Bob Dylan’s big silkscreens of his versions of popular – and not so popular, and entirely made-up – magazine covers made me laugh. And I don’t mean that in an ironic way. Irony’s afoot in the show, but so is, in much larger portion, a wicked good humour. What’s wrong with a painting over which you grin, or, in some cases, laugh aloud? Mona Lisa with a moustache has that effect on me; so do Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. These pop-style picture portraits of Dylan’s are sometimes amusing, sometimes confusing, weird, sexy, genial, political, historical, hysterical, and – most of all – fun to see.
Why should we be surprised when Dylan makes a joke? He’s done it often enough in his lyrics: catch hell from Richard Burton; Freddie or not; Coca-Cola set to rhyme with gon-dola, or orphanages and sons-ofbitches. So don’t be surprised, now, that he’s in the mood for visual entertainment. If you’ve got a problem with having fun, stop reading now. If not, then here’s an item-by-item take on each of the thirty works on display until January 12, 2013.
“LIFE Magazine: Golden Girls.” What’s your favourite James Bond movie? I have to go with “Dr. No,” but “Goldfinger” is a close second. Dylan evidently likes it, too: the first image on display is a LIFE cover of a blonde painted gold. However, she’s not lying across Bond’s bed at the Fontainebleau, dead, in one of the best-known images from the movie. She’s standing up, head thrown back, red lips smiling, arms crossed across her bare breasts (get ready for many breasts in this show). The original photo of Shirley Eaton as Jill Masterson, on which Dylan’s golden girl is based, was indeed on the cover of LIFE on November 6, 1964, the date on Dylan’s image. And like all American kids from 1941 to 1972, Dylan grew up with LIFE, every week. As with “Playboy,” one sometimes read it for the brief articles – but always bought it for the pictures. So many iconic moments of American, entertainment, sport, and global cultural history were caught by LIFE photographers, among them Bob Capa and Gordon Parks. The pictures were what made LIFE, and it’s not surprisingly the magazine that features most in the show: seven LIFE covers, followed by four each of Time and Rolling Stone, and three of Playboy (though, in a nod to Playboy, it must be stated that eight of the covers feature nude women). The mocking, silly, funny headlines and cutlines on the covers comment on both the golden girl, and stereotypical magazine contents; here, a “revolutionary new procedure turns flesh to gold!” No worries on the fatal Midasclassical front, though; it won’t kill you. This new “bronzer ‘Madball’” just “turns housewives into golden girls.” There’s a mailing label on this magazine cover – some have them, and some don’t. Hunters of clues are on their own with the address labels; I’ll just say that the name Richard Hardhung is unfortunate, and Blue Earth, Minnesota is a real town with a good name for a show that features many artworks with blue backgrounds – still, as Norman Raeben told Dylan so long ago, tangled up in blue. Yet we live on the blue planet: sea and sky, a good colour for us all. Bond movies and gold on blonde are a happy way to start any gallery show; I was thinking of Sean Connery and smiling as I turned to the rest of the pictures.
“Baby Talk Magazine: Strengthen Your Baby.” “Baby Talk” is the first of two images released, so far, from the show – apart from the seven others Gagosian posted on the gallery site Friday morning, November 30th, and took down again within minutes. “Baby Talk” shows a swarthy chap with a Mohawk flexing his biceps against a bright blue background, amidst upsetting advertisements for “face lifts for babies” and “new baby deodorants.” Evidently the image is taken from a photo of the midget wrestler Little Beaver, active in the ring until the age of 52, when 450-pound King Kong Bundy body-slammed him into retirement at WrestleMania III in 1987. Little Beaver has certainly been revised, as promised in the show’s title. This one’s a little creepy. I wondered about it as a commentary upon our infantilizing culture, the cult of the baby and parents’ inability to admit to full-grown children with responsibilities, but stopped. It’s depressing to try to shovel critical analysis onto something visual that seems designed to make you say “ew,” and also guffaw. Two for two, so far, on the amusement front. For the record, once again, my laughter wasn’t chicly ironic. I was laughing for that most basic of reasons, so easy to forget in our cynical modern age: because what I was looking at was funny.
