Jim Dine: The Optimist
by Vincent Katz
Jim Dine is familiar to many as an artist of change, mercurial, probing, hardly if ever settling down – a wunderkind fresh from Cincinnati who wowed the New York scene in the early 1960s with his jump into a theatrical imagination of streets and junk, transformed into brittle minutes in small spaces, enacting private rituals that would resound for years to come under the slightly dated name of “Happenings.” Dine’s painting took off from that point, first in raw visions of daily life that could seem like artifacts from performances, then quickly hitting his stride in large-scale, ambitious paintings that secured his leap from this year’s model to serious painter. From the 1960s until today, Dine has delighted audiences by his unpredictability. He is prolific in sculpture, drawing, printmaking, and now photography, as well as painting. He has devoted energy to writing poetry -- it has appeared with renewed urgency in his recent photographs – and he has often collaborated with writers.
Many artists achieve interesting moments along the ways of their careers, but in certain cases there is the recognition that this trajectory has moved into another category of existence, a substantial reckoning with time. The artist now must stake territory wider than that previously traversed. Dine is one of those figures, whose very prolificity creates ever new vistas, and whose coming home simply signals imminent departures. Dine’s psychology is perhaps reflected in his peripatetic nature, which keeps him, not quite 70, in constant motion, and in artistic creation around the globe. He has painting studios in New York City, Washington Depot, Connecticut, and Walla Walla, Washington, where he also does much of his sculptural work, at the Walla Walla foundry. His printmaking activities carry him to diverse ateliers. Since 1995, he has added photography to his arsenal and uses his Parisian apartment as a scenario for the elaborate three-dimensional set-ups he shoots.
“Nothing’s irrelevant” could serve as a motto for Dine’s career, in that every experience adds up to what we are, and nothing about ourselves should be denied. Transposing this idea to the work, there is a sense with Dine that is not so with most other artists that the prints inform the paintings, the paintings inform the photographs, the poetry informs the drawing, etc. Dine himself would say the drawing informs everything, and there is certainly a sense in which poetry is drawing, or picture-making, but it seems that the back and forth may be more fluid. I would say it all starts in the heart.
Dine’s plunge into photography in 1995 after resisting it for 40 years (he did do a Polaroid project in the late 1970s) is the more remarkable for the tenacity with which he has since pursued work in heliogravure, digital photography, gelatin silver and chromagenic prints. The first fruits of this “new” artist – a kind of photographic Athena born full-grown from the head of the artist Dine – have been assembled for a traveling exhibition, which will open at the Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University, in September of this year. In early 2004, Dine began work in Paris on a new series of self-portraits; hearing him discuss his photographic process sheds light on the techniques in his new paintings, while at the same time revealing that Dine has in a sense come back to part of his origins in performance. Many of his photographs depend on elaborate set-ups, with dense layerings of photographic time. The three-dimensional spaces Dine arranges to shoot in function as sets within which he acts – sometimes quite literally by moving his body during long exposures, other times simply accumulating action through his presence.
Dine’s embarkation into photography and the dramatic sets his photographs entail coincided with a vigorous return to the writing of poetry. In the late 1960s, he moved to London and concentrated on poetry, spurred on by his friendships with poets and collaborators Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, and Ron Padgett. Dine published a collection of his poems, Welcome Home Lovebirds, in 1969, and has written on occasion since, but the explosion of the use of his poetry in a significant percentage of the photographs signals a return to investigating the power of the word in a work of visual art. The poems are usually written by hand on a chalkboard or other surface (sometimes with additional words on clear plastic creating a superimposition of texts), and for Dine they function simultaneously as drawing and writing.
Dine’s photographs gather imagery over time: he will blow up a photograph or family snapshot and use it as a backdrop for another photograph, then use the resulting photograph as a background for another photograph, and so on. In his recent photographic self-portraits, Dine has engaged in attacks on the photographic prints used as backdrops, allowing their resultant texturing to become another substratum in his ensemble. When asked, he confirmed that the layering in his photographs is similar to that in his paintings:
I work in layers. I work with a collage technique, and my whole method is correcting, particularly in my drawing. Everything I do comes from drawing. I believe that. And in my drawing, it’s all about correcting. By that I mean, I’ll make a drawing, then run it under water, ball it up, throw it against the wall, let it dry, go back into it, erase, add, go through it with sandpaper or power tools, patch it from the back, bring it back to life. It’s all part of this alchemical method I have. I’m not totally consistent! But I would say the main method is this correcting, and therefore I could be translating that into what I’ve described in photography as a form of correcting, that is: photographing, having that blown up, standing in front of it, or collaging another self-portrait on top of that, photographing that, then standing in front of it, or moving in front of it, therefore drawing in a certain way with my body, and then photographing that. I have started recently to use sandpaper on some of the larger photographs, cutting through the emulsion, and bringing up some red tones that seem to be in the paper, but also I’ve been scratching with a needle and knife and bringing up straight white lines, so I’m sort of drawing on top of them. Then I busted through the paper…
As we will see, Dine applies similar techniques -- of rubbing, scraping, even ripping through a surface -- to paintings as well as photographs. The different grounds and levels of reality Dine sets up in his photographs – the “hall of mirrors” effect – have their parallels in the paintings’ varying densities of grounds and processes.
