While in New York City this past weekend visiting friends, I happened across a lamp post advertisement featuring one of my favorite portraits ever, Femme au collier jaune (1946) by Pablo Picasso. (This image should be familiar to anyone who reads my blog!) Turns out this privately owned work is in New York as part of the exhibit, “Picasso and Françoise Gilot: Paris–Vallauris 1943–1953” at the Gagosian Gallery from May 2 – June 30, 2012. Having not previously heard about the exhibit, I stumbled upon the poster around the corner from the gallery; clearly this was fate!
For starters, I didn’t even realize that Bob Dylan painted but apparently he has a show which opened at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City. It is not the brush work or color choices but the subject matter of this show that is getting some media attention. The New York Times reports that many of the works are copied from known photographs including two by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Life Magazine’s Dmitri Kessel. Artinfo.com has a good slide show comparing the Dylan work with the source photograph.
Top: An early 1900's photograph of a field worker in China Bottom: A painting from Dylan's "Asia Series" (Photo: artinfo.com)
Is this the art equivalent of sampling someone’s song? Should we consider this forgery? Is this worth hanging in a gallery? Yes and No. Artists have always trained by copying paintings or, in the last century, photographs. There are prestigious museums today that exhibit workshop copies of masterworks or paintings done in the style of a master by one of their apprentices. These pieces lose composition points because the student artist didn’t think of the subject, colors or lay-out themselves, but they are still well executed and beautiful so we admire these paintings. Likewise, Dylan doesn’t get any credit for creative design since the photographer set up the composition of the image. I suppose he did select the collection and add color since these are black and white photographs but there is no strong theme among the paintings’ subject matter and the color is more naturalistic than anything. Next we look for execution, and baring something truly creative that I am not seeing in these news article photos, this looks like a high school gallery show. So what we are really left with is the artist’s celebrity, which is fine. Fame often removes the objectivity of subjective art appreciation. (How many actors or actresses release terrible music or musicians try to act?) It doesn’t necessarily mean these paintings are outstanding on their own; the works should be viewed within the context of a famous and/or creative individual. That context helps us understand the artist better rather than understanding the art. It’s not the most thought-provoking artistic theme but like I said, that’s fine.
However, it seems inappropriate to exhibit these paintings as if they were unique creations since the source material is so clearly known – many with their own copy-rights. Maybe the gallery should rehang the show with the photographs nearby? It might make for a more interesting exhibition. One last, more important note to the Gallery though, I probably would not write this in the exhibition website/catalog:
[Bob Dylan] often draws and paints while on tour, and his motifs bear corresponding impressions of different environments and people. A keen observer, Dylan is inspired by everyday phenomena in such a way that they appear fresh, new, and mysterious.