterous, because the paintings are not images of his songs. They are, of course, products of the same extraordinary, inventive imagination, the same mind and eye, by the same story-telling artist, for whom showing and telling—the temporal and the spatial, the verbal and the visual—are not easily separated. And what he says here about his paintings applies to his songs: "I'm pretty much interested in people, histories, myth, and portraits; people of all stripes." But the paintings and the songs turn in different directions, and were designed to stand without each other's support.
Other critics were obviously discomforted just by looking at paintings made by Bob Dylan, the most celebrated singer-songwriter of our times. Critic A: "Would you be so interested in these paintings if they were not by Bob Dylan?" Critic B: "Would you be so hard on these paintings if they were not by Bob Dylan?" And so on. Arnold Schoenberg was a composer who was also a painter; Pablo Picasso was a painter who wrote poetry. Both were revolutionary innovators who had no problem digging in more than one garden. Dylan is just the same. Of course, it may be discomforting that an artist does not stick to what we have come to admire him or her for most; but Dylan has many times in his career asked his audience to get over the discomfort of his changing: "And don't speak too soon / For the wheel's still in spin." And now it is spinning again.
In 1959, four years before Dylan wrote those words, Willem de Kooning addressed the question of why his own work sometimes looked very different from year to year, saying, "There's no way of looking at a work of art by itself. It's not self-evident—it needs a history, it needs a lot of talking about; it's part of a whole man's life." Dylan's paintings are part of the whole man's life, and that is what he is talking about here—at least, that part about how painting fits into his life that could fit into this one extended conversation.
Our exchanges range over a lot of subjects, near to and far from The Asia Series paintings—from technique to mystery; from Dylan's admiration of films of the 1950s to the persistent reality of childhood experience; to the different goals of painting and songwriting; and from artists he admires to what he thinks of miniature golf courses. And more. It developed in the precise sequence in which it is printed, our conversations continuing—such is Dylan's focus on getting things right—until it reached what Marcel Duchamp would call a "definitively incomplete" state at the end of June. I am immensely grateful to Bob Dylan for the time, effort, and thought he put into this process, and for the sociable ease with which he allowed our conversations to ramble. I also thank Larry Gagosian for so enthusiastically supporting the idea of publishing an interview in this exhibition catalogue.
After Bob and I had looked together at The Asia Series paintings and sat down to talk more generally, a volume of Emerson's Essays was on the table, unremarked by either of us. But Emerson's essay on art is relevant to what was being said, if only for its reminder that "Nothing astonishes men so much as common-sense and plain dealing. All great actions have been simple, and all great pictures are." Dylan wrote in Drawn Blank of the potential transformative power of simple matter-of-factness:
My drawing instructor in high school lectured and demonstrated continuously to "draw only what you can see" so that if you were at a loss for words, something could be explained and even more importantly, not misunderstood. Rather than fantasize, be real and draw it only if it is in front of you and if it's not there, put it there and by making the lines connect, we can vaguely get at something other than the world we know.
It is not uncommon for artists praised by critics for their allusiveness to insist on their adherence to fact. (The critic Barbara Rose: "Looking at your paintings, the images aren't literal, they are allusive, like poetry." The artist Robert Rauschenberg: "They're facts. They're all facts.") Dylan does insist. As he says in this interview, "All that profound meaning stuff—that comes later." However, some of that stuff did slip into the interview, which began with my asking the artist whether he thought each series of paintings was like an album of songs:
While we were looking at the new paintings, you said something like "For better or worse, they are all part of a panorama, of one unit, on the subject of Asia." Does that mean that you think of The Brazil Series, and now The Asia Series, in the same sort of way that you think of each of your albums?
I think so, like concept albums. Johnny Cash did one about the Old West. The New Lost City Ramblers recorded Songs from the Depression . A. L. Lloyd did an album called Farewell Nancy, all sea shanties. Cowboy songs and songs of the great frontier have always made great concept albums. I've never done that, and maybe this is my way of doing it.
One or two of the new paintings, particularly Big Brother, do remind me of The Brazil Series, but most are very different, especially the paler ones, like Emperor or LeBelle Cascade. It is not only that they seem quieter, more internalized. It is also that, whereas The Brazil Series pictures resembled frozen-action stills, with the action ready to start up again, these seem as if they are frozen forever. Was that the effect you were after?