After immersing himself so intensively in photography over the past eight years, Dine was eager to get back to pure color on canvas. He has long claimed a connection to the European lineage of oil painting, as well as to the more recent American one. Even when he was doing Happenings and putting real tools in his paintings, he stressed no desire for disjuncture from the tradition but rather the fact that he was firmly rooted in it. It is not a surprise, then, to hear him praising one of his elders: “I wanted to do something that was as close to just color as I could, as a relief for myself after so much photography. Since I was a teenager, I’ve been a great fan of Sam Francis. I never saw an abstract painter who was so abstract and not minimal. He was an emotional man, a mystical man. Sam Francis seemed to come out of nowhere, and I always held that idea, but I could never do anything with it.”
Thinking about Francis’ work today, it is tempting to lump him together, or under, other abstract painters of the time. Yet, his early work possesses a certain prescience. Look at Francis’ 1950s paintings, or even earlier ones -- at a painting like UNTITLED, 1947, (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo). Francis would soon move into an all-over patterning of equivalent shapes that added up to large form. In the 1947 painting, though, we see individuated statements in color that could appeal to Dine. Thinking about Francis’ paintings is a way of seeing how Dine’s work continued from abstract painting, and how Dine recognized that continuity, even as he remained adamant about wanting to embrace the objective.
Looking at Dine’s new paintings, that take the popular Valentine heart shape for their motif, one might be excused for thinking he painted them with brushes. Dine soon puts that misconception to rest: “I use everything besides paintbrushes. Many of them are painted with my hands, just straight with my hands. Many of them are painted with grinders.” When asked what kind of grinders, he replies, “Metal grinders, a wire brush that goes around on a very powerful electric grinder.” When met with surprise, Dine leaps up to point out a spot where he actually broke through a canvas and had to patch it from the back, something that happens not infrequently. “I’ll take a wet passage of paint,” he explains, “and put the grinder on it, and paint with the grinder. The grinder makes that effect, and it’s very fresh, I feel. And then I’ll leave it.” Some of these paintings use only oil paints, while others have a mixture of oils and acrylics. “Acrylic reacts to a grinder completely differently, because you’re tearing up plastic, rather than oil paint. Oil paint is like flesh; the other is like manufactured something. I use the grinder with a wire brush on the end, or you have a disk that cuts metal. It builds up with paint, and the more paint it gets on it, the more sensitive the tool is.” The grinder is but one implement Dine uses. He also paints with sticks, sanding blocks, and a large brush designed for making feathered effects in house painting. Typically, Dine allowed the brush to cake with dried paint, attaining effects undreamed of by its manufacturer. As he puts it, “It’s all about getting nuance.”
One of the most significant approaches in this group of paintings involved an increased reliance on the artist’s own hands. More than in any other group of paintings, Dine actually worked the paint on here with the touch of his bare hands. He has observed classical paintings that make use of hand painting, and here availed himself of an approach that must be the most sensual, and perhaps the most visceral, for the painter.
Dine has stated that he did no work of note until the 1970s, an enigmatic comment from someone who achieved a high degree of critical acclaim and institutional support in the 1960s. Thinking about what he actually meant, one can see that there is a progression in Dine’s post-1960s paintings, from the large late-‘70s canvases that expand upon the use of vessels in the still lifes of a painter such as Morandi, through the dark, turbulent paintings of the early 1980s to the dazzlingly full paintings of the late 1980s, where every section of the canvas pulses with imagery of flowers, masks, animal figures, sculptures, and skulls. In one of them, The Anchoress, 1988, a heart looms at the top, between two faces. If one looks at the paintings, instead of just thinking about them, one finds it is true that, while the paintings from the 1960s are exciting and opened up distance between Dine and other painters, so that he could be seen as a distinct phenomenon in the contemporary art of that time, his actual painting technique consisted mainly of laying strokes on top of strokes in a manner not too different from such earlier painterly models as Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell. What was very different, of course, was the context of Dine’s work, the childlike ambience of some of it, and the matter-of-fact joy in everyday life evident in his use of actual, storebought tools attached to his paintings.
