Real Life or Something Like It: Bob Dylan and the Asia Series

Fred Bals
Fred Bals
Jul 19 · 17 min read

“I only ask you one thing; to have your eyes wide open.” ~ Albert Kahn

Art and Commerce

Here’s a one dollar bill, which can be exchanged nearly anywhere for goods and services to the value of one dollar. Correctamundo?

Wrong, because this one dollar bill has been signed by Andy Warhol — making it a Pop Art collectible. A Warhol painting of a dollar bill fetched over 30 million one dollar bills in 2015. Just imagine what this baby could go for — at least thousands and thousands, right?

Wrong, wrong wrong. Because on closer examination, the Warhol signature is a crude forgery — my god, it’s even misspelled as “Whoral” — so now instead of a bucket of money, you’re holding a bag of shit.

But wait! What if I told you that I have here a certificate of authenticity that proves that the forged signature is by none other than Bob Dylan, done during his one-and-only visit to the Factory! Now, how much is that dollar bill worth? (based on Mr. Nobody’s soliloquy in Grant Morrison’s “Magic Bus”)


“There’s no logical answer to that”

In the Spring of 2011 Dylan played seven shows in Asia, including his first career appearances in China and Vietnam. Those latter shows are not without controversy, with critics labeling Dylan a “sell-out” for allowing his set-lists to be vetted by government authorities.

Dylan uncharacteristically responds with an open letter “To My Fans and Followers,” first addressing whether he had originally been banned from China, “Untrue, dreamed up by a wannabe promoter,” sez Dylan.

“As far as censorship goes,” Dylan continues, “the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There’s no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it and we played all the songs that we intended to play.”


Less than six months after the tour, an exhibition of Dylan’s drawings and paintings “that chronicle his journeys in Asia” is announced by the Gagosian Gallery. Titled “The Asia Series,” the show is scheduled to run at New York’s Madison Avenue Gagosian from Sept. 20 through Oct. 22.

“The Asia Series” is Dylan’s third art exhibition since 2008, and his first public showing in the United States. Sometimes described as “the most formidable art gallery in the world,” the Gagosian was founded by Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles in 1980. By 2011 the business has grown into seventeen exhibition spaces stretching from New York to Hong Kong.

Left: original photograph by Patrick Cariou. Right: Appropriated/transformed image by Richard Prince

The Gagosian is known as the go-to gallery for hot art investments, as well as for its contemporary roster of artists, including artist/photographer, Richard Prince, who has sucked the Gagosian, as well as Larry Gagosian himself, into a copyright infringement suit filed against Prince in 2009.

The case revolves around Prince’s “Canal Zone” show at the Gagosian, which used 28 appropriated and slightly changed images originally published in a book, “Yes, Rasta,” by Patrick Cariou. True to form as appropriation artist extraordinaire, Prince never asked for permission to use the imagery.

According to court documents, the Gagosian Gallery sold eight of the Canal Zone paintings for a total of $10,480,000.00. Seven other Canal Zone paintings were exchanged for art with an estimated value between $6,000,000.00 and $8,000,000.00.

In March 2011, U.S. District judge Deborah Batts ruled against Prince and ordered the destruction of all remaining copies of the catalogue and unsold paintings that made use of Cariou’s photographs. While no monetary judgement was made in Batts’ decision, Prince et al; could be liable for over $4 million in damages for copyright infringement alone.

After pocketing between $16 to $18 million from the “Canal Zone” showing, a $4 million judgement might only put a slight crimp in Prince’s and Gagosian’s respective wallets, but hey, it’s not only about the Benjamins, we’re talking a point of honor about “fair use” here.

Prince’s lawyers file an appeal and are awaiting a new hearing when “The Asia Series” opens.


BOB DYLAN Life Magazine 96x72 inches (243.8 x 182.9 cm)

Working from “Real Life”

A keen observer, Dylan works from real life to depict everyday phenomena in such a way that they appear fresh, new, and mysterious… The Asia Series, a visual journal of his travels in Japan, China, Vietnam, and Korea, comprises firsthand depictions of people, street scenes, architecture and landscapes…” excerpted from the original Gagosian Gallery press release announcing The Asia Series exhibition, September 2011.

