- Jim Dine: New Paintings and SculptureOur Pickby Martin Freidman
- Jim Dine (Modern Masters Series)by Jean Feinberg
Progression of Art
The Smiling Workman
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.
Double Isometric Self-Portrait
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.
Oil on canvas, with metal hardware and dowels - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Hearts in the Meadow
Hearts are another repeated theme in Dine's work; he claims he must have created "millions" of images of hearts. As a point of origin, the heart represented his wife and their relationship, but the universality of this form allowed him to use it as a base for visual experimentation. Over the course of several decades, the heart has become the basis for variations in color, materials, composition, and technique. The result is an extended series of formally-inspired works centered around an iconic shape that the viewer can read as both intimate and generic. Dine has also repeated these experiments across a variety of media including drawing, prints, paintings, and sculptures.
In Hearts in the Meadow, Dine employs collage techniques to present images of hearts that are similar in form but different in terms of color and pattern - Dine plays with color and texture, using untraditional artistic materials like glitter. While pulling together stylistic elements from contemporary artistic movements, Dine creates something that belongs to no standard category. The layers of paint and gestural brushwork seem to echo Robert Rauschenberg's, even as the simple form and grid pattern suggest either Pop or Minimalist compositions. However, unlike Pop's use of repeated motifs or Minimalism's detached fabrication, Dine has created a hand-rendered and highly unique object from a standard shape and elementary composition.
Although Dine is painting, his repeated use of a simple form explores how meaning can be created in ways akin to the contemporary development of Conceptual art. By singling out one shape and returning to it repeatedly, Dine suggests to the viewer that it has significance to be discovered. Through his close focus on the simple form of the heart, and his repeated and prolonged attention to this iconic shape, Dine transforms a trite, almost meaningless subject into something that demands our attention and our consideration. Confronted with a series of hearts, the viewer begins to believe there must be some value to this subject, even though Dine has claimed his interest is largely visual. This builds on the foundation provided by Marcel Duchamp and his readymades, suggesting that the artist transforms a subject by declaring it to be art. In choosing these subjects and putting them into an art context, the implication is that they must be art. While Duchamp used this strategy to undermine the intrinsic significance we associate with art, Dine incorporates this practice into an earnest investigation of how meaning is made.
Oil, Enamel, Graphite, Charcoal, Glitter, Collage Elements on Paper - Private collection
Ten Winter Tools
In 1972, Dine made a series of ten lithographs, each featuring a single monochromatic image of a workman's tool. Expanding on his fascination with this subject, these prints are also part of his exploration of lithography and the printing process and which required mastering a new set of artistic techniques. The ten prints each feature an image of a single tool, as if they were meant for classification purposes. Although they are presented in a straightforward manner like Pop art, these tools are intended to convey deeper significance to the viewer. He believes that these everyday objects have an innate power, created by the fact that they are instantly recognizable and familiar to the viewer.
Tools such as paintbrushes, wrenches and wire-cutters make frequent appearances in Jim Dine's artistic oeuvre. As Mark Thistlethwaite explains, "tools appeal to Dine for many reasons, but three stand out: their connection to his adolescence, their association with work and the worker, and their formal beauty." Dine saw tools as offering a "link with our past, the human past, the hand." To him, tools represent a connection to the mythology of art and to the process of human creativity. While many artists have traditionally represented themselves with the tools of art-making, Dine focused on tools used by the worker, most often iron-workers. Dine is interested in the iconic nature of these tools, which have simple shapes determined by their function. In addition to the powerful strength of these specific objects, they carry mythological associations and allegorical suggestions of forging, creating, or molding through fire.
Hand-colored lithographs on paper - Tate, London
Looking Toward the Avenue
When Dine began sculpting in the 1980s, he also became interested in the history of sculpture and the appropriation of other artwork. This public installation combines these two themes, enlarging three versions of the classical Venus de Milo. A Hellenistic sculpture from the 2nd century BC, currently a centerpiece of the Louvre Museum's collection, this famous artwork is considered one of the most beautiful of classical art. To Dine, it also represents an archetype of artistic production, a point of origin for the traditional female nude, and an icon of sculptural artistic production.
