Focusing on a seldom-seen side of one of the most indelible American artists of any kind, “Bob Dylan: Retrospectrum” will be the biggest and widest-eyed survey of Dylan’s visual artwork ever presented in the U.S. when it opens in Miami this week. After an earlier run two years ago at the Modern Art Museum (MAM) Shanghai, the exhibition at the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University will feature close to 200 paintings, drawings, and iron sculptures by a familiar figure better-known for the way he wields words.
The show spans some 60 years of Dylan’s career and includes what an exhibition description calls “immersive and interactive displays” that “simultaneously illuminate the context of his artistic evolution, in tandem with Dylan’s musical and literary canon.” It was curated, for its 2019 premiere in China and now in its amended form in Miami, by Shai Baitel, MAM’s artistic director.
In a press release about the show, the ever-elusive and enigmatic Dylan, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, said, “Seeing many of my works years after I completed them is a fascinating experience. I don’t really associate them with any particular time or place or state of mind, but view them as part of a long arc; a continuing of the way we go forth in the world and the way our perceptions are shaped and altered by life. One can be as profoundly influenced by events in Morretes, Brazil, as they can be by the man who sells El País in Madrid.”
In advance of “Retrospectrum,” which runs through April 17, 2022, ARTnews corresponded with Baitel about how he curated the show and what he hopes fans of Dylan’s music might learn about his eye for art.
ARTnews: How did the idea for “Bob Dylan: Retrospectrum” first come about in Shanghai?
Shai Baitel: I have always been fascinated with Dylan’s unique artistic expressions and his different ways of looking at our world. When I first saw his visual artwork, it represented yet another medium by which he manages to convey his observations and successfully tell a story. I love his choice of subject matter, his technique, and myriad skills. His visual art speaks to me in a very powerful, familiar yet enchanting way. I have spent hours viewing his paintings, sailing through my thoughts and emotions to near and far away times and places.
I was aware that even through decades of drawing and painting, there has never been a comprehensive public exhibition of his works. So, when I was appointed to the position of artistic director at MAM Shanghai, I immediately approached Dylan’s management with the idea of a retrospective show of his visual art. Thankfully they agreed.
ARTnews: What was Bob Dylan’s initial reaction to the idea of the show?
Baitel: As he has shown repeatedly during six decades of creative output, Dylan is the master of his own voice and expression! To be given the opportunity to contextualize this great third pillar of his practice—visual art—within the broader context of his creative expression in music and writing is a profound privilege.
ARTnews: He spoke highly of the exhibition, but how much, or little, was he involved in the planning of it?
Baitel: Once we had presented the concept of the exhibition to Dylan, its narrative and curation was left to us.
ARTnews: What other figures proved helpful when it came to you developing an understanding of Dylan’s significance as an artist outside of the musical sphere?
Baitel: We did extensive research. We spoke with numerous scholars, artists, historians, and intellectuals in order to ensure that we fully understood the background and the context of Dylan’s creation. Many of those we engaged contributed significantly to our collective knowledge and comprehension, and some of them even contributed to the exhibition’s catalogue.
ARTnews: What to you is most important in terms of what audiences will take away from seeing this show?
Baitel: Dylan is one of America’s truly great artists, and a multi-faceted one at that. I would like them to appreciate Dylan not just as a musician and writer but as a visual artist as well, and appreciate the artwork as representative of one person’s particular journey exploring various forms of expression. These works have never been shown together in the U.S., and some of them have never been seen by anyone before, so there is much to discover.
ARTnews: What do you think might surprise the audience the most?
Baitel: The incredible variety—just like in his music, Bob Dylan always seems to be experimenting with different approaches to his visual art. One series differs greatly from another in often remarkable ways.
ARTnews: From your perspective, how has Dylan’s obvious excellence as a writer figured most directly (or indirectly) in the way he has approached making visual art?
Baitel: I think what distinguishes Dylan as a songwriter is his willingness to take disparate literary and musical strains and incorporate them into his unique vision. You can see the same kind of open-mindedness and willingness to experiment in Dylan’s visual work. I am convinced that creativity, no matter in which field or context, comes from the same deep place within us. And the difference in its articulation through different art forms only serves to deepen our understanding of that creativity.
In the series “Mondo Scripto,” Dylan articulates lyrics that he has handwritten via illustration. This creates a unique reference point at which all three pillars of his work—his music, his writing, and his visual art—directly intersect.
ARTnews: He’s worked in multiple mediums, but what to your eye are the most significant for him overall?
Baitel: That would be really hard to say—personally, I love his work in oils and mixed media and really appreciate his work in iron. I don’t think any particular medium is more significant than another. What’s great about assembling this wide variety of artwork is that it gives you an appreciation of his artistic journey. I think it works best collectively.
ARTnews: How did arrive upon the title “Retrospectrum”? It’s a very good term…
Baitel: Yes it’s a fine portmanteau! The title was suggested by Mr. Dylan. We all loved it immediately.
ARTnews: How will the exhibition in Florida differ from the one in Shanghai?
Baitel: The Frost Art Museum is a different, smaller space to that in Shanghai. So we wanted to distill each series and period down to their essence. Also, we assumed that Bob Dylan was not as well known to Chinese audiences as he would be to the audience at the Frost, so we spent a bit more time in Shanghai explaining his impact on Western culture. The works we have assembled for the Frost exhibition are the very best of Dylan’s works, and we’ll be debuting a new series of his—“Deep Focus”—that is just stunning.
ARTnews: Does what would seem to be a difference in audiences’ familiarity with the depths of Dylan lore make you think differently about ways to present the show in Shanghai versus the U.S.?
Baitel: The great thing about art is that you don’t have to have a degree to “understand it.” Art either speaks to you or it doesn’t. I don’t think you have to know anything about who Bob Dylan is to appreciate his artwork. That said, for those who do, there are many implications in his creations that will resonate.
ARTnews: Are there plans for the exhibition to travel elsewhere?
Baitel: Absolutely—we’ve received many requests from around the world and will be announcing our next locale in the coming months.