“Time Magazine: Women Lawyers.” Okay, confession. Once upon a time I went to a top-ten law school, and was for several years a trial lawyer. This one hit me a little bit where it smarts. The cover photo is a hard-eyed dyed-blonde with scary scythes of black eyebrow – and a white shrug over her shoulders, in sparkly paint, that leaves most of her chest uncovered. She’s the face, et cetera, of “The New Breed of Women Lawyers” in January, 1961.
“Life Magazine: Animal Psychic.” I loved this one for its use of an image I’d remembered from childhood, from a stack of my parents’ and grandparents’ old LIFEs: July 12, 1954, Pier Angeli in a creek with a deer. This gorgeous 1950s actress broke James Dean’s heart when her mother wouldn’t let her see him any more. Dean rode his motorcycle to her 1954 wedding to Vic Damone, but didn’t go into the church. The marriage was a disaster, concluded in one of Hollywood’s most-publicized child custody fights, and Angeli’s film career faded instantly. She died in Los Angeles at 39 in 1971, of a barbiturate overdose. Angeli’s sad story clashed in my head against the beauty of the dark-haired girl, and the notoriously skittish animal entirely unafraid of her, in the image Dylan had chosen and richly, subtly coloured. That the cover story in the artwork is about “Cindy Oppenheimer, Animal Psychic” couldn’t quite amuse me out of my thoughts about Angeli.
“Philosophy Today: Aristotle Revisited.” The date on the magazine jumps forward, to 2005, but the nude on the cover is a ’50s brunette – most of the girls on show are ’50s girls, though the ’60s and ’70s sneak in once each. There are no Kate Mosses among Dylan’s women; they’ve got prettily styled hair and full curves. What’s in the issue? “‘Repulso,’ a new book by Goren Wisen.” “Stoicism and Divorce.” “Cato for the Common Man.” And my favourite, “Ancient Modernism.” Philosophy today, same as it was yesterday, same as it was way back when. This one left me a bit flat, and so I turned to the last piece in the room...
“Architectural Digest: Houses of the East Coast.” ...and laughed in both amusement and surprise. Why should I have been surprised, though, that the coolest woman so far – with her ’40s sweep of hair (think Betty Bacall or Veronica Lake), slim elegance, and yards of pearls round her neck and spilling down her little black dress – would be the one without panties? Stand in front of the picture and you’re at eye level with the lady’s hand, lifting her hem to her waist, and her nicely-groomed vee of pubic hair. “Houses of the East Coast” and “Bargain hunting in New England” proclaims the cover,
uninterestingly: it’s as if Dylan knew you wouldn’t be reading the words on this one.
“Rolling Stone Magazine: Rapper Tom Shields.” Who is Tom Shields? There’s a musician from Boston of that name, and this might be a shout-out to the Americana sound of Tom Shields & Big Society. He doesn’t look like the guy in the picture, though. Beware of the dangers of wanting to find correspondence in art and life. Dylan’s been dodging those forced correspondences for more than 50 years, and you shouldn’t make them in this show. The date on the cover is January 4, 1999, and the headlines include “Rihanna caught off guard” (as might be expected, since she did begin singing at seven, but was just eleven and still home in Barbados, unrecorded, in 1999). This image is pale all around, dimly coloured and without the life of, well, LIFE and many of the other pieces.
“Playboy Magazine: The Girls of Harvard.” Okay, confession. Once upon a time I went to Harvard. Far from being offended by this one, I found it over-the-top jolly, and was just glad Dylan didn’t refer to us as Cliffies. The pale blue background makes the girl’s bright yellow Brigitte-Bardot pouf of hair, with its little Harvard-crimson bow, pop off the page – along with her lavish peach skin and extremely large rosy nipples. Photographer David Chan came to campus while I was there recruiting for the “Girls of the Ivy League” issue, which Playboy had published since the Ivies admitted women in the 1970s. However, there wasn’t a separate Harvard edition – and the “32 Page colour spread” in Dylan’s fantasy issue is rather more extensive than a typical Playboy layout. This one’s worth reading for the articles: not only Nat Hentoff on the Supreme Court, but an “unpublished Ian Fleming adventure story ‘Skin Dive’.” That Hentoff famously interviewed Dylan for Playboy made me smile, and the Fleming title made me giggle. The beautiful redundancy of describing any Fleming
story as an “adventure story” is the best joke of all, mocking the sheer stupidity of obvious magazine headlines.