In Dine's version, however, the classical beauty of the Venus de Milo is magnified to a monumental scale. Standing 14, 18, and 23 feet tall, these Venuses are an imposing presence on 6th Avenue in Manhattan, further magnified by their position atop of pools of water, upon which they cast a reflection. Unlike the highly-finished marble of the original sculpture, Dine's Venuses are roughly molded and cast in bronze, which amplifies their uneven surface. Still, because the original shape is so well-known, they are instantly recognizable, despite the change in scale and materials.
Breaking with the rectilinear grid of midtown, the Venuses bring a sense of movement and life, but also humor into the monotony of modern urban architecture. Even as Dine's forms are beautiful, they border on kitsch. While revered as high art, the Venus de Milo has been repeatedly appropriated by commercial products and souvenir reproductions. It has also been appropriated by other artists, such as Salvador Dalí, who were drawn to its instantly-recognizable silhouette. No matter what he changes about the physicality of the original, Dine cannot render the Venus unrecognizable; the power of the iconic shape is reconfirmed in these works.
Bronze - Sixth Avenue, New York
Dine's artist book, Birds, consists of a series of black and white photographs of stuffed and dead birds. The subject is a deeply autobiographical one, as well as one with elements of universal appeal and dread. Dine's fascination with birds dated back to his childhood and a memorable encounter with a bird, also named Jim, at the zoo. His interest in their suggestive and symbolic qualities was reignited by a provocative dream while traveling abroad in the 1990s. In Berlin, he purchased a taxidermied crow, two ravens, and two owls, which would become the subject of his 2001 book, Birds. He felt the birds haunted him, and the pictures have an equally haunting quality, with the birds' shining dead eyes staring up at the camera. Dine has explained "the pictures were taken during many dark years."
Beyond his personal encounters with birds, these birds represent, to Dine, the deep-seated fears of the unconscious, an interpretation which links to Freudian theory and psychological thriller films such as Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). The photographs, which sometimes include parts of Dine's own body (such as his hand) alongside birds, suggest a childhood nightmare made real. They confront, and even embrace, the fundamental human experiences of fear, isolation, and death by confronting the viewer with close images of nearly unreal strangeness and dark beauty. Photographing the birds under makeshift studio lights and assembling the photographs in a beautifully-produced artist book, Dine imbues ordinary birds with a sense of mystery, making them appear as mythological symbols rather than simply dead crows. This is an extension of Dine's earlier practices of taking everyday objects (such as tools or bathrobes) and demonstrating their compelling power.
Artist book - Various
Two Thieves One Liar
The story of Pinocchio is a rich source for Dine, particularly in the series of sculptures that include this work. Once again, Dine adopts a popular icon, here from children's literature and popular Disney movie, to explore levers of narrative and symbolism. In this version of a Pygmalion story, Pinocchio is a wooden puppet, created by the kindly Geppetto, only to repeatedly betray the maker's love and trust before redeeming himself and becoming a "real boy." Dine claims, "I saw the Walt Disney movie when I was six, and I was very frightened by it, enchanted by it. And I identify with it. I was a liar, little boys are liars."
Dine started off by seeing Pinocchio as his alter ego, as the wooden puppet becoming a real human being; however, towards the end of his career he started to associate himself more closely with Geppetto, Pinocchio's maker. He said, "All the time I was identifying with the boy, but now, you know it is a great story because it's a metaphor for art, this old man brings the puppet to consciousness through his craft, and in the end I am Geppetto, I am no longer Pinocchio."
For Dine, the Pinocchio story acts as a metaphor for the creation of art, with the lump of wood coming to life through the artistic process as the figures take shape. The process of giving life to an inanimate object, the center of the Pinocchio narrative, also shows how the creator must cede some control or autonomy to his creation. Here, the process and the subject are intertwined, as Pinocchio and his companions are roughly carved from wood; the materiality of the wood is emphasized by Dine's decision to create the black, silhouetted forms of the fox and cat was by charring the wood with a blow-torch. Along with the scale of all three characters, the charred surface of the sculpture and the rough edges left by the saw make the two "thieves" appear menacing and threatening.
Wood - Pace Gallery, New York