Taking Bob Dylan at Face Value

Bob Dylan at Face ValueMason Whitehorn Powell

Face Value is a collection of 12 portraits in pastel by Bob Dylan that were first unveiled at the London National Portrait Gallery in 2013. These works are featured in their regional debut at the Gilcrease exhibition Bob Dylan: Face Value and Beyond, which runs through Sept. 15, 2019. Dylan’s portraiture will be accompanied by a vast selection of artworks drawn from his archives – a collection that solidifies and provides context to his decades-long, if largely unknown, career as a visual artist.

Currently preserved on the Gilcrease campus for scholarly use, The Bob Dylan Archive® arrived in Tulsa by way of the George Kaiser Family Foundation in 2016. The opening of the archive has been revelatory for researchers, elucidating the scope of Dylan’s longstanding engagement with the visual arts across decades of sketchbooks and manuscript marginalia.

Later in his career, Dylan expanded his graphic repertoire. Following an early foray into painting during the 1960s and his endless sketches composed while on tour, Dylan began to create what could be considered his serious work: paintings, drawings and objects from the 1980s onward. Both the art recurring throughout his archive and the later, more focused and mature work, offer insights into Dylan beyond his career as a musician. Together, these establish an aesthetic tableau representative of his internal visions of America and the contemporary world.

Dylan’s 1974 album “Self Portrait” features his visage on the cover, done in thick, blocky acrylics. According to him, this painting took “about five minutes” and was an embodiment of songs that represented his ever-increasing contempt of fame. “I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like,” he said.

Nearly half a century since “Self Portrait,” people have neither forgotten nor rejected Dylan. He turned 78 about two weeks after Face Value and Beyond opened, and he shows no sign of retiring as the Never Ending Tour rolls on and
new records are released every few years.

His public career as a visual artist began in 2007 with “The Drawn Blank Series.” Represented by Halcyon Gallery in the United Kingdom, Dylan based these paintings on sketches he made while on the road during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Drawn Blank has been exhibited in five countries.

With approximately 10 unique exhibitions over the subsequent decade, his art has found global appeal and critical acclaim. Halcyon’s website and their Dylan catalogs explain his artistic direction in further detail. From the wrought iron sculptures of Mood Swings to the screenprinted appropriations of magazine covers in Revisionist Art, his dedication to the art world can be taken as seriously as his monumental participation in the recording industry.

Still, all art is subjective. Dylan’s sensibility as a musician is virtuosic – as a songwriter, he’s arguably unparalleled – but on canvas and paper, the veil between him and his influences grows thinner. Fans of Woody Guthrie’s drawings will once again find Dylan to be his kindred spirit with the Face Value portraits. Each face has been stripped down to its essence, as the title suggests, with an aesthetic that stems from the surface-level emotions etched upon each. The expressiveness of these loose renderings arises not only from what’s there – but what isn’t, similar to the eternal question of Dylan’s enigmatic identity.

Just as references to fine art abound in his music, Dylan has continued to plow the modernist line; his paintings are reminiscent of Matisse, and his illustrations suggest Picasso’s line drawings.

Andy Warhol’s “Screen Test” of Bob Dylan from 1965 will also be screening, on loan from The Andy Warhol Museum. This short film provides a glimpse into both artists’ self-made images: Warhol’s elite documentarian vision of celebrity; and contrarily, his attempt to capture Dylan in this role. Between Dylan’s solemn portraits and Warhol’s living depiction, this exhibition presents a tension between artist and subject.

Rarely seen and never publicly exhibited before, a careful selection of drawings, manuscripts and ephemera from The Bob Dylan Archive® will also be on display with a focus on Dylan’s artwork for “Writings and Drawings” (1973), his first authorized collection of lyrics. It was a last-minute decision by Dylan to publish his art with these texts. Eighteen were selected that thematically alluded to the lyrics and disjecta membra they accompany. Composed during the early ’70s, more than 100 additional sketches from this series, titled “Morris Zollar Wants to Know,” are in the archive. Examples from the published drawings and never-before-seen outtakes will be displayed, alongside artist proofs and lithographs of more recent work signed by Dylan. This means that one will be able to follow Dylan the artist from past to present, above and below the surface.

A close partnership between The Bob Dylan Center and Gilcrease Museum is important to preserve the archive for future generations and to host public events that showcase these treasures of American iconography.
Face Value and Beyond is one such collaboration along the road to building The Bob Dylan Center in the Tulsa Arts District by 2021. It’s only right that Dylan will be shown among the premier collection of artworks from the American West and Native American traditions. 

The Face Value series is graciously on loan from the Jenny Norton and Bob Ramsey Collection.