“Life Magazine: Lee Oswald.” No, this one isn’t funny. One of two artworks dealing with the aftermath of Kennedy’s murder, this is a version of the controversial (because allegedly subjected to primitive photoshopping) LIFE cover of February 21, 1964, the date Dylan also uses. The time, place, photo of the killer with a gun are what matter, and though I hadn’t seen a picture of Lee Oswald, or thought about him, in a long time, perhaps it had been too long. Memory keeps history alive, for better and for worse – and our cultural memory is very much represented in images, perhaps more so today than in words.
“Gourmet Magazine: Asparagus.” I wish I didn’t remember this one as well as I do. On a bluegreen background, a bloodied man, a fighter, licks his right hand with a hideous mouth. The headlines lead off with “5 things you didn’t know about asparagus” – and didn’t want to, I said to myself. Gourmet advertises itself as “the magazine of good living.” If that means this guy and asparagus, then, to paraphrase the old adage about broccoli, I say the hell with it. The “wines to worship” and “midnight snacks to keep you thin” poke fun at oeonophiles and dieters driven to midnight-snack, and the concept of a magazine giving you “everything you need to make your holidays easy” is a good joke, too.
“Life Magazine: Charlie Sheen.” It’s not Charlie Sheen, but even harsh history turns into entertainment, fact into fiction. When we think of Vietnam soldiers today, we’re as apt to think of movies like the Sheens starred in, “Platoon” (Charlie) and “Apocalypse Now” (Martin) as we are of real accounts or documentaries. The most memorable images of Vietnam mix, fact and fiction, in young people’s minds today: a naked child, crying out as she flees under napalm rain; Martin Sheen with his incredible eyes and camouflage paint, rising from the water like a swamp animal near the end of “Apocalypse Now.” That the image of a young soldier cooling off in the Suez Canal in the wake of the Six-Day War, in a LIFE photo from June 1967, inspired this work makes all too much sense: one war or another, fought at the same time or at different times, by just such young dark-haired handsome men.
“Rolling Stone Magazine: Glam Metal.” Glam was one thing, and metal another. “Glam metal” is the LA-born jolie-laide child of Bowie and Black Sabbath, a late ’70s thing mercifully gone, like many bad late ’70s things, by the mid-80s. This cover announces a 2005 takeover by glam metal, with the image of a white-haired, pouting bearded man who looks like a professional wrestler in a cape admiring his vividly coloured, made-up reflection in a hand mirror. It’s like the moment when Kansas becomes Oz. Only one pop-metal guy makes it onto the cover: “Bon Jovi rides all night.” But also newsworthy – in Dylan’s goof on Rolling Stone – are “Waiting for Bono!” and “Gwen Stefani to appear at Guantanamo.”
“Movie Scene Magazine: Burt Reynolds.” Burt stares through his own blood from the cover of this made-up magazine, after he’s been in a car crash while filming “Smokey and the Bandit.” This is hysterical if you’ve seen “Smokey and the Bandit,” which is a prolonged series of car crashes. Mel Gibson doesn’t make the cover, but gets a headline: “Mel Gibson insists 3-D version of ‘The Ten Commandments’ will be ready for Sundance.” I worry that in such a version Gibson would revise the Red Sea moment irrevocably.
“Time Magazine: Captured.” November 7, 1967. Under a cutline about Saigon, the screaming headline “CAPTURED! Top Nazis rounded up in Argentina.” The cover is a collage of faces of white men in suits. They may or may not be Nazis – they look like the board of General Motors, circa 1959, to me – but they are all white and prosperous. Time has always been fond of cover collages, so it’s a fitting nod to their style.
