Tangled up in red and blue

Bob Dylan has spent a lifetime on the road. Now a collection of his paintings centres on the all-Ame

Imagine you are constantly on the road. It is the life you have chosen. Every day brings a new city, the ghastly distortion of new dressing-room mirrors, more adulation from people young enough to be your grandchildren. The songs don't flow like they used to; the gushing stream of words has slowed to a trickle. There are long stretches of time when you want to say something without speaking, something that will be a record of now, but which also connects you with the past. What do you do? If you're Bob Dylan, you take up your pen and you draw.

That is what Dylan did in 1989, which gave rise to a sequence of drawings in pencil and charcoal that was eventually published as The Drawn Blank Series (1994). In the preface to that book, he wrote about the origins of the need I have just described: ". . . so that if you were at a loss for words, something could be explained and, even more importantly, not misunderstood. Rather than fantasise, 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 something other than the world we know."

Last year, Dylan transferred those black-and-white images to deckle-edged paper and began to transform them into colour paintings. In the autumn, they went on display for the first time at a tiny gallery in Chemnitz, eastern Germany. Now, a new edition of The Drawn Blank Series brings these paintings to a wider audience.

Dylan and drawing go much further back than 1989. He tells us as much in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles. There, he rewinds the clock back to the early Sixties, when he first arrived in New York City from the chilling northern wilds of Hibbing, Minnesota. He not only tells us how he set about drawing, but also describes the kinds of things that pleased his eye then, and which - on the evidence of this book - still do. "What would I draw? Well, I guess I would start with whatever was at hand. I sat at the table, took out a pencil and paper and drew the typewriter, a crucifix, a rose, pencils and knives and pins, empty cigarette boxes. I'd lose track of time completely. An hour or two could go by and it would seem like only a minute. Not that I thought that I was any great drawer, but I did feel like I was putting an orderliness to the chaos around . . . In a strange way I noticed that it purified the experience of my eye, and I would make drawings of my own for years to come."

His skills were further honed by misfortune. After a motorcycle accident put a temporary end to his touring in 1966, Dylan started to take formal painting classes at Carnegie Hall with a teacher of Russian origin called Norman Raeben. Then his own paintings began to appear on his album sleeves - that strange, pale, looming face on the cover of Self-Portrait (1970), for example, or those three haunted faces squeezed so tightly together on the cover of Planet Waves (1974).

The more recent paintings show him to be both cannily knowledgeable about painting and also wildly untutored, like any good Outsider artist might wish to be. Here is the boy who once stared at Woody Guthrie's folksy illustrations to Bound for Glory; the same boy who absorbed the delicacy of Vermeer and let that perception drift into one of his greatest songs, "Visions of Johanna". He moves from portrait to still-life, from landscape to cityscape. He crops, frames, fragments scenes with the scalpel of his eye.

Some of the best paintings - View from Two Windows, for example - are wayward, psychologically unnerving interiors, uninhabited rooms whose walls seem to be blowing outwards, and whose interiors seem to be yearning for the outdoors we can see framed in the windows or glimpse through grilles. There is much more unease about life indoors. When Dylan frames an outside scene from above, looks across a sea of rooftops, or sees a Bell Tower in Stockholm, there is a strange serenity about the looking eye.

We hear church bells tintinnabulating inside his skull - those very same church bells he wrote so warmly about in Chronicles and whose presence he memorialised so beautifully in a song called "Ring Them Bells". It's as if in order to relax into himself he needs to see things from afar, to capture the delightful buzz and weave of things without getting too close. Once indoors, he retreats back into the corner, pulls his hoodie over his head, and zips up his mouth. Perhaps Dylan once put this feeling better himself: "You walk into the room/Pencil in your hand/You see somebody naked/And you say, 'Who is that man?'" (from "Ballad of a Thin Man").

There is seldom any human presence in these interiors. Instead, there is the louring threat of their inexplicable absence. Something may once have happened here. Something is about to happen here. You don't know what it is. The mix of influences includes Soutine, that man who made a virtue of vertiginousness, and more than a touch of the decorative sweetness of Matisse, too. There are often several variants upon the same drawn motif, slashing blades of colour that heighten and intensify. These feel terribly disruptive, as if you are forever at the mercy of some terrible theme-park ride. Everything is all tangled up in this red - or that blue.

All told, much of what we see here feels like the kind of painting that was being made in Germany and Russia about a century ago, soon after the birth of cubism. It is angular, edgy, restless, always on the way to somewhere else. It is cubism kicked out of home and finding its way in the street. And there is something wonderful about the freedom of the streets. You can always go to the left or to the right.

Look at the painting Train Tracks: here is that enduring American symbol of man on the move, never finding himself, always hoping for some kind of revelation; some reason for believing that, to paraphrase Dylan, those crazy patterns on your sheets are really going to mean something - to him and to you - some day soon. But the empty-handed painter has already moved on.

"Bob Dylan: the Drawn Blank Series", edited by Kerstin Drechsel and Ingrid Mössinger, is out now, published by Prestel Verlag (£35)

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet