Bob Dylan's Manhattan Bridge, Downtown New York from his exhibition at the Halcyon Gallery in London.
Bob Dylan's Manhattan Bridge, Downtown New York from an exhibition at the Halcyon Gallery in London.

Bob Dylan’s The Beaten Path exhibition opens today in London’s Halcyon Gallery.

My path converged with Bob Dylan’s early: growing up in Brooklyn Heights, my family ran the 8th Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village, a favorite haunt of the Beats in the 1950s and the site of Dylan and Allen Ginsberg’s first meeting in the 1960s.

The New York of Dylan’s paintings is not necessarily the glamorous, glitzy New York of the cinema screen: instead it’s the Lower East Side, Coney Island, the outer boroughs. This is Bob Dylan’s New York, and kind of mine as well. He’s interested in the archaic as well as the modern, and how the two fit together. Russ & Daughters, Yonah Schimmel’s, Katz’s Deli – beacons of immigrant New York – are perfect examples of that. The street-level, wide-angle perspectives invite you inside, to the tastes and smells. It’s a wonderful rendering of a wonderful place.

New York meant a great deal to Dylan, his life and career. It’s a very deep attachment, a part of him. He blossomed in New York City in a way that he couldn’t have done anywhere else. He meant to get there and he got there: as he says, destiny was looking straight at him and nobody else.

Dylan’s visual explorations are not limited to the East coast – Los Angeles also appears, in closely cropped, brightly colored, neon lit form. These are the places he likes to inhabit. Arcades, movie theaters, places of entertainment which were very much a part of mid-century America, but also have relevance today. In particular, the Orpheum Theater, Downtown LA, part of the original Vaudeville circuit is juxtaposed with the soulless anonymity of the Eastern building opposite.

Outside of the big city, the exhibition is an ode of sorts to the vast American landscape: small, anonymous towns, vast prairies and the rolling, endless road. Of particular prominence are the people and places found at the roadside. Places like these, the Old Route 66 for example, have a very powerful historical presence, from Guthrie to Steinbeck, Bobby Troup. These places refer to America at its deepest level.

Endless Highways, the monumental centerpiece to the exhibition, features layer upon layer of meaning. First, you might see the direct lineage of American photography from Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, up to Robert Frank. There’s Hank Williams’ Lost Highway there, Jack Kerouac too. This is a road that has its ups and downs, valleys and peaks. It’s a picture filled with moving: The Beaten Path is about movement, the whole of America is about movement.

He lives on the road, in a sense.

Bob Dylan is always becoming something else, that’s the important thing about him. To try and pin him down with any kind of fixed identity is very tricky indeed.

The Beaten Path will run until December 11 2016 at Halcyon Gallery, London.

This essay was  adapted from a talk given at the Halcyon Gallery ahead of the opening of The Beaten Path, a major exhibition of drawings, watercolors and acrylic works on canvas by artist and musician Bob Dylan.

Sean Wilentz

Professor Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University. His books include The Politicians and Egalitarians: the Hidden History of American Politics, and Bob Dylan in America.

2 replies on “Bob Dylan’s visual art is an important ode to America”

Comments are closed.