“TV Guide: Soul Train.” White folks can have soul, too. This picture sends up that concept terrifically. An undulating line of pasty people with lemon hair, most shirtless and in ugly white tights, involved in some sort of free modern dance grace this cover. What are they meant to be? Soul Train dancers! They’d never make it down the line, and somewhere in the beyond, Don Cornelius is not amused. Or perhaps he is. This one’s ridiculous enough to be pleasantly silly. And “Soul Train” itself was no joke; it was the place where much of America first found itself watching established and emerging soul and r&b artists in the 1970s.
“Playboy Magazine: Sharon Stone.” The second of the images made public so far, this one’s of a rather sickly-looking vamp losing a black dress. Sharon Stone won’t be flattered; the lady in question looks nothing like she did in “Basic Instinct.” If I were to pick up this hypothetical issue, I’d want to read the interview with George Jones.
“Life Magazine: Frank Sinatra.” Here’s Sinatra and his beautiful blue eyes, laughing down alongside an even more amused Joey Bishop, looking like they did in the late ’50s. They’re in dinner jackets and black tie because they’re at a “fundraiser for presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani.” The date on the magazine’s 1996, and the joke is Rudy Giuliani running against someone named Gore (no first name, which made me plug in Lesley and grin) for president. That’s history changed for sure.
“TV Guide: Hee Haw.” Sweet heavens, I used to watch “Hee Haw” reruns and marvel over just what Dylan calls its mix of “music with hay seed humour.” How did “Hee Haw” make it through decades on the air? and prove “impossible to beat in the ratings”? Probably its combination of genuinely good music in the hands of Buck Owens and Roy Clark and assorted guests, the pretty women from Barbi Benton to [Mrs. Kenny Rogers], and the deliciously low humour. Two of the show’s stars are represented here: Archie Campbell and Junior Samples (the image Dylan uses doesn’t look like Junior to me). Junior was the much-beloved owner of a used-car shop. At the end of the car-sales sketches, after some sort of disastrous joke had ensued, Junior would hold up his hand-lettered sign and announce the number to call, BR-549. One of the happier and better rockabilly/ country bands of the 1990s took their name from the telephone exchange. BR-549 opened for Dylan in the late ’90s, and their multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron currently tours with Dylan’s band.
“Time Magazine: Director John Savage.” This one’s vivid – another face of a fighter, perhaps; or perhaps based on “The Deer Hunter” actor – but not particularly memorable. Celebrate Savage’s “8 Oscars” and move on.
“Playboy Magazine: Cowboy Issue.” Oh, dear. Playboy’s gone genderbent with a cowboy issue featuring Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the cover, um, girl, “Rodeo Queen Mala Banks.” Mala appears to be male...mostly. It’s fun, but I’d definitely be buying this one for the articles: new fiction by Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac and Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Sports Illustrated: Olga Svensen.” Olga has forgotten most of her top, but this is evidently all right with the World Tennis Association, as she’s managed to beat “BOTH Williams sisters” and a very funny long list of other women whose surnames chiefly end with the letter a. When a magazine is as well known for its winter swimsuit issue as it is for its sports coverage, why not give it a Playboy cover?
“Bondage Magazine: Macrobiotic Cooking.” Just try and join those two phrases in your head. You can’t. It’s a Google search of which no one’s ever thought of doing. Dylan’s cover for this made-up magazine features an abused-looking fellow and promises both macrobiotic cooking and alleged replicas of “Jimi Hendrix’s pecker” inside. Bondage Magazine is designed, groan-inducingly, “for those who think outside the box.” Whoever buys this one must also buy “Gourmet Magazine: Asparagus,” its culinary and pugilistic twin.
“Life Magazine: Illegals Captured.” The “illegals” are a clean-cut bunch of young white men, standing behind a foreground of soldiers in classic GI dress. They look Vietnam-era, like new army recruits. If they’re illegal, what are we? Who’s in the viewing position? The headline “Nixon’s body exhumed” scared me away from this one quickly.
