“Revisionist Art: Thirty Works by Bob Dylan” is on show at New York City’s Gagosian Gallery. It was unveiled last Wednesday and runs, God willing, until January 12th, 2013. I was slightly surprised to hear that Dylan was having another show at the Gagosian. It was little more than a year ago that they hosted his “Asia Series,” which visitors were led to believe had sprung from his time spent traveling in Asia, but turned out to be sourced directly from a bunch of old photographs (taken by other people). I thought at the time that this might be a little embarrassing for the gallery. But, I guess it’s true what they say: There’s no such thing as bad publicity. And, indeed, I think that old adage would make a pretty good subtitle for the current exhibition, a display of thirty re-imagined American magazine covers which is part burlesque show and part horror show, with the lines pretty blurry between the two.
In addition, it is quite comic. At least, the missus and I did our fair share of chuckling as we perused the thirty silkscreen-on-canvas creations. The handful of other visitors who were there at the time seemed considerably more somber and I hope we didn’t spoil their visit with our giggles.
The two images being used to promote the show—”BabyTalk” and “Playboy”—are quite typical of what you’ll see if you visit. Is it high art, or is it just humor somewhere on the level of “MAD” magazine? (That’s one magazine cover which is not featured, by the way.) I would say more the latter than the former, but I have neither the credentials nor the motivation to make a definite determination. One thing did occur to me: Whatever these things look like now, they will be quite a bit more interesting if they are exhibited one or two hundred years from now, as a visual commentary of sorts on America from about 1960 to 2012 by the late, great figure of that time, Bob Dylan. (Though that still doesn’t mean they are necessarily great art.)
And I’m not an art critic. Different people will take different things from looking at these works. (How often does an art critic say something like that?) But some of the things that struck me are as follows.
The photos of the women on these magazine covers run from lascivious to pornographic. Male faces and figures are usually battered and covered in blood. Sex and violence is the basic consumer product being highlighted. The porn-flick and the Colosseum. (Even the hoity-toity “Philosophy Today” features a nude woman, albeit a little more classical-looking.) The text of the various headlines then reads like a hierarchy of consumer interest: vanity, gossip, conflict, and a little something cultural or intellectual tossed in like salt and pepper. The names of politicians, celebrities and the references to events in the news (notably wars) are interchangeable and bear no relation to the dates on the magazine covers, conveying a sense of there being a continuum of all the same kinds of stuff repackaged and resold over and over again.
“Life” magazine (from August of 1996) features the headline “Frank Sinatra and Joey Bishop Have A Laugh At Fundraiser for Presidential Hopeful Rudy Giuliani,” with a picture of the smiling duo (among the few men not bleeding on a cover). [Update: The photo is actually of Sinatra with his son Frank Jr., not Joey Bishop. Thanks to Scott Warmuth for the email.] A smaller upper headline reads, “How Good Is Your Health (Let The Palm of Your Hand Tell)”, with another questioning: “Has Billy Graham Hurt The Churches?”
Many of these headlines could be real cut-outs, like the two last ones, while others (like the first) are clearly invented.
As for gags, well, the humor is everywhere if you’re viewing it in that spirit. Take the featured “Playboy” cover as an example. Dylan emphasizes how the lines between vulgarity, porn and “respectable” entertainment are blurred by placing the following headlines on the cover (beside the photo of the wantonly-portrayed lady labeled as “Sharon Stone”):
Greatest Motion Picture Performance of the Year!
12 Page Spread
Hollywood’s Most Glamorous Stars!
6 Page Spread
The double-entendre in “spread” is offered doubly, and none-too-subtly.
Another headline goes:
Playboy On The Scene
Article by Buck Flipper
The writer’s name seems to be suggesting the level of high-journalistic ethics behind everything.
But the punchline (for me) on this cover is the straight line. At the end of it all, just this, exquisitely deadpan:
INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE JONES
That’s what really makes me laugh. Why? Maybe because I’d like to read that interview! And so would Bob, surely; he is a very big fan of George Jones, one of the most played artists on his “Theme Time” radio show. The incongruousness of an interview with a master vocalist of country music in the midst of everything else on the cover prompts the laughter, and yet is also a reminder that this is how smut became mainstreamed in America. “Playboy” always had its serious articles and major interviews as if to make the fundamental driving force of the magazine seem that much more innocuous. It all blends in and the whole thing goes down more easily. Why, Bob Dylan himself did (by my count) two “major interviews” for “Playboy” over the years. One was conducted by Nat Hentoff. And indeed the name of that writer appears on another Dylan-created “Playboy” cover, with an article credited to him about the U.S. Supreme Court. The name “Bob Dylan” doesn’t appear on any covers, however. (For that matter, he doesn’t even sign these works.) But he’s more than well aware that he’s played his own part in the gruesome burlesque show he’s portraying in the works.
More jokes: An edition of “Rolling Stone” magazine with a cover dedicated to “Glam Metal” has an address label made out to one “Richard Hardhung.” Bob’s about as subtle as a cement truck with his gags on names. The same RS cover features a headline that says: “Gwen Stefani to appear at Guantanamo.”
So, you can just laugh or do some deep-thinking and chin-scratching about it all. Overall I prefer to just laugh.
In the end, I don’t think there’s a lot of difference between these magazine covers Dylan has “revised” and the actual magazine covers that have littered American newsstands for the past five decades. Dylan has just chopped things up and rearranged them, inserted a few gags, but the content was all there laid out before him. Whether you’re talking about this exhibition or the actual magazine covers, if either one is a mirror of our society and age (and I’m afraid that both are to a very significant extent) than maybe the best one can hope for is to be able to laugh instead of cry.
Is that what Dylan wants you to take from this exhibition? Or does he just want you to buy one? You got me.