Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bob Dylan's First Art Exhibition: 1971

With all the hubbub over Dylan's paintings and the "Asia Series" at the Gagosian Gallery, it's interesting to take a look back forty years or so (actually, nearly forty years to the day) to the first time Bob Dylan's work made an appearance in an art exhibition, in a show curated by Yoko Ono in, of all places, Syracuse, New York.

In the fall of 1971. in part to commemorate John Lennon's thirty-first birthday, Ono staged her first museum show at the Everson in Syracuse. The Everson Museum, a "bastion of the avant-garde," according to The New York Times and "a famous location for skateboarders" as reported by Wikipedia, hosted her display of "conceptual art" for a three-week run.

The exhibition, titled "This Is Not Here," included more than 80 "works" by Ono, including "Iced Tea," an ice sculpture of the letter T (soon to melt away), "Painting To Let The Evening Light Go Through" (a sheet of clear plastic), and the notorious "Apple" (simply an apple on a pedestal which, inevitably, was eaten during the opening reception, by some accounts at Ono's suggestion). John Lennon contributed a few works, including some edible clothing.

One of Ono's "works," usually known as "Water Gallery," consisted of pieces submitted by 100 invited guest artists, which Ono would, collaboratively, fill with water. Frank Zappa sent a Volkswagen. Peggy Guggenheim, less creatively, sent a vase. Andy Warhol sent a thirty-minute videotape of a water cooler.

Bob Dylan sent a fish tank. But not just any fish tank. This fish tank contained a copy of Nashville Skyline. Just the album, no sleeve or jacket.

The exhibition goes well. Nearly 6000 attend the opening, where Ono sports black velvet hotpants. Dylan reportedly takes in the exhibit during its three-week run. The local press denounces it. It becomes the subject of a PBS TV special. Museum membership grows. Various audio and videotapes made for Lennon are circulating.

Why Nashville Skyline? Was there any other Dylan album, then or later, with fewer references to water (or rain) in its lyrics? Perhaps Bob thought it needed irrigation. Perhaps not.

The things you learn when trying to fill in a few blank spots for a blog post. In a news story I only turned up earlier today, I discovered that someone I knew in college had been an invited guest of Lennon's at the opening (or at least her then-boyfriend was), and had been at his private birthday party later that night. It never came up in our conversations. I'd have remembered that, even after nearly forty years.

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