Actually, it was. These are more tranquil paintings. With that last series, you would have to assume that there is going to be movement, whether you see it or not. With these paintings, I restricted myself in a lot of ways, not only in color, but also in lines and shapes, so the effects are going to be different. And yes, you're right, these figures are more internal—nonwestern.
You also said that a well-known painter (whose name I won't mention) had said to you, "Nobody else paints like this." It isn't clear to me whether that was praise or bafflement, or both. But, from how you talk about the paintings, I get the strong impression that you are not interested in the so-called art world, especially with the exclusivity track of what kind of art is in and what isn't in.
I didn't know what to make of that statement either. What's in or not in changes all the time, doesn't it? Some artists are always in—Picasso, Rembrandt, Dickens, Son House, Keith Richards. There's nothing the authoritarian order can do about that. If you were never in, you were never out. People are only out once they've been in. We never hear of the ones that are truly out. They're so out, they're in. It's all relative, isn't it? I've always been more of a traditionalist and followed my own star—to thine own self be true and all that. What's in or not in is mostly media-manipulated for commercial reasons anyway. You have to believe in what you do and stay dedicated. It's easy to get sucked in to what others think you should do. But there's a price to pay for that.
This reminds me of de Kooning, who as you know I have been working on, who was utterly opposed to pure abstraction because its supporters were telling him to take things out of his paintings, whereas he wanted to make paintings where he could put into them as many things as he wanted. So, I have two questions. First: Do you follow contemporary art much?
I don't follow it that much. Owen Smith, Terry Allen, I like their work. I think miniature golf courses are great art forms.
And second: Do you have views about abstract art?
I like Franz Kline's paintings.
What also made me think of de Kooning was when you said you wanted to make paintings that present "situations," since he thought of his quasi-abstract paintings as doing that. What do you mean by painting "situations"? In one of your well-known early songs, you wrote, "In the dime stores and bus stations / People talk of situations." Is it that kind of situation you are painting?
Situations are all struggles and conflicts, aren't they? There are as many types of them as trees in the forest. That particular song is a one-person narrative, but they're not all like that. "Frankie and Johnny," for instance—"He was her man, but he done her wrong." That's the singer talking. "I saw your man about an hour ago." That's the bartender. "Roll me over, Frankie." That's Johnny. And some people call Johnny, Albert. A song is a prismatic thing, nonlinear. Writing songs, you are looking for rhymes that feel right—things that come to you even as you are singing. They come to you quick-like. Sometimes even in a scatological way. You don't have time to distill meanings or ideological fallout. You want to make sure that the feeling is there, but you can create feeling out of tone, texture, and phrasing, not only words. You want to make sure that there's camaraderie between the lyric and the rhythm. That just has to be, or you wouldn't have much of a song. All that profound meaning stuff—that comes later. And truthfully, that's for other people to experience. Believe me, the songwriter isn't thinking of any of those things.
That song also goes on to say, "repeat quotations." In one of your new paintings, The Game, there is a quotation from Gauguin. Do you do that often? And do you hope or expect people to recognize the quotation?
I'm surprised you noticed it, but the Gauguin reference is basically underpainting and muted color. I had intended to paint over it, but it was so intriguing. I might even have been tempted for a second to paint out the rest of the picture in that style, but I'm not Gauguin, and the painting had already made its point. Quotation is something that happens a lot in the music world. Merle Haggard can mimic Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson perfectly. The Beatles, in "Back in the USSR," mimic The Beach Boys. Quotation is a phrase that is used all the time in jazz solos. It happens a lot in old-time string band music too. One song is always using a line from another song to brace it. But then goes off on another tangent. Minstrels did it all the time. Weird takes on Shakespeare plays, stuff like that. It's just done automatically.
Can we now spend a little while talking about how you got involved in visual art, and come around again to the new paintings later on? In Chronicles, you talk about having had drawing lessons in high school, and then returning to drawing in the early 1960s in New York. In high school, were you making precise, factual kinds of drawings—for example, of still lifes, and people, and landscapes? And was it in the early 1960s that you developed the habit of making sketches of scenes around you? I have the sense that where you are now began with those sorts of sketches, which evolved into the Drawn Blank Series, then into The Brazil Series, and now to The Asia Series. In the process, you have gone public with your visual art to a far greater extent than before. So I have two questions.: Is that how you see it, and if so, how do you feel your visual art has changed with your giving much more time to it and making it with the expectation that a lot of people are going to see it?