As “The Asia Series” exhibition date approaches, several images are posted on the Gagosian Gallery website, including a Life magazine cover ascribed to “Bob Dylan,” which looks nothing like any of the other Asia Series works that have been revealed.

“We become so accustomed to our illusions, our images, that we mistake them for reality.” ~ Daniel Boorstin: The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America

The inkjet-printed canvas featuring a dawn fighter raid over Vietnam is a duplicate of a February 25 1966 Life cover photographed by journalist Larry Burrows with the new addition of several lines of text, including “The Shadow,” and “The Mask.” At its advertised 8 by 6 ft. dimensions, Dylan’s “Life Magazine” would be a dominant piece of the exhibition.

A Gagosian representative responds to an inquiry about the “Life Magazine” image that, “It is in fact a Bob Dylan painting and part of the exhibition.”

Leon Busy, “Woman Smoking “Opium” and Bob Dylan, “Opium”

Thinking Outside the Box

In early September, an artist notes on her blog that one of the images that the Gagosian is using to promote the exhibition, indeed, the very one in their press release, Dylan’s painting, “Opium,” is copied from a 1915 photograph by Leon Busy of a Vietnamese woman smoking opium, reportedly copyrighted by France’s Musée Albert Kahn in 2008.

A anonymous comment on the “Opium” post soon follows, relating that “The Asia Series” uses another photograph, a 1998 Bruce Gilden photo available under license from Magnum Photos, as the source for Dylan’s “Big Brother.”

Bruce Gilden, Japan 1998 (Magnum Photos) and Bob Dylan’s “Big Brother”

The hits keep coming. Dylan’s “Cock Fight” is found to be sourced from another photo from the Magnum Photos archives, this one by Jacob Aue Sobol.

Bob Dylan, “Cock Fight” and Jacob Aue Sobol, “Thailand. Bangkok. 2008 (Magnum Photos)
Bob Dylan, “The Game” and Dmitri Kessel “Boys Playing Board Game on Sidewalk in Front of the Trocadero Hotel” (Life Magazine archives)

A Dylan street scene of a board game, which is referred to in the exhibition catalog as “Gauguin-inspired,” is found to be a reproduction of a photo by Dmitri Kessel, available for licensing from the TIME/LIFE archives.

A Searching Assessment

It becomes a competition among on-line Dylan fans to find the next photographic source of an “Asia Series” painting, which leads many searchers to a specific Flickr photo archive. Three days after “The Asia Series” official opening, an “Okinawa Soba” (real name “Rob Oechsle”) makes a first-time post to an “Asia Series” discussion thread in the popular Bob Dylan forum, “Expecting Rain.”

“I found this comment thread via the stats page on my Flickr Account,” Soba writes. “My Asian photostream had gotten quite a few hits from this discussion board, so I checked things out to see why.”

“Imagine my surprise to see at least FIVE or SIX Dylan paintings on the Gallery walls that appear to have been painted from photographs in my personal collection (the originals still in my possession), and posted by me to FLICKr. In any case, the images shown in the Gallery examples all appear to be “derivative works” based on vintage photographs (owned, posted, or published by myself and others), and not on any photos of his own creation while in Asia.”

Imagine his surprise, indeed.

Soba goes on to acknowledge, “All of the original Asian Photos I own and have posted are PUBLIC DOMAIN images. Their appearance on my photostream comes with automatic ‘Creative Commons‘”’ permission for anyone to use them for decorative or illustrative Blog and Website use, AND for conversion to artworks or other craft interpretations. Thousands of people have already done that, including many like Dylan who converted the photos [into] nice paintings.”

Soba ends a bit plaintively, “…while Dylan had broken no laws, he seems to have violated a common ’social ethic’ that for most of us in the graphics world involves giving credit for sources of inspiration, or direct credit for material upon which a ‘derivative work’ is based.”

The Strategy and the Dissent

Within a week, 11 of the 18 paintings exhibited in “The Asia Series” are found to be sourced from photographs, either in the public domain or available for licensing through archives such as Magnum, Getty, and TIME/LIFE. The remaining seven probably also have their origins in photographs — why abandon a winning strategy — but their provenance proves harder to uncover.