“Rolling Stone Magazine: Marilyn Manson.” Marilyn, or rather a woman in flame-detailed bikini and full-length gloves who looks like him, grips a motorcycle and glares. Best joke on this cover? “Conan O’Brien adopts new baby.” Best true statement? “Clintons psychic dominance” (no apostrophe or possessive in Clintons). Nice if you like motorcycle gals and the colour purple.
“Time Magazine: Cameron Chambers.” “Cameron Chambers,” poor man, looks just like Adolf Hitler. Hitler with a Clark Gable moustache. The image of a face so well known looks entirely off with the square moustache replaced by a pencil-thin one like Gable’s, William Powell’s, Errol Flynn’s, and, occasionally, Dylan’s own. Revision indeed, of a face only Charlie Chaplin and a very few other artists have been bold enough to successfully take on.
“Rolling Stone Magazine: Courtney Love.” Finally, a “Rolling Stone” cover I liked. The Playboy nude on the cover’s not Courtney Love, as far as I can tell, but the headlines might make it worth the cover price. Santana at Altamont? “Boy George mesmerizes male audience at Daytona Beach.” And a knee-slapper: “The pointlessness of David Byrne.”
“Life Magazine: Jack Ruby.” The best-known image of Jack Ruby doesn’t show his face – just the back of his head, under a hat, and his shoulder and arm holding the gun he’s just used to kill Lee Harvey Oswald. Dylan gives us a Ruby we don’t know, here – a bon vivant on Valentine’s Day, 1964, doing card tricks to amuse strippers.
“Time Magazine: Oil Spill.” I didn’t understand this one at all, and haven’t anything to say about it except that I noticed the dates: 1941 in the headline about unemployment; and the House’s vote of 410-4 to investigate the president – which should have happened in 2005, the date of this cover, but didn’t.
“Playboy Magazine: Girls of Hawaii.” As cheesy as you’d expect a tropical-paradise version of a “gentlemen’s magazine” to be. The brunette falling out of her top (knocking off the Harvard girl to win the award, if there is one, for largest breasts in the show) looks like she’s whistling at the viewer. The headlines are corny as can be, with two too many boob jokes implicated in references to Hawaiian fauna – “how to grow your own coconuts” and “big fat pineapples are quite alright.” Want to know the secrets of Hawaiian Punch recipes? Learn about the music of Maui? Read an interview with Rock Hudson? This is the cover for you.
“Brothel Magazine: Barry Sandler.” Brothel bills itself as “the magazine of politics,” which is a pretty appropriate name for a political magazine. The cover of this one recalls D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, arrested indeed for doing drugs in a hotel in the District in the ’80s. Does it matter if the bloated-faced portrait is Marion Barry or someone else who looks a little bit like him? Not really – no more than “Sharon Stone,” “Courtney Love” and “Junior Samples” named who the images aren’t, or images named “Cindy Oppenheimer” and “Cameron Chambers” given to the recognizable faces of Pier Angeli and Hitler.
Here ends “Revisionist Art,” work by work. What remains with me about the show taken all together is clear. First, these big silkscreened canvases are funny. They’re done by someone with a sense of humour and a sense of history, for people with same. I like laughing in a gallery instead of feeling constrained to stand respectfully quiet before Art. If you enjoy something, don’t you at least smile? Well, feel free, as you go through this show.
That’s the sense of humour. Now, the sense of history. Dylan recently, in his “Rolling Stone” interview with Mikal Gilmore, spoke more about American history and particularly Civil War history than he has anywhere other than in his own book, Chronicles Vol. 1. He doesn’t talk much about the ’60s. He’s avoided it. But in this show, the ’60s are prevalent, in terms of the images he’s chosen – though names and faces and places from our cultural history throughout Dylan’s lifetime are all here. This is his artistic world for you to see, and welcome to it.
copyright ISIS Magazine 2012