I've done sketching most of my life. In notebooks, on napkins, on rough paper or cardboard, plates and coffee pots … basically when there's something to look at—so it's not new for me. As to exhibiting it, that has to do with Kasper Monrad, the Copenhagen Museum curator, who, through Ingrid Mössinger, convinced me to do thirty or forty paintings tied to a particular theme. As far as painting for the public, I don't really see myself doing that. I paint for individuals—almost like a tailor makes a suit for somebody. You perform for people who identify with your work. It's not a jury system. People from all walks of life—businesspeople, workers, other singers, college students—could be anybody. Them first. You want the general public to respect you, but they don't need to necessarily be fans.
Over the past number of years, you have expanded your activities in other areas as well: writing Chronicles; your radio programs; having another foray into film with Masked and Anonymous. This is a two-part question. First: Do you think of yourself as deliberately pushing to do other things as well as your music?
Yeah, to some degree. I like to restore old cars, ride horses, and sail boats, and I'm learning how to cook and can do some gardening. Maybe someday I'll be making my own instruments. I have no idea. I probably do push too hard.
And second: Writing Chronicles had to have been a long, solitary activity. Until you turn to volume two of Chronicles, is part of the reason for your valuing making visual art that you do it alone, rather than in collaboration with other people?
WritingChronicleswas exhausting. I wrote it mostly in hotel rooms and in the backs of buses. I was moving pretty much through the whole book, and I think the pages reflect that. If I hadn't been writing Chronicles, maybe I would have written some songs. I've always got ideas for songs, even while I'm painting. But sure, a painting studio is a lot quieter and more introspective than a recording studio. In saying that, though, musicians are not exactly other people. It's more of a fraternity. Musicians have their own language and speak to each other through instruments and shorthand talk. Painting is visual. There isn't anything Darwinistic about it, whereas making music is more like stunt flying or bullfighting.
Coming back to the development of your work as a visual artist, it has been written that you took up painting when you were given a box of oil paints for your twenty-seventh birthday, in 1968. That year you did the cover for The Band's album and a cover for Sing Out!. Then there was the 1970 album cover for Self Portrait. Were you doing a lot of painting in those years?
That was a great painting, wasn't it? No, I wasn't doing a lot of painting, but I was doing a lot of sketching in diaries. There was one I did when I was traveling with The Band in '74, but that sketchbook diary was stolen. That was years ago.
You have spoken a few times of the importance of taking art classes in 1974 from Norman Raeben—but always about the importance for your music, and you enlarged on this in what you said to me for my essay on The Brazil Series. But as far as I can tell, the only thing you have said about what Raeben asked you to do was to look at a vase for thirty seconds and then draw it from memory. He must have gotten you to do other things? And do you feel that the Raeben experience was as critical for your painting as it was for your music?
Maybe what the old guy said about painting did have something to do with the Blood on the Tracks record. But basically, that whole period has been blown out of proportion by people writing about that record. I could have picked up things in that class, but it was sort of an advanced class, and I wasn't on the same level as most of the others. What he tried to pound into your head was painting the light, and the model looked different from every angle in the room. The thing was to paint the light, whatever your perspective was, and the figure would fall into place. I wasn't too successful at that, and I spent a lot of time cleaning my brushes and getting my paints muddy. It was frustrating. He wanted you to do that with only a few colors and white with lead in it. Then he'd go around the room critiquing everybody's work, in a personal way. Devastating critiques. Extremely loud and shocking. Embarrassing. He could get to the heart of the matter in no time, and tell all about a person by seeing their work. He told some people that they were murderers, thieves, charlatans, and a lot worse. I dreaded him looking over my shoulder. And when he did it, it was horrible. He asked me why I wanted to paint in the first place. I couldn't think of anything to say, so I told him I wanted to replicate life, and he became quite angry. Like, "What makes you think life needs to be replicated?" He told me I was self-centered, and a real artist is anything but that. After a couple of those sessions, I don't think I went back. I think I was a poor student, and I never did grasp how to paint the light. But it was a privilege to be there. The man was a force of nature.