In the still-life paintings of the 1970s, however, and in bathrobe paintings such as Painting Around Mount Zion, 1979, Dine began blending tones in a different way, creating atmospheres and depths through paint, instead of indicating them with it. As a result of his study of the old masters, he was able to put in highlights and details with increasing subtlety. It was then that the marriage of classic technique with contemporary subject matter took place -- as much as it ever completely takes place, for Dine is constantly fighting for ways to get around technique, to get away from, while embracing, the classic.
Certain motifs have attracted Dine and become so associated with him as to become almost like trademarks – the bathrobe, the tools, the Venus, Pinocchio, the Raven, and also the heart. Dine has used the heart in his work for years. It is a perfect symbol for him to use. It is empty in a charming way, in that it is something onto which the viewer can project his or her own personality or emotions. It is useful to remind ourselves of some of ways in which Dine has used the heart-shape in the past, in paintings, drawings, collages and prints.
The heart entered Dine’s work early, in the 1960s. One of the first uses came in a series of collage works he did shortly after moving in 1966 to London, where he would live for the next four years. In Thorpe-Le-Soken No. 1 (collage, pencil and watercolor, 30 1/4 x 22 inches), a big red heart hovers above and is connected (or almost connected), by a white strip and white hanging loop of string, to a small picture of a red English double-decker bus below. In 1969, Dine made Five Chicken Wire Hearts (John Peto), a large installation piece that included tree branches, piles of rock salt, a raincoat, electric cords and other objects. It was destroyed at the time as it was so difficult to store. The piece was reconstructed for Dine’s 1999 survey exhibition, covering the years 1959-1969, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The last piece in the exhibition, it packed an emotional punch that had been largely absent from the earlier works.
Hearts began to crop up frequently beginning in 1970. In 1971, in Putney, Vermont, Dine embarked on a series of paintings that was his first to put the heart front and center, as the dominant subject filling a large canvas. Paintings from this series, such as Coming In The Sun, Poulenc, Hit My Summer Hard And Fast, and I’m Painting With My Animals, all 1971,show Dine arriving at a new way of treating the two-dimensionality of the canvas. Whereas earlier he had focused on objects from the visible world, such as ties and bandanas, or made a brilliant foray into word-painting with the two Name paintings he did in London, now he achieved an image at once metaphysical (not part of the visible world) and hotly emotional. The heart would be a mainstay from that point on. One of the 1971 paintings, Poulenc, is square in format, as are the paintings in the current exhibition. In 1971-72, Dine did a group of six foot square heart paintings, establishing the importance for him of the relationship between the heart and the square.
A particular variation on the heart motif began to appear in the early 1990s, when Dine introduced a single staring eye, often with an eyebrow, in the center of a heart. Related to the symbolism of an eye on the palm of a hand to ward off evil, the heart with an eye has proven an enigmatic image. Like the heart itself, it is difficult to pin down to a simple meaning. Unlike the heart, which remains more or less upbeat and open, the eye-in-the-heart harks back to some of Dine’s earliest images, a series of faces from 1959, some of which had their mouths obscured and all of which featured staring eyes. As I once wrote, “The faces are not portraits but symbols for the self. They seem trapped in a kind of mute suffering… their wide eyes stare at the viewer in an unvoiced plea.” The later eyes also project a troublingly unclear message.
One other predecessor to the present series should be mentioned, the triptych called The Summer of 1990, in which three Dine trademarks – a Venus, a heart, and a bathrobe – are all painted in furious throes of passionate red, along with upkey yellow and blue. Unlike many other Dine hearts, which may have illusionistic, curving surfaces to them, or are distinguished from their backgrounds simply by their color, the heart in this triptych, as in the current heart paintings, is indicated by a black outline. This creates a different effect, in which the distinction between figure and ground is diminished, and the heart merges more into an all-over paint treatment, where similar activities can occur inside and outside the heart line.