The story is picked up by the popular media shortly after the exhibition opens, with NPR, Rolling Stone, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times, among others, weighing in. The reporting is predictable, many of the reporters having been down the appropriation road before with Mr. D. and “Chronicles: Volume One” and “Love and Theft.” Dylan fans and critics are quoted. Plagiarism experts weigh in. Stealing, copying, borrowing. It’s acceptable. It ain’t. Many artists work from photographs. Many of those artists acknowledge their sources. Many don’t. It’s bad. It’s sad. It’s very Dylan.

While NPR had interviewed Rob Oechsle, aka Okinawa Soba, none of the reporters had spoken to any of the photographers or to the archives holding their photographs. When I contacted one of the photographers, it was obvious he wasn’t aware of the situation and was shocked and angry when I informed him. A few days later when I followed up, he refused to make any comment.

What had happened during the intervening period? I had contacted Magnum, that’s what had happened. And in short order I had a reply from one of their directors…

“Magnum and Bob have a long relationship… he’s clearly a fan and we’re delighted to be part of his overall Bob-ness. As for specifics, that’s confidential. If you have some more general questions, I’d be happy to talk to you.”

This not being my first rodeo in the world of Bob-ness, I replied that in general I assumed that their “delight” meant that the photographers whose work was being used for “The Asia Series” were being compensated for that use, just as the Magnum-represented artists whose work was used for Together Through Life and Christmas in the Heart had been compensated. “Would that be a fair inference?” I asked.

The reply from Magnum was that my inference was “fair enough.”

After I checked with a few other sources, it became clear that the lid on licensee comments had been clamped down and that no one was going to say nothing more to no one no how.

Dylan’s offices had no comment, of course. The Gagosian Gallery responded with the statement, “While the composition of some of Bob Dylan’s paintings is based on a variety of sources, including archival, historic images, the paintings’ vibrancy and freshness come from the colors and textures found in everyday scenes he observed during his travels.”

The gallery also quietly amended the wording of their press release to read: “A keen observer, Dylan is inspired by everyday phenomena in such a way that they appear fresh, new, and mysterious. The Asia Series, a visual reflection on his travels in Japan, China, Vietnam, and Korea, comprises people, street scenes, architecture, and landscapes, which can be clearly identified by title and specific cultural details…”

“Real life” had been 1984'd right out of the press release. But the Gagosian wasn’t ready to let go of the term altogether, pointing the media to an interview with Dylan in “The Asia Series” exhibition catalog, in which he is asked whether he paints from sketches or photographs. Dylan responds:

“I paint mostly from real life. It has to start with that.”

and then muddies his answer with a list that not only encompasses, “real people, real street scenes…” but also ”paintings, photographs, staged setups…” pretty much stretching his definition of “real life” to include anything and everything it pleases him to be.

The Risk Taking

A perceptive critique of “The Asia Series” argues that the crime isn’t Dylan using existing material — it’s that he’s apparently so disconnected from real life that even after two years of touring Asia he’s relying on photographs created by other people to deliver his impressions. There’s no memory, there’s no experience, there’s no personality, there’s neither “visual journey” nor “visual reflection” by Dylan in any of the art.

Maybe. Or maybe there is some personality there. It’s just masked and anonymous.

“I’ll take some of the stuff that people think is true and I’ll build a story around that.” ~ Bob Dylan to TIME magazine in 2001 on his memoir, which would be released in 2004 as Chronicles: Volume One.

Remember that “Life Magazine” Vietnam cover with the weird text? The image, which was featured on Dylan’s Gagosian “artist” page, disappears from the website shortly after the exhibition opens, and the painting is not to be found in catalog nor show. In fact, it’s never to be seen again. It’s been 1984'd out from Asia Series reality as completely as “real life” was from the press release.

While several commentators on “The Asia Series” noted that the whole “real life”/”visual journey” PR thing was obvious hyperbole— would anyone really think that Dylan was sketching at a Vietnamese opium den from “real life” — no one asked the question, “Why does ’The Asia Series’ use so many scenes and subjects photographed a 100 years or more ago”?

Most of the Asia of “The Asia Series” disappeared long ago except in books and imagination. In fact, “The Asia Series” has the feel of what a vivid imagination might produce if your knowledge of Asia was largely based on fiction and movies featuring preening emperors, blind eunuchs, opium smokers, women in silk gowns, street gamblers, yakuza, monks in saffron robes, cock fights, boys leading reluctant donkeys in the shadow of Mount Fuji, and more.