There is an undated painting called Queen of Hearts that keeps appearing on the web, a work in a neo-Expressionist, beat style. Did you go far with this sort of thing?
I don't know anything about that painting, but I like that term "neo-Expressionist, beat style." Where did you come up with that? Maybe that is my style. Maybe you've hit on it.
I think some German critics, writing about the works shown in Chemnitz, called them Expressionist, but I guess they missed the beat part. On the subject of critics, I wanted to ask you: When your paintings were shown in Chemnitz and then in London, some critics wrote about them as if they were illustrations of lines from your songs. Obviously they aren't, and you have been very clear about how painting and song are, for you, worlds apart. But since your visual imagining is at work in both forms, it is natural for people to wonder about the relationship between them. For The Brazil Series text, you said of "Tangled Up in Blue": "I suppose the song is like a Rubens painting—maybe Massacre of the Innocents or something—only difference is you hear it instead of see it." Can you say any more on this subject?
There's one painting in The Brazil Series called Skull and Bones. I studied it for a while after I'd done it, and it reminded me of the Hank Williams song "You Win Again." Especially the first verse. So I guess you can equate the two.
To keep going on this for a moment, but the other way around: I have never been a fan of George Lois's video for "Jokerman," with all that matching of song lines with pictures; it just seemed to me far too literal in a way that was restricting of the range of associations of your own images. On the other hand, in 1973 Trisha Brown choreographed a dance to your version of "Early Morning Rain," and it catches the imagining of longing and belonging of the song in a way that is touching and beautiful, but it does not use, or does not try to replicate, any images from the song. I guess that is a bit like your hearing the Hank Williams song in your painting. Does that make sense to you? Alike and unlike at the same time?
Sure, that makes perfect sense. There's more than one dimension to everything. I was never a fan of that video either. It looked like an advertisement for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The paintings, as great as they were, had nothing to do with the song. The visual imagery actually hurt the song. As far as dancing goes, Twyla Tharp choreographed an entire production using my songs, and a company in Denmark did likewise, and the visual dynamics of the dancers in both shows interplayed with the songs perfectly—poetry in motion, so to speak. The songs lifted the dancing, and the dancing lifted the songs.
The Lois video matched your lines with works of art by Michelangelo, Bosch, and so on. But these are, of course, not the kind of artists you have talked about in relation to making your paintings. You are reported as having said in the late 1970s, "I've learned as much from Cézanne as I have from Woody Guthrie." Before getting to Cézanne, are you interested in Guthrie's paintings as well as his songs? And did you talk to him about them when you visited him?
Woody made simple sketches for small publications, and he was a sign painter before becoming a musician. But I never did talk to him about it.
Staying with American art for a while, you have spoken of your interest in the paintings of George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton. I can see how makers of narrative figure compositions would attract you, but why them in particular—if, indeed, they are particular favorites?
Benton is the Uncle Dave Macon of painting. Most of his pictures have a knee-slapping, banjo-riffing, farmyard quality. And it looks to me like he knew something about the camera obscura, though to what degree it's hard to say. Whether he painted his models upside down, I don't know, but that style has always fascinated me. As for Bellows, I just like his themes and his color combinations.
Among more recent Americans, you have spoken about Red Grooms. When did you become interested in his work?
I think I talked about Red Grooms in my book. I saw a few of his exhibitions back in the '60s and have always marveled at his ability to create excitement out of mundanity. Fantastic dreams, mass wealth on a little scale, preposterous and satirical, but very imposing.
And other people have spoken of Andy Warhol, probably because of your well-publicized visit to the Factory, when you were given the Elvis painting (which is now in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art). I once had someone tell me in deadly seriousness that "The ghost of 'lectricity howls in the bones of her face," in "Visions of Johanna," parallels the depiction of the face in Warhol's Gold Marilyn Monroe. Leaving aside such matchmaking, do you sense any affinity?
Back then all sorts of elements were mixing together—jazz, folk music, filmmakers, photographers, Robert Frank, Jack Smith, Monk and Coltrane, the Clancy Brothers, dancers, dance groups, off-Broadway theater, Julian Beck and Judith Molina, the beat poets, civil rights, Vietnam, the Cold War. Battle lines had been drawn between the old and the new, and there was a lot going on. Everything was pretty interconnected. This was before corporate-sponsored culture. The walls Andy was busting down were from a different planet than the walls I was busting down, but it was in the same solar system. He was a maverick, like myself, I guess, so there would be some kind of affinity.
