Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him – "Visions Of Johanna"
With the approach of April Fool's Day I've found myself drawn to a passage that appears in the LIFE special edition on Bob Dylan, Forever Young: 50 Years Of Song, which will be continue to be available on newsstands for the next few months. The magazine devotes just a scant few pages to the last twenty-five years of Dylan's career, including this on Dylan's Chronicles Volume One and the critics: "They had figured if Dylan ever finished a memoir, as it was rumored that he was trying to do, it would be goofy, evasive or cryptic in the extreme. And then came this: a finely written, thoroughly engaging reminiscence with a good deal of insight and just enough candor to satisfy any reader."
Chronicles: Volume One is goofy, evasive and cryptic in the extreme, as I've demonstrated again and again. To suggest that it isn't, and that it is loaded with candor, is preposterous at this point. The editors at LIFE missed a series of opportunities to blow their own horn regarding Dylan's use of their magazine in his work; much like the missed opportunities that the editors at Time made last year on the occasion of Dylan's 70th birthday.That they failed to mention that Dylan created an eight foot tall painting of a 1966 LIFE magazine cover with added cryptic text is a gross omission. Including a photo of that painting would have been the perfect final question mark to wrap up their overview of Dylan’s career.
One could also argue that a mention of how the cover design of Dylan's 2001 album "Love and Theft" is based the iconic imagery of LIFE could have been worked into their tribute. I suggested this connection in the form of a photo collage that appeared with my post "Deciphering The Asia Series: Dylan and The Pied Piper of Tucson" last year. There's more to that puzzle, but I'm not quite there yet.
One connection that I wouldn't anticipate that the editors at LIFE would be hip to is how Dylan tied in April Fool's Day and some artwork that appeared in an imaginary issue of LIFE in a evasive and cryptic passage in Chronicles: Volume One. Early in the book Dylan is new to New York and is attending a bon voyage party for Cisco Houston that is being hosted by Camilla Adams.
Cisco brought all kinds of people together. There were union guys there—ex-union guys, labor organizers. Recently, there'd been some accounts in the national news of an AFL-CIO executive council meeting that had been held in Puerto Rico and it was pretty funny. It had been a weeklong affair, and the union bosses were photographed drinking mammoth rum drinks, visiting casinos and nightclubs—hanging around at hotel pools in flowing bathrobes, swimming the surf, wearing Hollywood-ish sunglasses—doing handstands on the diving board. It looked pretty decadent. They were supposedly there to discuss the march on Washington to dramatize the unemployment problem. Evidentially they didn't know they were being photographed.
These guys at Camilla's place weren't like that, though, they looked more like tugboat captains or baggy-pantsed outfielders or roustabouts. Mack Mackenzie had been an organizer on the Brooklyn waterfront. I met him and his wife, Eve, who was an ex-Martha Graham dancer. They lived on 28th Street. Later on, I'd be their houseguest, too ... sleep on their living room couch. Some people were there from the art world, too—people who knew and commented on what was going on in Amsterdam, Paris and Stockholm. One of them, Robyn Whitlaw, the outlaw artist, walked by in a motion like a slow dance. I said to her, “What's happening?” “I'm here to eat the big dinner,” she responded. Years later Whitlaw would be arrested for breaking and entering and stealing. Her defense was that she was an artist and that the act was performance art and, incredulously, the charges against her were dropped.The April Fool's day joke is there, you just can't see it yet. To illuminate the joke it helps to establish what comes before it. Dylan's description of the AFL-CIO meeting is built out of elements from an item titled "National Affairs: Duress in the Sun" that appeared in the March 2, 1959 issue of Time magazine. If you dig up the article you'll find "mammoth rum drinks" and "Hollywoodish sunglasses" and "handstands on the high board" and just about all the rest of it. The wonderfully odd "evidentially" does seem to be Dylan's. This is the same issue of Time with the cover story on Harry Belafonte that Dylan took the scissors and paste to when constructing his section on Belafonte in Chronicles: Volume One, as I pointed out in my post "Bob Dylan and the Matter of TIME" last year.
The second paragraph begins with a pinch from Pynchon, a couple of elements from a long sentence that appears on page 586 of Gravity's Rainbow (Dylan also uses some Pynchon a few pages earlier).
All the baggy-pants outfielders, doughboys in khaki, cancan girls now sedate, bathing beauties even more so, cowboys and cigar-store Indians, google-eyed Negroes, apple-cart urchins, lounge lizards and movie queens, cardsharps, clowns, crosseyed lamppost drunks, flying aces, motorboat captains, white hunters on safari and Negroid apes, fat men, chefs in chef's hats, Jewish usurers, XXX jug-clutching hillbillies, comicbook cats dogs and mice, prizefighters and mountaineers, radio stars, midgets, ten-in-one freaks, railroad hobos, marathon dancers, swing bands, high society partygoers, racehorses and jockeys, toddancers, Indianapolis drivers, sailors ashore and wahines in hula skirts, sinewed Olympic runners, tycoons holding big round bags with dollar signs, all join in on a second grand chorus of the song, all the boards of the pinball machines flashing on and off primary colors with a touch of acid to them, flippers flipping, bells ringing, nickels pouring out of the coinboxes of the more enthusiastic, each sound and move exactly in its place in the complex ensemble.
