- Jim Dine: New Paintings and SculptureOur Pickby Martin Freidman
- Jim Dine (Modern Masters Series)by Jean Feinberg
Important Art by Jim Dine
Dine first became known in the art world as a progenitor of "Happenings," interactive performance pieces that grew out of the experimental art scene in New York City during the late 1950s. In The Smiling Workman, the 1959 Happening for which he is most known, Dine wore painters' clothing covered with red, blue, and gold paint, while his face was painted gold and red with a clown's mouth. During the 30-second work, he painted the words "I love what I'm doing, HELP" onto a canvas and drank what looked like paint from a paint can (it was actually tomato juice) before pouring the rest of it over his head. At the end he jumped through the canvas he had just painted. By destroying his own work, Dine firmly centered the artistic identity of this piece as the performance, not the product. This would be an important shift and set a precedent for performance artists to follow.
What may seem like an absurd series of actions was actually a reaction to the solemnity of Abstract Expressionism and the uptown art establishment. Dine wanted to inject the excitement of live performance into art and increase audience involvement. Drawing on theatrical principles more than on his artistic predecessors, Dine also hoped to open the art world to a new form of artistic creation, where the viewer was an active participant (even if he was activated by his confusion or annoyance). Dine described the piece as "painters' theater," and later claimed, "It was a very exciting thing to be in. And, of course, show business is more exciting than art. People laugh, people cry, they clap." In breaking down the boundaries between art, theater, and participation, Dine created a new type of art performance that highlighted the body and its movement as an artistic medium.
Jim Dine's 1960 performance of Car Crash at the Reuben Gallery in New York was approximately 15 minutes long and took place in an entirely white space in which was placed a series of found objects that Dine also painted white. Dine himself had painted his face silver, wore silver clothing, and repeatedly drew anthropomorphic automobiles with chalk on a blackboard, as if trying to communicate with the audience through the images and nonverbal grunts and cries. He was joined by three other performers: a woman dressed in white sat on a ladder, so that she appeared to be very tall, and a man and a woman cross-dressed in each other's evening wear. These performers carried flashlights that they shined at Dine, who cowered away and made noises of pain. The performance was accompanied throughout by sounds of car motors and brakes.
Like most of Dine's work, Car Crash had very personal and autobiographical roots, literally inspired by his own automobile accidents. The performance was designed to be a cathartic process, a way of working through the trauma of the original events by acting it out with his fellow performers and through the interaction with his audience. By acting out his fear and helplessness, Dine communicated fragments of his emotional memories to the viewers, extending his personal experiences to a more universal message of collision and destruction.
The performance was accompanied by a room of drawings and prints, many of which included text "crash." As critic Sarah J.M. Kolberg points out, "akin to the operation of concrete poetry, here words and images combine to evoke a comprehensive account of the crash. The word crash functions as both a noun and a verb." The word also acts as an onomatopoeic sound representing the noise of two objects colliding, creating a piece that resonated simultaneously as an image, a word and a noise, breaking through the bounds of traditional art forms such as painting or sculpture. In this way, the performance was part of the larger conceptual and Pop art movements at the time, decentralizing the material object by making the focus of the piece both personal experience and commonplace language.
This painting is one of several in which Dine takes everyday objects and imbues them with meaning. Dine believed that the objects that comprised his everyday life and his visual world had a distinct power, rooted in their ability to be immediately recognizable. He consequently chose a series of personal objects in order to create self-portraits, here, representing himself through a depiction of his favorite bathrobe. A commonplace, but strangely intimate item, a bathrobe is worn close to the skin, usually in private moments. He would use the bathrobe imagery frequently in years to come, a repetition already anticipated in this double portrait.
The bright colors and clear linear style are typical of the Pop art movement with which Dine's work was associated at this time. Andy Warhol's silkscreen canvases multiplied popular culture icons into grids, transforming soup cans and Marilyn Monroe into nearly abstract components; similarly, Dine repeats his bathrobe in this diptych form, altering only the colors in a way that appears mass-produced. And yet, Dine's practice is markedly different from that of Warhol: this is a hand-painted canvas, carefully made to look generic. Dine attaches hardware to each panel, connecting the work to his family business and childhood fascinations. These unaltered, mass-produced hook and line create a vertical axis across each robe, with the prominent hook suggesting a potential menace. Where Pop art dealt with the popular, Dine creates a hybrid that uses the ordinary to connect to his history and to imply deeper levels of meaning.