An area of American visual art of great interest to you is, I know, movies of the 1950s, such as A Face in the Crowd, Ace in the Hole, and Sweet Smell of Success. What is it about these that attract you? And do you see a relationship between them and the kind of narrative dramas you have painted—more in The Brazil Series, though, than in The Asia Series?
Face in the Crowd—that's so current, isn't it? You can watch any of those TV personalities, and if you've seen Face in the Crowd, you know there's probably some Lonesome Rhodes in all of them. The whole country is like their flock of sheep. I grew up in a small town hidden from the outside world, and the films from the '40s and '50s were like a window into the future, like classic literature, and had great meaning. It's hard to explain that, especially in this age of narcissism and self-surveillance. A lot of people wouldn't know they are alive unless they have photos of themselves to prove it—from the cradle to the grave, actually. The movies that we grew up watching seemed to be tuned to a higher vibration. They weren't about us, they were about people bigger than us, living more on the edge than us—strange morality tales, more like Greek theater. Individuals overcame problems instead of merely surviving them, so you knew you could do that too. The people we saw on the screen were more real than real people. They were exemplary. Cult figures. Heroes and heroines. Anti-heroes. Top of the world. Brute force. Themes of salvation. Echoes of Shakespeare and of Aeschylus. Those films had a powerful effect on all of us who grew up with them. Like schoolboy lessons. Sure, I see a relationship. There's always been a relationship.
And, more broadly, you have had a long, active relationship with the making of movies, ranging from the wonderfully ambitious Renaldo and Clara to, most recently, the far too little-known Masked and Anonymous, a film both disturbingly strange and, in places, extremely funny. Jim Jarmusch, who has, of course, enrolled musicians in his films, has said that film is the visual art closest to musical performance. Does that make sense to you?
Film is a great art form, but it's not comparable to a live musical performance. There really is no reason to equate the two mediums. They're vastly different. There's nothing tactile about film. You can't smell it or touch it. It's an illusion. A magic trick. A film is abstract. A great painting or musical performance is visceral.
Apart from the fact that you are the same artist making your movies and paintings, do you see a relationship between them—for example, in the kind of situations you want to depict? And a much bigger, add-on question: Does either relate to the situations you describe in songs?
Many people can do a number of things. Winston Churchill made a lot of paintings, mostly landscapes and cottages. Nobody compares his artistry with his diplomacy. He said that he knew of nothing else that more completely occupied the mind without exhausting the body. That's probably a clue to why people paint. Miles Davis did a lot of painting too, and no one judged his painting by his horn playing. Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie—a lot of musicians paint. I know a doctor who paints portraits and a university professor who does landscapes. Playing music is another thing. Music is loose and tight at the same time. A painting is a strongly structured picture. The main thing is, is it interesting in its own right? Is it something worth seeing? In either case, the only relationship I see between the two is the idea not to repeat yourself, not to fall into any set patterns. Every standpoint has to be different. It's like boxing—a fighter doesn't always fight the same fight. A pitcher doesn't always make the same pitch. Sometimes you make adjustments and sometimes you force adjustments.
As far as films, I'm not really a filmmaker in any right sense of the word—certainly, I have never directed or anything like that. Not that I ever wanted to. It would be a lot of responsibility.
Coming back to painting: Judging from the few paintings by you that I have seen in early states, you seem to begin by drawing the design—based, you have said, on sketches made looking at a particular scene—then you loosely hatch in color, and then work it more on top, adding detail as you go along. Is that pretty much the process? And do you find yourself having big changes of mind, which I guess would be compositional changes?
Sure, but there's lots of different kinds of paintings, depending on what your intentions are in doing them—what you are trying to signify. I'm pretty much interested in people, histories, myth, and portraits; people of all stripes. But dance-hall atmospheres, shacks in the Allegheny Mountains, farm fields in Iowa … I can identify with that too. So my technique, if you want to call it that, pretty much runs the gamut. I seldom, if ever, change my mind on the purpose of what I'm trying to accomplish. Compositional changes? If I do that, I do that without thinking too much about it. I'll do it if I have to.
