By DAVID AARON GREENBERG, May 2021
For most of my life I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s songs. This shouldn’t necessarily color my experience with his other work, but it does. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. Dylan has been producing paintings and drawings for almost as long as he has been crafting songs. Every so often pieces of his visual output have appeared in public—mostly via album cover or book illustration. Recently his work has been exhibited more formally in a few gallery shows and museum retrospectives. On the occasion of his 80th birthday, I thought it might be both appropriate and intriguing to examine a relatively little known aspect of his creative life: his metal sculpture.
I first became aware of Dylan’s metal work in early 1991. I was traveling with Allen Ginsberg on a train to Long Island. After settling down in our seats, I took out a notebook to scribble some stuff and Allen went rummaging through his canvas bag.
“Oh David, I meant to show you this.”
Allen handed me a postcard with no signature stamped: Malibu, California. He gently explained that it must be from Bob Dylan. Allen had recently spent a long weekend with Bob at his sprawling place on Point Dume. Inspired as I was by Dylan to write my own songs as a teenager, I obviously asked about Mr. Dylan’s everyday life.
“Does he get up in the morning and pick up a guitar and start to write?” I eagerly inquired.
“No,” Allen sheepishly replied, “he spends his mornings welding.”
It wasn’t until 2013 that the general public got a glimpse of Dylan’s welding efforts when Halcyon Gallery in London exhibited a few of his metal gates. Then, in 2016, a large metal arch of his was installed permanently at the MGM National Harbor in Maryland. More recently, one of his gates was acquired for the U.S. Embassy in Mozambique through the State Department’s Art in Embassies program. Naturally this transaction triggered the requisite opinion pieces bemoaning wasteful government spending. Not surprisingly, almost as much so-called controversy was generated by the mere fact the Bob Dylan actually makes something other than music. This is generally the case when an enormously famous figure ventures outside the area for which their fame was obtained. It is an unfortunate and relatively recent phenomena.
For centuries artists were encouraged to venture outside one particular medium. At some point the Renaissance Man became a problematic concept for our nation of branding. Artists, much like athletes in the 21st Century, are often encouraged to specialize. Strangely, there seems to be a subtle resentment of interdisciplinary talent in our culture. “Stay in your own lane” has become a kind of mantra in response to the actor who paints or the rapper who acts.
When preparing to approach the seemingly side-hustle nature of an iconic figure’s extra-curricular art-making, I was going to critique my own criticism. I was going to say it’s impossible to write a great essay about the metal work of Bob Dylan because while the work itself is rather good, it doesn’t feel fully realized enough for me to get all hyperbolic about. Still, it’s pretty damn good. Ordinarily this would be the part of the essay where a great art critic like Rene Ricard would ramble on eloquently about a seemingly related topic. He would talk around the artist in order to avoid any mediocrity at hand.
At this point I could say something insightful about the Iron Age, the decline of the Canaanite culture and the formation of the Tribes of Israel instead of a run of the mill allusion to Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota and growing up in Iron country. I grew up in New Jersey and I could make it sound like I’m getting to the point while speeding along the Turnpike. But I fear I’d lapse into a Bruce Springsteen song and the topic at hand is not even supposed to be a Bob Dylan song.
It would be ludicrous to try to ignore Dylan’s celebrated life as a songwriter while discussing his sculpture. Yet I don’t want to shortchange the actual work. Like his drawings and paintings, the metal sculptures are not anomalies but in fact part of Dylan’s entire process as an artist. Much like William Blake’s paintings, they also serve to further illuminate a vast and revolutionary lyrical landscape. Removing these pieces from Dylan’s thematic context would be both a disservice to the work itself and any critical discussion therein. While the metal works have a distinct aesthetic autonomy they simply do not exist in a vacuum. Bob Dylan is not an outsider artist—however much his visual art seems to share certain characteristics with that particularly loaded genre.
Initially the work was created for purely personal use. When Dylan began welding in the Nineties, he created essentially functional architectural objects from metal scraps that had a certain decorative flair. An ornate railing for a staircase. A clever gate for a horse pen. Some of these pieces would be given to family members or friends. Gradually, Dylan began collecting more metal scraps which would include obsolete tractor parts and various tools. Naturally, these objects lent a certain nostalgic air to his finished pieces. By utilizing existing forms, Dylan was instinctually operating within a familiar creative framework.
As a lyricist, Bob Dylan is a master of collage. In many of his most compelling songs, phrases from the Blues vernacular playfully intermingle with allusions to French Symbolist poetry or classic films. Likewise, Dylan repurposed antique folk melodies and forms, twisting and molding various structures and themes in radically bold and fresh ways. He expanded the very vernacular of popular song. Eventually, Dylan’s metal sculptures became complex collages themselves. In these works, antique farm machinery and decorative pieces from building facades interact in similar ways to his songwriting inventions. The elements are simultaneously recognizable as themselves and yet transformed into something new. By the time he began creating his series of gates in the 2000s, Dylan’s concerns were purely aesthetic. These structures would be hanging in galleries and private collections, not holding in a team of horses.