Perhaps that’s because “The Asia Series” is a reflection, not of “real life” but of Western preconceptions about the Far East.


Bob Dylan likes pulp fiction — he’s apparently a fan of Pulp Fiction too.

Knocked Out Loaded uses an appropriated image from a 1939 pulp magazine for its cover. Chronicles: Volume One has dozens of references to the pulps, including a very specific allusion to one pulp title when Dylan is writing about a hand injury he suffered in the late 1980s.

The pulp novel? Why, it’s by Sax Rohmer. And its title? “The Hand of Fu Manchu,” appropriately enough, given Dylan’s subject.

“Tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green,“ Dr. Fu Manchu was a Chinese criminal genius who was the title villain of over a dozen novels and short stories by Rohmer running from 1912 to 1959.

The insidious doctor was also the personification of the “yellow peril” claim that at some point Western civilization would be overrun by the hordes of Asia — the reason why you don’t see any Fu Manchu books on the stands these days. Fu Manchu is even referred to as “the Yellow Peril incarnate” in 1913’s “The Insidious Fu Manchu.”

The Fu Manchu series’ racism aside, and the books are uncomfortably racist, they are also filled with memorable plots and lots of action, as well as dangerously beautiful women and a variety of death-dealing traps, giant centipedes, strange creatures with elongated limbs, dacoits, thuggees, secret societies, pythons and cobras, fungi and bacilli (the doctor had a particular fondness for natural weapons). And that’s all in one book!

There are at least two references to Fu Manchu in Dylan’s “Life Magazine” painting ; “The Mask of Fu Manchu,” originally published in 1932 and “The Shadow of Fu Manchu” published in 1948 when Bobby Zimmerman would have been seven years old. Getting as much pulp bang for our buck as we can, “The Mask” is also a reference to the great hard-boiled “The Black Mask” magazine, and “The Shadow,” a reference to one of pulp’s greatest heros.

Given the era that he he grew up in and his taste for the pulps, I’d guess Vietnam has more associations to Dylan with smoky opium dens and evil Asians bent on nefarious schemes than its being America’s Bane, as Vietnam became in the 1960s.

Appropriately, there also seem to be several references to the movie, “Pulp Fiction” in the “Life” text, including “The Bowl,” “The Birds,” and the weirdest of the group, “The Prick.” Rather than drowning you with more details, I’ll leave the discovery to those readers interested in pursuing the idea further: try putting “the bowl pulp fiction” into Google, for instance.

Or you could just trust me.

What Happens Next

“The paintings that Dylan showed me out in L.A. were paintings from his travels in Asia. Some of them looked too big for him to have painted them while he was there, so maybe he had done them from memory or a photograph or a sketch or a drawing. I didn’t ask. I didn’t ask a lot of things. I didn’t need to. I just enjoyed the experience.” ~ Richard Prince, “Bob Dylan’s Fugitive Art”

Critics with an opinion of the “The Asia Series” itself generally feel that as art qua art none of the paintings are particularly well-executed or polished. “The color is muddy, the brushwork scratchily dutiful, the images static and postcard-ish,” Holland Cotter of the New York Times writes. “The work is dead on the wall.” Other reviews are kinder, but none are overly enthusiastic about the exhibition.

“Imagine oil painting reproductions of Renoir’s intimate luncheon scene inspiring mouthwatering meals in your kitchen. How about Homer’s Girl on a Swing animating your kid’s playroom, or Mary Cassatt’s Two Women Seated by a Woodland Stream lulling your lodgers to dreamland at night. Envision Claude Monet’s Poppy Field in Argenteuil greeting guests in your lobby area and complementing your décor. No need. It’s all possible with ArtisOO.”
~ advertisement for the ArtisOO Asian Paint Mill

Some art blogs posit the semi-serious theory that “The Asia Series” paintings aren’t by Bob Dylan at all, but are actually from the mind of Richard Prince, collaborating with Dylan in a conspiracy to demonstrate how insane the art market has become (as well as to make a little easy cash).

In that scenario, the only art that Dylan had anything to do with was the “Life Magazine” painting, the first piece his workshop ground out for the real Dylan exhibition, what would become the “Revisionist Art” show that will open at the Gagosian just a month later. Predictably, “Life Magazine” won’t be part of that exhibit.