A number of the paintings—such as Emperor, LeBelle Cascade, Cock Fight, and Shanghai—show very complex scenes. Were these done from sketches, or do you paint from photographs—or from drawings made from photographs—some of the time?
I paint mostly from real life. It has to start with that. Real people, real street scenes, behind-the-curtain scenes, live models, paintings, photographs, staged setups, architecture, grids, graphic design. Whatever it takes to make it work. What I'm trying to bring out in complex scenes, landscapes, or personality clashes—I do it in a lot of different ways. I have the cause and effect in mind from the beginning to the end. But it has to start with something tangible. For instance, you can paint your own version of the Last Supper and use the same person as a model for all thirteen characters. Different light, different angles make a person appear differently. Hats, wigs, glasses, beards—all change a person's appearance. Anything can vary—age, race, sex—you can use the same one person for all of it and fill in the rest.
The Asia Series, and, in particular, paintings such as those I just mentioned, are very carefully composed across the surface to form patterns of abutting shapes—a bit like a jigsaw puzzle—so that each contour seems to belong not only to the shape it encloses, but also to the shape outside it. For example, in Emperor, the contour at the right of the Emperor's sleeve also belongs to the adjacent side of the steps, making the sleeve and the steps read on the same plane for some of the time and snap backwards into space at other times. Were you actively working for these sorts of effects?
Yes, but it's mostly by intuition. I work within geometric patterns and have a very mathematical mind. I can feel where things are without seeing where they are. It just comes natural. Let's not forget that the universe operates on mathematical principles. There's a strict order to it. One mistake puts everything out of balance. A twelve-vehicle pileup begins with something being out of place. The idea is to keep everything where it should be.
This effect of shapes that occupy different positions in space also working together on one plane is aided by the rhyming of elements in different spatial positions. For example, again in Emperor, the step motif in the right background is rhymed in the banding in the skirt of the Emperor's coat and, in broader stripes, in the banding of the costumes at the left. This all seems more deliberately pieced together than, say, paintings of The Brazil Series. And I think it contributes to what you called the more "internal" quality of The Asia Series paintings like these. Were you aiming at this sort of marquetry effect, a continuous, closed-off surface?
Well, sure, I would like to try my hand at marquetry. I've never done that. I can definitely see myself creating panels of elaborate scrolling—doing high-style inlaying work—wood mosaics, stuff like that. I would like to make solid wood clocks if the opportunity came up. I like glue, and I like to cut with saws. And working with dye has always fascinated me. But painting is painting and marquetry is marquetry. I can suggest certain types of detail and design here and there, but I do it in kind of an offhanded way and don't focus on it. It would be detracting. I couldn't do a painting like Manet's portrait of Zola. Manet is so good that he can put it all in, big and small—the central figure, Japanese print, quill pen, reclining nude on the wall—Zola was the man of letters, and Manet paints the painting to prove it. Everything is in focus.
As far as the internal quality, that's the challenge, isn't it? External paintings are less baffling. You know you can use gestures and facial expressions, among other techniques, to create tension.
Some paintings are very enigmatic. For instance, when we looked at Up the Hill and I said I thought the figure at the back looked a bit like a scarecrow, you said it wasn't intended that way but you were okay with people thinking that. Looking longer at the painting, I find myself fascinated by the very weird, somewhat ominous shadow, which seems like a tangible thing attached to the figure. Or there is the hard-to-understand setup of the two men with towels in LeBelle Cascade. And you cannot help but wonder what all that stuff is on the floor and the sideboard in Opium. Of course, there are also very straightforward portraits and outdoor scenes. So did you want a mixture of the more direct and the more mysterious (again, like putting together an album)?
Yeah, sure, but everything in life, directly or indirectly, has a great degree of mystery. To paraphrase Warren Zevon, "Some days I feel like my shadow's casting me." Persons, places, things … time itself is a mystery. You know, like, who can explain it? It's really difficult to define anything. What's slow can speed up. Love can turn into hate. Peace can turn into war. Pride can turn into humility. Anger to grief. How would you define a simple thing like a chair, for instance—something you sit on? Well, it's more than that. You can sit on a curb, or a fence. But they are not chairs. So what makes a chair a chair? Maybe it's got arms? A cross has arms, so has a person. Maybe the chair doesn't have arms? Okay, so it's a post or a flagpole. But those aren't chairs. A chair has four legs. So does a table. So does a dog. But they're not chairs either. So a chair is a mystical thing. It's got a divine presence.
