Today (24 May 2021), Bob Dylan turns 80 years old. 80 years is a long time, but when reflecting on the output this singer-songwriter, activist, poet, visual artist and cultural icon has accomplished, one can’t help but wonder whether we’re counting in calendar years, or light-years. 

Coinciding with Dylan’s milestone birthday, Halcyon Gallery – which has represented Dylan’s visual art for 15 years – opens the monumental double-gallery show ‘Bob Dylan: 60 Years of Creating’ combining work from his robust archive, and brand new pieces. 

Bob Dylan art, East Harlem Elevated, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, an exhibition coinciding with Bob Dylan’s 80th Birthday
Bob Dylan, East Harlem Elevated, 2020, Acrylic on canvas

Dylan’s non-exclusive relationship with creative disciplines has seen him shift from singer to painter with unnerving naturalism over the years. The exhibition spans his creative achievements across media, from his first studio album release in 1962 to the recent announcement of his forthcoming museum retrospective at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Art, Miami, in November 2021.

Among the works in London are figurative paintings from 2020-21, in which Dylan confronts the American landscape with a renewed and profound consideration of its people. Among these new works is East Harlem Elevated, and Subway Cityscape Triptych (both 2020), the latter over 1.8 meters high by 2.7 meters wide. These form part of Dylan’s monumental tributes to New York, the city that shaped his early music career. Dylan emerged on New York City’s Greenwich Village folk music scene in the early 1960s, pricking up ears with his thematically complex songs that soon became anthems for the civil rights and anti-war movements. 

Bob Dylan, Abandoned Drive-In, Yucca Valley, 2017 on the singer-songwriter’s 80th Birthday
One Too Many, 2020, Acrylic on canvas Bob Dylan
Top: Bob Dylan, Abandoned Drive-In, Yucca Valley, 2017, Acrylic on canvas. Above: One Too Many, 2020, Acrylic on canvas

As anyone who’s listened to a Dylan album from the last 60 years might imagine, the show’s subject matter is wide-ranging: from boxers to sunsets, dive bars and highways. Much is anchored in a clear sense of place: The Brazil Series (2010), The Asia Series (2011) and The New Orleans Series (2013) – drawn from life, memory, archival film and photography. 

Others are more cryptic. Dylan grew up in an area known as ‘Iron Range’ in Hibbing, Minnesota, an industry-rich region where the artist first absorbed the country and blues music wafting up from the south. His Ironworks series resembled gates, screens, furniture and wall hangings, but also sculptural poems. They comprise repurposed industrial parts – spanners, vices and brackets - which Dylan turns into symbols, allusions and punchlines that still inhabit the rawness and history of their origins. 

Bob Dylan, Double Gate I, 2020, Iron and vintage objects 
Bob Dylan, Double Gate I, 2020, Iron and vintage objects 
 29.8 x 21
Bob Dylan, Shelter From The Storm, 2020. Original Handwritten lyric in pen on paper, drawing in graphite on paper

In Mondo Scripto, creative threads meet head-on. The series features the songwriter’s curation of his most renowned songs, each handwritten in pen on paper and paired with a graphite pencil drawing. 

In his live performances, Dylan often returns to historical songs, perplexing Dylanphiles with wildly revised versions of his most acclaimed works. In Mondo Scripto, some songs have had a few lines altered; others see verses completely rewritten. These compositions demonstrate the artist’s ability to tirelessly mine from the past while creating something fundamentally novel.

When it comes to art forms, Dylan has perhaps mastered more than most. But beyond the greatest hits, literary feats, political activism and unrivalled recipes of words and music is a life tangled up in the art of reinvention. §

Installation view of ‘Bob Dylan: 60 Years of Creating’ at Halcyon Gallery, London. Photography: Guy Bell
Installation view of ‘Bob Dylan: 60 Years of Creating’ at Halcyon Gallery, London. Photography: Guy Bell
Installation view of ‘Bob Dylan: 60 Years of Creating’ at Halcyon Gallery, London. Photography: Guy Bell
Portrait of Bob Dylan in the 2000s. © Mark Seliger

Portrait of Bob Dylan in the 2000s. © Mark Seliger