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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Jim Dine

Self-portrait, 1987, Jim Dine
When I was an undergraduate at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, starting in the fall of 1969 and the first few years of the 70s, the place was in something of an uproar. What with war protests, Kent State, hippies, yippies, yuppies, and their puppies all darting around all over the place, the smell of pepper gas lingering over the college green, and instructors sometimes far more radical than their students, it was an exciting, but confusing, and highly volatile environment in which to try and get an art education. But one constant at Siegfried Hall (the school of art) was that in whatever class you took from all but the youngest teaching assistants, each professor would at least mention, often to some length, the fact that he'd had the famous Pop artist, Jim Dine as a student. To us, he was made to seem like some kind of god almost. And even though Dine did, indeed, get his BFA at OU, he in fact, only attended there his senior year. But to hear the locals tell it, in that one year, he must have taken every single course in the catalogue to have had that many different instructors in such a short time. And I thought I carried a heavy load.

Seven White Hammers, 2008, Jim Dine 
Jim Dine was born in Cincinnati in 1935. He came to OU in 1957 having studied first at the University of Cincinnati, and the Boston Museum School. His grandparents owned a hardware store on Court Street in Athens where he worked part time; which no doubt would explain his long fascination with all manner of hammers, saws, axes and other such off-the-shelf items amalgamated into his early creations. It's a good thing he didn't work in a deli. Upon graduation, Dine started in a graduate program at OU but was quickly lured away to the bright lights of New York City when he read in Art News of the work of Robert Rauschenberg and realised, "Hey, I can do that." In fact he already was; and had been doing similar pieces ever since coming to "Harvard on the Hocking" (an OU nickname).

A scene from The Smiling Workman, 1960, Jim Dine
In New York, Dine made the acquaintance of Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, among others, all of whom would soon become the next wave, replacing the slowly dying Abstract Expressionist movement. In the meantime, he became involved in "happening art," which he preferred to call "artist theatre." In one instance, (The Smiling Workman) he began painting a canvas in bright red, then started drinking the paint (really tomato juice) before pouring it over his head, then diving through the paper canvas, supposedly becoming one with the painting. Okay it sounds silly, but this was the beatnik 50s (actually 1960), remember. When it came, the "next wave" was labelled "Pop Art" by the media and critics, and with his found-object paintings, Dine fell under the label even though he relentlessly objected to it. His work, for sure, had Pop elements, but the general definition and image of the movement were too shallow and narrow for his liking. It's tempting to try to sum up Dine with hardware tools, bathrobes, and hearts. But his work is much more than that. There's also skulls, sculpture, neckties, and Pinocchio.

The Robe Following Her, 1984, Jim Dine
Meadow Heart #1, 1971, Jim Dine

Indeed, while Lichtenstein, Johns, Warhol, Oldenburg, Indiana, Segal, Rosenquist, and others welcomed the Pop label and rode the wave, Dine merely tolerated it, always striving to supersede it. By and large he succeeded. While the others each settled into well-known (and well-worn) styles; despite the lethal hardware and bathroom attire, Dine's work has been much broader...much more searching. And though he has suffered no shortage of gallery representation, awards, retrospectives, and travelling exhibitions, Dine has always considered his work a logical progression from Abstract Expressionism, rather than its conqueror. Likewise, he's always been academically oriented, involved in artist-in-residence programs, lecturing, and writing. In fact, he's an exceptional poet. Moreover, he was perhaps the first contemporary artist to incorporate the painted word into his work. His Name Painting #1 (1969, below) is one of his imagery...only names, in charcoal, on an enormous, 6'x15' unmounted canvas, in chronological order, of every person he'd ever met in his entire life up through the year 1965. Utilizing various styles of lettering, some thin, some heavy, in an exquisite interplay of lights and darks, the work seems almost like a flickering movie, like a life passing.

Name Painting (1935-1963) #1 (detail),
1969, Jim Dine
Today, at 77, the cutting-edge art world, as well as life itself, is passing him by. He's currently involved almost exclusively with various graphic media, relief prints, serigraphs, etching, and sculpture, sometimes all in the same work. Images of hardware, hearts, even his trademark bathrobes, still "Pop" up sometimes. So do his familiar symbolic self-portraits. But by now, having shaken off "Pop", he gets hung with the dreaded "traditional" label. Since 1967 he's been associated with Cornell University, but his academic resume includes Yale, Oberlin College, and guest lectures at universities all over the world.

Walking to Boras, 2008, Jim Dine. As much a sculptor as a painter, Dine's
fascination with Pinocchio dates from his childhood, seen here in Boras, Sweden.

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