Looking at an early gate, Untitled II (2012-2013), I’m reminded of Dylan’s own turn of the century urban blues rocker entitled “Cold Irons Bound.” Within the cloud of echo punctuated by ricocheting guitar licks and swampy stabs of distorted organ chords, a ghostly voice emerges in that song, tinged with heartache and stained in regret.
The walls of pride are high and wide
Can’t see over to the other side
It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay
It’s sadder still to feel your heart torn away
The five and half foot tall gate looms defiantly in the face of such decay, as an almost concrete coda to Dylan’s own lyrics. Imposing spiral spike pullers are latched in place with a twisted old wrench. One can’t help but to flash on an image of dilapidated Western swinging saloon doors. The gentle draping of chain links, a cleverly welded spring and spindly vintage tractor motor part all conspire to triumphantly alchemize beauty from decay. Dylan’s gate seems to beckon us to enter a mystical realm, cluttered with the remnants of a once great empire, a hypnogogic step inside a shattered American dream.
When I recently stood under Dylan’s epic metal arch Portal (2016) on permanent display at the MGM National Harbor in Maryland, I noticed how obliviously people passed by. The sculpture was virtually invisible. This is not to say that the work itself is lacking; however, its placement at the entrance to a casino is somewhat disappointing. The very nature of Bob Dylan’s specter inevitably leads to some work lingering perpetually out of context. His songs are reimagined by hundreds of singers. His lyrics are often quoted by lawyers and professors. Much like Shakespeare, the vast majority of people quote him without ever knowing that they are indeed quoting anybody at all.
For anyone paying attention, Portal positions itself as a portentous arch heralding the hapless hopes of gamblers who have traveled from near and far to this seaside megalopolis of consumption and compulsiveness. Subtle references to the sea emerge in a crusty ship porthole and a surreptitiously positioned metal seahorse. As in his gates, the tools of a lost industry are welded into the pillars.
In Dylan’s early 21st Century masterpiece “Workingman’s Blues #2” he examines the vanishing of a certain way of life in America.
The place I love best is a sweet memory
It’s a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad
My cruel weapons been laid back on the shelf
Come and sit down on my knee
You are dearer to me than myself
As you yourself can see
I’m listening to the steel rails hum
Got both eyes tight shut
I’m just trying to keep the hunger from
Creepin’ its way into my gut
One can practically hear vague traces of a similarly wistful hum from steel rails when visiting Portal. The fifteen foot structure has an almost wounded presence which still somehow manages to maintain a certain physical majesty.
Dylan the sculptor has reached more advanced levels of sophistication with some of his most recent wall hangings. Three Panel Screen (Lone Star) (2017) is essentially a triptych which has subtle echoes of Chinese Coromandel lacquer screens, as well as multicolored Buddhist mandalas. He engages this work with a more sweeping use of negative space. Here, particular vintage parts are repeated throughout, strategically assembled in different positions. There is an almost Titian-like balance of color and form, with certain painted and rusted moments distributed elegantly throughout the overall pictorial plane.
Duchamp proved one can take ownership of an existing object and through sleight of hand repurpose it as art. John Chamberlain expanded on this process with twisted metal from scrapped cars that he shaped into towering three dimensional riffs on Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting. Dylan is toiling in the same aesthetic field. Likewise, with his use of stylized versions of particular gates as the label decor for various varieties of his Heaven’s Door line of whiskey, he cunningly reminds us of his fleeting association with Andy Warhol. One can clearly perceive a knowing nod to Andy’s Campbell’s Soup cans reflected in one of Dylan’s chic bottles of high-end hooch.
In his most recent epic masterpiece “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan takes us on a kaleidoscopic journey through American popular culture using the Kennedy assassination as his jumping off point. The intricate juxtaposition of cultural signposts seems at times to be almost subconsciously informed by his many hours toiling away with a blowtorch. The melding together of disparate and clunky materials into such elegant forms can also be seen as the perfect mental workout for keeping America’s greatest songwriter’s skills as a lyrical collage artist forever sharp. WM
David Aaron Greenberg is an artist who uses multiple modes of expression. His work has been exhibited in various New York City galleries and is in the permanent collection at Stanford University. His critical writing has appeared in Parkett, The Fader, Art in America and Whitehot Magazine. Along with producer David Sisko, he co-founded Disco Pusher, a New York City songwriting and recording duo. Greenberg graduated from Rutgers University, Phi Beta Kappa. He lives in New Jersey and sometimes New York City.
Photo by Nikki Johnson.view all articles from this author