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Bob Dylan's Former Classmate Muses About His Paintings at Gagosian Gallery

By Amy Zimmer | September 26, 2011 7:21am
Bob Dylan's "Opium," 2009.
Bob Dylan's "Opium," 2009.
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Gagosian Gallery

UPPER EAST SIDE — Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Richard Avedon and Richard Serra grace the walls of the Gagosian Gallery, but its latest star is better known for his singing than his painting.

On show at the high-end gallery's Upper East Side location are paintings by legendary singer Bob Dylan.

Dylan, a man of many talents, has been making visual art since the 1960s but had not publicly exhibited his work until 2007 with a show in Germany, followed by one in Copenhagen.

His show at the Gagosian — "Bob Dylan: The Asia Series," which runs through Oct. 22 — is his first in New York, the city he moved to in the 1960s where he made a name for himself on the Greenwich Village folk-singing circuit.

Art lovers and Dylan fans are taking in his street scenes, people and landscapes from his travels in Japan, China, Vietnam and Korea — including one man who walked in Friday with "Positively Fourth Street" playing on his smart phone.

He was almost evicted by a security guard.

A woman in a beige leopard print coat and glasses and a purple leopard print scarf, who was looking intently at the paintings, left a note for Dylan with the Gagosian staff.

It wasn't merely a fan note. It turns out the woman — Bernice Sokol Kramer, now a professional artist — had taken an art class with Dylan in 1974 on the 11th floor of Carnegie Hall with Norman Raeben, the son of famous Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem.

"Nobody cared who he was," Kramer told DNAinfo of the famous troubadour, who used his real name Bob Zimmerman in class. "We were painting fanatics. Nobody cared about anything else."

They were all taken with Raeben, who had studied with George Luks and Robert Henri, of the Aschan School, and who taught not just technique but philosophy of sorts. He had 10 commandments that included such rules as, "I'd rather be stupid than phony," Kramer recalled.  

Dylan wanted to fly their teacher and the whole class to California when he had to go there — Kramer assumed it was for an album — but Raeben, who was elderly at the time, declined.  

"He loved Norman a lot," she said of the singer, whom she remembered as having a big heart.

"My teacher was a Svengali type. He was like a guru," said Kramer, who began her nine-year study with Raeben in 1967.  "Norman would hold reading classes. He thought you should have another frame of reference."

They read Colette and Proust. One of Dylan's paintings reminded Kramer of a short story they read by Tolstoy about a workhorse. In one painting, she thought she saw Raeben's face.

As Kramer looked at Dylan's paintings, she was amazed and impressed by his technique and saw the impact of their former teacher everywhere. "He taught you light and texture," she said.

"He taught you from the shadows up."  

In her letter to Dylan, Kramer wrote, "You have retained your heart and feelings without being burdened by all the 'isms that are spewing forth these days. … So happy to see this very ambitious work."

Kramer hasn't seen Dylan in 36 years, and she wasn't sure she'd hear from him, but she left her email on the letter, just in case.

Bob Dylan: The Asia Series is on view at the Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Ave., fourth floor, through Oct. 22.