In my post "Bob Dylan One, Two and Three: Mingus,Hemingway and Blavatsky" I pointed out that when Dylan interacts with artist Robyn Whitlaw it includes one of the many, many times that he takes material from Ernest Hemingway, in that case it was the use of a line from the short story "The Killers" - one of a number of times he refers to that particular story.
'What do they do here nights?' Al asked.Robyn Whitlaw and the use of the word “incredulously” are the keys here. Dylan’s odd word choice drew attention in early reviews of the book. Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "It is naive and direct; it is not cryptic and it is not smug. The flaws in the book are another guarantee of authenticity. Dylan misuses words -- 'incredulously' for 'incredibly,' for instance..." Dylan is not misusing the word – he is using it cryptically.
'They eat the dinner," his friend said. 'They all come here and eat the big dinner.'
Robert P. Inverarity, in a review that you can find on amazon.com, commented, "I know he missed at least one deadline with the manuscript and probably more, and so publication was likely something of a rush-job, but he has a tendency to use words whose meanings elude him ('incredulously' instead of 'incredibly' -- facts don't tend to be credulous), and a sharp set of eyes should have caught them in a once-over." I suggest that Dylan has shown himself to be pretty good with words, and that he knew that the events that he was referring to were anything but facts.
The best writing on Robyn Whitlaw is an essay by Ralph Rugoff called "The Illuminating Disappearance of Robyn Whitlaw" that originally ran in LA Weekly in April 1994. The essay later appeared in his 1995 book Circus Americanus. Rugoff lays out Whitlaw's artistic vision and her struggles from the late 60's to the mid 80's. It is an intriguing tale, full of wonderful comic turns. Rugoff's description of the arrest to which Dylan refers is particularly interesting.
In 1984, against the backdrop of appropriation art's tremendous success, she was arrested for breaking and entering the house of a New York dealer who represented many of the leading appropriationists. During a pre-trial hearing Whitlaw maintained that if theft could be art - at least in the hands of appropriation artists - then her action, and those of thousands of other thieves, should likewise be judged by aesthetic, rather than penal, codes. Worried about negative publicity, the dealer dropped charges.Rugoff claims that earlier in her career Whitlaw, "...scored a coup when one of her empty placards turned up in a 1972 Life magazine picture of an SDS rally." He mentions that Whitlaw's birthday is April 1, 1940 and points out that the only review that Whitlaw ever received in a mainstream publication was a mention in Artnews by critic Flora Gruff. Gruff gets a credit for a photo that accompanies another essay in Circus Americanus.
I'm familiar enough with the writing of Vivian Darkbloom to recognize that if you mix the letters that make up "Ralph Rugoff" you can create "Flora Gruff" - but you are left with that pesky extra "h". That liability becomes an asset when you see that Rugoff writes of a possible late work by Whitlaw, "a 45 record titled '$1.29 Happy Birthday,' released on April 1, 1986, by an unknown named Byron Lawwit (an anagram for Robyn W(h)itlaw)." Rugoff has crafted a finely detailed essay, but its contents are entirely faux. There are more puns and fun to find there.
Rugoff continued to muddy the waters by including mentions of Whitlaw in a couple of items that ran in Frieze magazine. For instance, an item from 1998 includes, "David Hammons’ name would have to be near the top of any census of this small tribe: over the past couple of years, he has shown work in a Harlem barbershop, an African crafts store, and conducted unannounced performances on the Lower East Side, while eschewing a major gallery show in his home town of New York. Yet his fugitive exhibition strategy is only a shadow to the 70s art gestures of Robyn Whitlaw, a California-based Conceptual artist who made a career out of playing cat-and-mouse with the local press." In an article from 2000 Rugoff writes, "Yet by 1969, invisible art was showing up all over the place. Artist Tom Marioni curated ‘Invisible Painting and Sculpture’ at the Richmond Art Center in California, for example, which featured a group of artists including Bruce Connor, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Robyn Whitlaw."
Whitlaw features prominently in a curious essay filled with mad pranks and merry jests titled "A Productive Irritant?: Parasitical Inhabitations in Contemporary Art" that ran in the Fall 2011 issue of Fillip, an art magazine out of Canada. The authors lay it on thick, and, regarding awareness, I'll go with deadpan over clueless.