On the other hand, the Prince/Dylan conspiracy theory goes, the actual “Asia Series” paintings were commissioned by Prince from an Asian paint mill like ArtisOO. Send them a photo, they’ll send back a painting for as little as $200 USD, although “…the color may be muddy, the brushwork scratchily dutiful, the images static and postcard-ish.”

It does makes a weird sort of sense.

Richard Prince, Bob Dylan, and the painting someone allegedly created in Central Park on June 12, 2013

“Bob Dylan was painting on an easel in the background. Bob has wild hair and good shades. He paints nudes with the authority you’d expect of a man who’d been fucked by Patti Smith. Fabiola [Alondra, art director of Prince’s publishing house] had told Bob that his motivation was ‘Basel.’ Bob laughed and said he didn’t have that kind of money, but he could do Montreux.” ~ Anonymous source to the Animal website

Two years after “The Asia Series” exhibition closes, Richard Prince harks back to the conspiracy theory with a series of tweets — almost immediately deleted — featuring the ladies of the “The Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society,” whose motto is “We love good books and sunny days and enjoying both as nearly in the altogether as the law allows.”

An anonymous source — who is broadly hinted to be Prince himself — tells the “Animal” website that Bob Dylan was also there, painting a topless girl lying on the grass, and supplies an image of the painting as proof.

“Fabiola had told Bob that his motivation was ‘Basel.’” “Topless Girl in Grass” — Bob Dylan? and Sonia Aquino photograph by Bruno Bisang

Of course, the Dylan painting turns out to be a crude copy of Swiss fashion photographer Bruno Bisang’s portrait of actress Sonia Aquino, as another anonymous tipster informs “Animal” the very next day.

“This is what happens when you write about Bob Dylan’s art,” the frustrated “Animal” reporter writes. “Is this topless, latest Dylan ‘painting’ also commentary? Is Dylan, like his good old friend Richard Prince, a sort of a feminist and by ‘painting’ a famous fashion photographer’s polished image of a bombshell Italian actress and adding some grass by her highly commercialized tits, Dylan is commenting on the public, media and tabloid commodification of a woman?… And more importantly…

Did Richard Prince paint this painting? Did Richard Prince paint all of Bob Dylan paintings?”


Prince also wins his appeal in the Cariou case in 2013, with Judge Batts’ 2011 decision largely overturned with the exception of five paintings that, the court concludes, must be reevaluated for claims of fair use. That reevaluation never happens. The next year the case is settled — details of the settlement are not revealed except that Richard Prince and the Gagosian Gallery are free of any claim of copyright infringement from Patrick Cariou.

Back in 2011, Bob Dylan doesn’t show up for “The Asia Series” opening, but either he — or Richard Prince — makes a quiet, unpublicized appearance at the exhibition’s close to sign the back of those “Asia Series” paintings which have sold — reportedly most of them—for an average price of $300,000 each.

And we leave you with one more pop quiz, hot shot…

Here’s a photograph of an Asian scene, taken in the early 1900s. What would you pay for it?

A photograph of an Asian scene, taken in the early 1900s. You can have it for free

Guess what? It’s your lucky day, bubbie. For you it’s free since it’s long out of copyright.

But what if someone copied that photo and created a painting from it?

Now let’s say that to the average art critic, the painting isn’t all that good, especially if you compare the detail against the original photograph. Maybe it came from a Chinese Paint Mill.

It’s a bit crudely executed. You might even say… “The color is muddy, the brushwork scratchily dutiful, the images static and postcard-ish” if you were being overly critical.

Or you can have this painting for $300,000

What do art critics know? You can have it for the low, low price of $300,000.

What’s that you say? No sale?

But what if I tell you that self-same painting is now signed by Bob Dylan? And in my expert opinion, that $300,000 price is only going up, up, up!

Look at it as an investment, not something you have to hang on a wall. That’s why God invented storage lockers.

What do you do now, hot-shot?

What do you do?


Fred Bals

Written by

Fred Bals

Corporate Storyteller. Tech enthusiast. Mini Cooper fanboy. One-time chronicler of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. Husband of Peggy. Human of Lily Rose.

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