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Bob Dylan at 80: His paintings are of a piece with the folk roots of his music

Dylan’s main subject in his artwork is quotidian America, light on people and redolent with atmosphere – ennui, melancholy and alienation. 

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In the early 1960s, just as his rise to prominence as a musician gathered pace, Dylan started to draw. In Chronicles, his memoir of 2004, he suggested it was a way of keeping control of a rapidly shifting life. “I sat at the table, took out a pencil and paper and drew the typewriter, a crucifix, a rose, pencils, knives and pins, empty cigarette boxes. I’d lose track of time completely. . . Not that I thought I was any great drawer, but I did feel like I was putting an orderliness to the chaos around.”

Drawing, painting and sculpting have remained his way of maintaining order ever since. It is a simple enough reason to make visual art. Songs are temporal, with a beginning, an end, a duration and sometimes a narrative, but a painting can be free of these traits. As Dylan has said, “the purpose of art is to stop time”. But since many of his pictures start as sketches made while on his endless tours, perhaps their unspoken purpose is to pass time.

Dylan is one of a number of musicians who came of age in the 1960s who see painting as something more than a supplementary hobby – David Bowie, Ronnie Wood, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin and Paul McCartney among them. Some are more accomplished than others (two of the better artists were older musicians, George Gershwin and Frank Sinatra), but regardless of whether or not you believe in the 10,000 hours rule, it would be unreasonable to expect equal levels of skill or innovation in two very different disciplines.

What unites these musician-painters is an expressive manner high on colour and with plenty of slosh, which is often the mark of self-taught artists. This loose style suits Dylan. His main subject is quotidian America – New York’s bridges, country railroad tracks, apartment interiors, edge of town diners. It is Edward Hopper and Ed Ruscha territory and the stuff of innumerable movies, light on people and redolent with atmosphere – ennui, melancholy and alienation. It is also of a piece with the folk roots of his music.

It may be nothing more than coincidence, but the rough handling of his paint reflects the abrasive edge to his singing voice, while his paintings tend to have a slightly off-kilter perspective that recalls his askance approach to the subjects of his songs. Like a musical hook, there is usually a strong central element too, a building or a tree.

But that’s the thing: when you know the pictures are by Dylan, it is easier to spot, or imagine, a broader sensibility. He was right, he is no great drawer and his paintings do nothing startlingly original. But then they don’t need to – they’re by Bob Dylan. 

"Bob Dylan: Retrospectrum" opens 30 November at Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum/Florida International University

This article appears in our “Who is Bob Dylan?” series

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy