How the Nobel Prize-winning songwriter turned to art, with a little whiskey-making to boot
In May this year, Provençal winemaker Château La Coste announced the unveiling of an unusual sculpture, of Nobel laureate and songwriter Bob Dylan, to be installed on his famous art trail winding through the vineyards of the castle. The new acquisition was a large rectangular structure of steel and iron – a sort of giant pergola of the industrial age – welded to a frame of a railway boxcar. Together with the frame, the work forms what might be called an open-air covered wagon, shown below.
Dylan’s work is replete with railway and agricultural metaphors from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Welded into its trellis is a plow rod, a few shards of ornamental cast iron, a Palladian crossbeam, gears, wheels, a ladder or two, a piece of a railroad worker’s oversized wrench and spike for hitching and unhitching cars, a scythe (or a scythe -up to one), at least a socket wrench for removing automobile tires, all kinds of rods and framing. In terms of artistic ancestry, this is done in the quirky, poetic industrial style of iconic American iron sculptor David Smith.
But unlike Smith’s more elaborate and intricate work, the effect of Dylan’s assemblage is that of a surprisingly tidy patchwork quilt (in iron and steel), as he framed tools and architectural remains. so securely in panels of fabricated steel. The dimensions of the room are, by definition, within the cutthroat dimensions of the boxcar chassis. You can walk through the Château La Coste sculpture the full length of the covered wagon, which is even more fun. But arguably the most amusing detail is that its author is America’s prolific rolling stone and our most recent (2016) winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his typically enigmatic and brooding Upper Midwestern lingua franca, Dylan titled the piece “Rail Car.”
That Dylan has chops in the figurative arts is well known. He introduced us to this by making a light, brutal but impressionistic oil of himself the cover of his self-titled 1970 album, self-portraitand for the past half-century he’s been stocking up on album covers, hosting art shows, and going to his studio in Malibu, Calif., to sweat it all out.
Lately – that is, in the last decade – he has become a fan of the oxy-acetylene torch and the welder’s arc. ‘Rail Car’ is Dylan’s largest metal sculpture to date, but he has also held exhibitions of his genre exercises in London and the United States. That some of this output is overtly commercial — that is, apparently made to contract, as with the “Portal” piece framing an entrance to the MGM casino in Washington, D.C. — might come as a surprise to the famed author. nasty politics of “The Masters of War. But his era of protest was back then, well over half a century ago, in 1966, when Dylan surfed on budding opposition to the Vietnam War. That was then, this is now.
Much less known than his art is Dylan’s new partnership with veteran distiller Mark Bushala. Together they produce Heaven’s Door whiskies, the name of which is derived from the Nobel laureate’s best-selling world anthem, “Knocking On Heaven’s Door”, written for the 1973 film soundtrack. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which Dylan made a famous appearance as a murderous, knife-throwing bandit in the Lincoln County Wars. Heaven’s Door offers four “Tennessee Bourbons” and a rye in the $50-80 premium range, with a commemorative box featuring a reproduction of a $500 Dylan painting.
The Heaven’s Door releases garnered excellent reviews from critics, despite the fact that aside from the ever-iconoclastic Dylan, no Tennessee distiller makes bourbon as such. They make “Tennessee Whisky”. But in partnership with Bushala, Dylan is stepping up his efforts, planning what we can only call a rare foray into hospitality, with a new distillery in Nashville, which will be housed in a 163-year-old desecrated church in the trendy neighborhood. from SoBro to Music City. . Even more commercial than all of this put together, the project for a kind of Bob Dylan boutique hotel adjoins the distillery and, not least, a gallery to exhibit, you guessed it, the paintings and sculptures of the bourbon maker. .
In the five months since its installation, it is fair to say that “Rail Car” has worked well for Château La Coste and for its outdoor location in the vineyards. The work delivers a projection of a city crossed by Dylan’s metaphorical train. It could be any city, but it has a strong Midwestern American flavor to it, as you’d expect from the Duluth, Minnesota native. One stream of influence that can certainly inform Dylan’s metallurgical work is that little Robert Allen Zimmerman spent much of his childhood in Hibbing, Minnesota – an iron mining town.
Given that one of the persistent metaphors in songs written about Dylan’s six-decade musical career is that of a life spent on the road, “Rail Car” takes on several more layers of meaning. Indeed, the manufacturer tells us the story of every little whistle by presenting us with an archaeological Baedeker of the structures and tools of the inhabitants. That means the best way to see “Rail Car” is by definition from the inside, as a passenger on Dylan’s train, because in the art you see the city go by. It’s a snapshot of how our vision works from a train. Given the source, it’s a natural history to wring out a ton of iron.