Robyn Whitlaw used her relative invisibility as a black woman to traverse and hide behind the noise of culture and politics through her In-Visibility Project (1973–78). During this time, Whitlaw exaggerated her own professional obscurity by sending simple invitations for a number of her own secret exhibitions after they had closed. Whereas in the 1970s many conceptual artists were using the exhibition invitation as a site for both their work and enhanced promotion, Whitlaw questioned the “publicness” of publicity and the self-aggrandizement of artists by distorting both temporality and the art establishment’s customary use of advertising procedures. A comment on the systemic neglect of non-white and women artists, Whitlaw’s project was based on her concept of the “secret artist” (an incorporation of secret agent behaviour and Watergate-era deception and secrecy). Realizing the role invisibility played in the manipulation of power, she used clandestine strategies to invade zones from which she was prohibited and revealed how such prohibitions were generated ideologically and reproduced. Using a system of authentication to certify the existence of her work and its pre-emptive dismissal, her project’s power lies in its absurdity, existing outside the market system’s logic and expectations.This essay touches on Chronicles: Volume One and Dylan’s encounter with Whitlaw at the party, noting that, "Extracting surplus from the host and exploiting the hospitality on offer, Whitaw was at the dinner not only to procure sustenance parasitically, but also to interrupt the structure of affairs where manners govern behaviour, reversing the hierarchy of inviter/invited by making visible an unsaid and corrupt social contract." Their focus is little off; the attention on the parasitic appropriation needs to be on the fact that the big dinner that Dylan has Whitlaw eat is Hemingway's dinner.
The footnotes show that their only source for information on Whitlaw's art (indeed the only source one could have) is Rugoff's essay. They include almost every item on Whitlaw's work that Rugoff wrote about, but fail to mention that Rugoff drops the term "April Fool's Day" twice in his essay, the final time in the very last sentence of his piece. It is a convenient omission. That they could effectively parrot the story of an artist that only exists conceptually in such a convincing way, hip to the jive or not, speaks to the power of Rugoff's writing. The tone in his essay is dead-on. Publisher's Weekly didn't let on if they were hip or not, but did remark in a review of Circus Americanus that, "One of the strongest essays, though, is a relatively quiet homage to the conceptual artist Robyn Whitlaw, whose In-visibility Project (1973-1978) preceded her own enigmatic disappearance."
Bob Dylan had himself interact with a thieving artist who exists only as a vapor in April Fool's Day joke while surrounded by his own brazen thefts - and received high praise for his candor. I believe that Dylan wants more from his critics and his audience; that he wants his methods to be discussed and to be challenged. Before this can happen what Dylan is doing in his recent work needs to be recognized. Dylan, in his own peculiar way, is doing his part to try and trigger this recognition.
Today wit-cracker Ralph Rugoff is Director of the Hayward Gallery in London. Dylan used his interaction with a person in the same field to plant a clue that could lead the alert reader to discover his April Fool's Day celebration in Chronicles: Volume One. Recently Dylan did an interview with John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art. It appears in the catalog for the group of Dylan's paintings titled The Asia Series. Three essays I posted last year on The Asia Series interview laid out just some of what Dylan had hidden and encrypted.
In the Elderfield interview Dylan comments, "I think miniature golf courses are great art forms." It is a statement that cries for attention. I read it as a coded message meant to lead you to the vicinity of the phantom Robyn Whitlaw. Circus Americanus includes Rugoff's essay "Courses in Seduction" where he writes, "Architect Charles Moore once called miniature golf 'one of Southern California's true art forms.'" If you can read the signs you'll find that Dylan will often point you in a general direction, but you'll have to do the rest of the leg work yourself. If you want sugar for sugar you need to bring more than weak tea to the table.
A few months back I got into an online conversation with spy novelist Jeremy Duns regarding Dylan's secret agent behavior. Duns was recently burned by admitted plagiarist Quentin Rowan, and those wounds appear to still be fresh.
When discussing what Dylan does in Chronicles: Volume One Duns commented, "I guess I'm wondering why you would plant clues revealing that you're an extensive plagiarist." He added, "It's the kind of thing a clever plagiarist would do as insurance for if they got caught, I think."
I think that there is more to it than that. Dylan has operated without a net for so long that I doubt that he would even consider such an artistic insurance policy. I partly see it as Dylan being a mole within his own counter-intelligence operation.
"Can theft be art?" is the question that Dylan flaunts here. He is an emperor who has woven his own new clothes and was always aware of them. He stands naked and eggs his audience on, presenting his snazzy new "candor" threads.
There are a slew of other puzzles, games and cryptic messages that Dylan has built into his recent work. Thrill-seekers can find leading statements I've made regarding a few of them (without spilling all of the beans) on my Twitter account. As I became more familiar with Dylan's methods I started including in my own writing similar clues and cues that reference some of Dylan's still-hidden secrets, things that only Bob Dylan, or someone as intimately familiar with some of the hidden aspects of Dylan's recent work as I am, would recognize. Maybe I don't have the details right, but even on the first of April I wouldn't be fool enough to comment further on any perceived outcomes of that gambit, so I'll just keep standing here holding my poker face. Have a happy April Fool's Day.