The explanation of a work is is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.
I visited the Gagosian before I read the recent post by greg.org in which he outs more of the negative space we insist on calling BOB DYLAN. I was lured up Madison Avenue to 77th St, no more conscious than a salmon, by the two words BOB DYLAN. I got a little more than exactly what I deserved.
The exhibit is a bit larger than I was led to believe: although it sits between two other exhibits on the 5th floor of the Gagosian, the 30 identically-sized unframed images occupy spacious digs including a central dividing wall. It will take you longer than you probably expected to view the entire assortment. Which you ought to do, once you are there, not withstanding that each one is more visually wretched than comes across on web or print reproductions. A 4th grader with dull scissors and a glue stick could have assembled each of them. The photos are lurid, text and images are often blurred round the edges, and enlarged on the walls the general impression is as crude and careless as
Richard Prince’s studio assistants any self-respecting anti-aesthete could wish.
Except for a few such as Baby Talk, Modern Bondage, and Philosophy Today, the covers are pastiches (although that term sounds a little high-falutin’ in this context) of magazines that are of course cultural dinosaurs. One of the first I parked myself in front of was an Architectural Digest bearing the headlines “Bargain-Hunting in New England” and “Houses of the East Coast” and showing a full-length photo of a young Kennedy-era socialite in pearls and a cocktail dress who raises the hem of her dress to show us, unsurprisingly, that she’s naked underneath. Next to this is the now-familiar Baby Talk cover, showing what I believe is a dwarf and the headlines you’ve probably already read: “How to Strengthen Your Baby”; “New Baby Deodorants.”
Some of the covers on display are not as labored and banal. Some headlines are haha enough to test the high-handed resolve of even the highest-handed among us: “Sword fishing is Dangerous” from Life; “Boy George Mesmerizes Male Audience at Daytona Beach” from Rolling Stone; “Ultimate Buffalo Shrimp” from Gourmet; “Stoicism and Divorce” from Philosophy Today; “The Pointlessness of David Byrne” from Rolling Stone. I thought “How to Build Your Own Geodesic Dome” from Modern Bondage was a knee-slapper. Personally, I yearn for “The Scandal Taylor Swift Can’t Lick” to come true right now, today. The first six words in the title of this post are a gem and already rather a mantra for me. And this line is from a Playboy cover. (Oh, go ahead and laugh–you can still belong to the Bob Dylan Is An Obsolete Fraud Fan Club and have a chuckle at his expense.)
Some are clever enough to merit mild double takes. A legitimately wonderful photo of Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr, and Harry Belafonte for a Life cover is captioned “Davis, Belafonte, Poitier in a TV salute to Fidel Castro”. A Life cover featuring “Oliver Stone’s New Movie ‘Apocalypse Now’ Breaks New Ground” has this headline below it: “Charlie Sheen Hides from Helicopters in Starring Role.” From another Life cover: “Frank Sinatra and Joey Bishop Have a Laugh at Fundraiser for Presidential Hopeful Rudy Giuliani.” And before you write the whole thing off, take a look at the Life cover devoted to Jack Ruby–it’s a piece of real mischief.
I guess this is the part where I should say that of course these things are, in the last account, fatuous. The “revisionism” isn’t much of anything. This is the kind of conceptual juvenilia that litters the Whitney Biennial every two years–mass media makes dupes and voyeurs of us all; the critical stance we take up in a museum is an elitist affectation; we’re all dupes and voyeurs anyway; we automatically flatten out all the information that bombards us relentlessly such that Rolling Stone can profit from selling us “Corruption in Prisons” and “Bon Jovi Rides All Night” for the same outlay of cash and also of attention. Etceteraetcetera. And the notion that Bob Dylan, the blue-eyed bristly-headed person in dark clothing I watched singing and playing instruments onstage in the Barclays Center a couple of weeks ago himself cut and pasted these things, or directly supervised the cutting and pasting, did not occur to me for one moment. It did not occur to me for one moment that any of the rib-tickling or the cleverness rescued anything called “Bob Dylan The Great Artist” from all this fatuousness. The business on the walls at the Gagosian is what it is, and Bob Dylan’s name is on the door. Now what.
The Author, when believed in, is always conceived of as the past of his own book…
Greg.org briefly mentions Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author, and he offers lavish speculative and speculative-plus evidence of the habeas corpus kind that Dylan (and Richard Prince) exemplify Barthes’ argument. But Barthes isn’t laying out corpses. He’s reminding us that we invented the creatures called authors in the first place and he’s shifting our attention to what we do–and what we are– as accountable readers.
“The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but its destination.”
Now what. With the big fat words BOB DYLAN on the gallery entrance, I very easily became a space that chose to inscribe some quality called BOB DYLAN onto these things –a superficial and inconsequential space I was, to be sure, given the material I was working with. And I idly and pleasurably performed the following inscriptions:
There’s plenty of BOB DYLANish time-out-of-mind mucking about with past and present throughout the exhibit. The Life cover I mentioned featuring Apocalypse Now is dated 1997. The Life cover featuring Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, and Giuliani’s presidential candidacy is dated 1996. A Playboy dated 1997 offers the headline “The Beatnik Craze.” A Time cover dated 1961 declares “Syria and Egypt Attack Israel on Yom Kippur.” Repeat the past, repeat the future, throw the present overboard.
Lots of babes and loads of breasts on these walls, and all of it the retro pin-up plumpiness we may be excused for associating with BOB DYLAN.
I recalled this anecdote: Bob Dylan the person is in an airport and sees the Time magazine cover “Is God Dead?” Bob Dylan quips–or laments–”Now, how do you think God would feel if he saw that?” Now, how often do you think the Bob Dylan person has seen headlines foolish, ignorant, incisive, pompous, or articulate, and images flattering, unflattering, intrusive, irrelevant, outdated, or fawning that gush, critique, advertise, probe, announce, or mock something called BOB DYLAN? Come to the Gagosian and see cheap mockups of all kinds of big ideas, images, and distorted facts.
I took two items to be winking Bob DYLANishly at me. One is a Sports Illustrated cover (showing, yes, a naked woman holding a tennis racket) that carries the headline “First Time in History Someone Came Back from Being Ranked 600.” A Life headline reads “The Rocky Road to Fame.” You’ll find out when you reach the top…
And this very work itself of inscribing BOB DYLAN for no reason other than the presence of a sign proclaiming Bob Dylan. Manifesting dots to suit myself, then connecting them to suit myself. Sifting through text and image, reading address labels upside down, for the satisfaction of being able to call something a dot: a clue, a hint, a sign, a wink. Just doing this whenever I’m encountering something named BOB DYLAN is already a conditioned response for collectors like myself. Perhaps what we are collecting in this game needs a name.
Meanwhile, keep on playing in the negative spaces.