There's a gloomy veil of chaos that surrounds it. And "chaos" in Greek means "air." So we live in chaos and we breathe it. Is it any wonder why some people snap and go crazy? Mystery is ancient. It's the essence of everything. It violates all conventions of beauty and understanding. It was there before the beginning, and it will be there beyond the end. We were created in it. The Mississippi Sheiks recorded a song called "Stop and Listen." To most music aficionados, it's but a ragtime blues. But to me, it's words of wisdom. Saint Paul said we see through the glass darkly. There's plenty of mystery in nature and contemporary life. For some people, it's too harsh to deal with. But I don't see it that way.
So, can you say what is going on in LeBelle Cascade? When you were answering my questions about The Brazil Series paintings last year, you said you admired Cézanne's paintings, and specifically mentioned his Grandes baigneuses. Is this your Grandes baigneuses? The interlocking of shapes on one plane I mentioned is reminiscent of what happens in Cézanne as well as Gauguin. Are you especially interested in these, among European painters? I thought of Max Beckmann with respect to The Brazil Series paintings, but less so for these.
Max Beckmann's paintings are of a certain European time, a time when humanity was under the gun, the world was coming to an end. They are filled with sadness, loneliness, maybe claustrophobia. I think of them as sort of Anglo-Saxon impressionism. The opposite of Frenchism. His colors are great and the figures are boldly drawn, but do we care to live in that world, or even make contact with it? I guess it depends on who you are.
As far as what's going on in LeBelle Cascade, it's what tourists see when they go into an amusement arcade in Tokyo or Osaka. There's one next to the Kabuki theater in Tokyo. It's a set-up scene with a backdrop showing scenes of the earlier eras in Japan. People pose like statues.
To finish, let me ask two more general questions. First: I read somewhere that writes about studies of people who develop skills, from composers and basketball players to master criminals, and suggest it takes ten thousand hours of practice for complex skills to become so ingrained as to become habitual, which translates into practicing three hours a day for ten years. You certainly more than qualify, but talking to you in front of your new paintings, you seemed to be saying that you are continuing to seek new skills, as well as ways to use your existing skills. Would that be correct?
Well, yeah, we are always trying to uncover new aspects of ourselves—seeking new skills and perfecting old ones. Some of us are born with certain skills inherently—George Foreman, Howard Hughes, Valentino. And some of us discover them as we go along. Everything seems to come easy for the ones who are born into it. And for others it's never going to be easy. Progress is going to be slow and disappointments can multiply. A lot of it is just trial and error.
Related to this: When you said earlier—ironically, if not dismissively—of the Self Portrait cover painting, "That was a great painting, wasn't it?," I took it to mean you are suspicious of a painting that does not require time and effort. I've seen manuscripts of some of your songs, and many have a massive amount of correction, but others do seem to have come pretty spontaneously. Have you thought much about this—about how the creative process differs in these two parts of your creative life?
The aspect of concentration is different. Outside of that, I'm not sure there is a whole lot of difference. In either case I figure that if it works, I don't let myself get in the way of it—I just keep going. Sometimes you do get it right all at once and nothing needs to be corrected. And there's the other side, where the inspired idea gets lost and you might have to deal with it. You try to get it right, but as a practice you rarely do.
Taken from the catalog published on the occasion of the release of Bob Dylan's The Asia Series.
JOHN ELDERFIELD was born in Yorkshire, England; studied Fine Art at Leeds University; and received a Ph.D. in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London University. He is Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, where he has organized numerous exhibitions over the past thirty years. These range from such specialized projects as "Manet and the Execution of Maximilian" (2006) and "Henri Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-17" (2010), to major retrospectives devoted to, among others, Kurt Schwitters (1985), Henri Matisse (1992), Pierre Bonnard (1998), and Willem de Kooning (on view at The Museum Art until January 9, 2012). His writings include, in addition to catalogues for these and other exhibitions, an edition of Hugo Ball's Flight Out of Time (1974, rev. 1996) and The Language of the Body: Drawings by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1996). His essay, "Across the Borderline," was published in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen catalogue, Bob Dylan. The Brazil Series (2010).