When asked about the heart imagery, and why he continues to return to it, Dine gives a hint of the affective component to the symbol: “I’m of the opinion that, if I’ve got something that’s mine, I never want to throw it away. I wouldn’t want to waste it like that. It was too hard coming. That’s why I used it.” In the new paintings, Dine’s roots in 1950s expressionism are evident, and also his ability to convey emotion through paint: “I’m an expressive painter, and I would call myself a ‘Maximalist’ and also a very Romantic painter, so there is that. There’s a lot of emotion.”
While there is a serial aspect to the format of the paintings, each piece presents a unique take on the situation. Dine approached each differently. He did not even have a set way of beginning: sometimes he would draw the heart in charcoal first, sometimes add it after painting some of the color, and sometimes he would do the texturing and drawing simultaneously: “I’ll put a ground down and start with a very floppy idea of the heart, and then I’ll keep using drawing to sharpen it, and then get the color to come in that way.”
Turning to the paintings themselves, some have their genesis in Dine’s relationship with his garden. In Memory Of Betty Pryor refers to a rose bush that died. The scraping, or perhaps grinding, of the bright colors gives a dotted effect. There is movement in the painting but not gesture exactly; paint functions as something else, as filling of space, which equals depth of color. Delphinium Nights, by contrast, has a dark palette, and the activity of the strokes almost submerges the heart, but not quite. A cascading of discrete areas creates a feeling of tumult. The sweeps of the heart curve, and paint crosses over the charcoal. White splatters over dark -- a city street? Mister Hollyhock returns to the bright: deeper, richer, redder. It is the heart passion of summer, of slumber, of jazz. This one you can actually disappear into, forget yourself. Distant-seeming details are forested by green spatter – the flow of paint is spreading.
Great Maiden’s Blush and The Peony Called Blue Jewel reference names of tree peonies at Dine’s property in Connecticut. The former has a slightly muted admixture to its bright lavender, crimson and magenta palette. Its heart shape is one of the most clearly defined. One senses the rush of the season, lush breath of green; one becomes aware of smaller and smaller marks, like barks sailing through a vast expanse of time. History has become friendly for once: we’re all human, love, have friends, die. The Peony Called Blue Jewel seems 1950s – emotionally, not stylistically – in the intensity of the yellow, orange, and red at the lower left of the canvas and the flatness of the orange paint. It is not impasto, which is elsewhere. The painting is an interleaving of thick and thin, a symbiosis; open areas are like views through to sky and beach. There is some cresting of paint on the heart curve; at the bottom of the heart, a feathering of green.
The three most recent paintings were done in Walla Walla in August, a month when the intense light there forces certain approaches to the use of color as paint. The Walla Walla paintings have drier surfaces than the others. The passage at the lower left of And The Lightning Bugs is reminiscent of some of Dine’s paintings from the late 1980s, because of its darkness and the way the dark is used with the colors. A dry desert night is here, a cakedness in the surface of plant or heart or earth or hearth. All three Walla Walla paintings were done on raw canvas, grounded with black gesso, mixed with sand. “When the sand dries,” Dine explains, “it makes a flatness, but it also gives this texture and surface that then you can lay paint across, and it picks it up very subtly. I wanted to mix black with the color and see what would happen.” The Thrill Of August is black handwriting over blurred reality; the dotting and curved surety of the (my) heart. My Left Hand And Me is a phenomenal painting -- dusted pink that is like a wall or desert floor, infinite shadings of depth, fractured specificity. The artist’s hands in black smudge, smearing, swearing pledge of my heart to it. A sense of calm.
Jim Dine has been perceived to be a hot artist; he calls himself a passionate, Romantic artist. How are we then to reconcile the fact that we often feel calm in the presence of Dine’s work? It seems to me it has something to do with an observation made by Herbert Read, namely that we experience in art not exactly the same emotion the artist experienced but rather an understanding of that emotion. We can never really feel anyone else’s pain (or joy), though we can certainly be there for someone. The calm that much of Dine’s work engenders in the viewer comes from the knowledge that a real person was there and felt and thought individually, in circumstances that apply to many of us.
In 1967, for the catalogue to an exhibition of the work of Dine, Claes Oldenburg, and George Segal at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, which traveled to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, the critic Alan R. Solomon contributed an essay entitled “Jim Dine: hot painter in a cool time.” At one point in the essay, Solomon writes, “…[Dine’s] art is really about wanting to shake us up and make us share his intense involvement and his commitment and his excitement in the marginal realm of feeling where the deepest echoes resound to all that half-felt half-known heightened reality where joy reigns and frustration and repression give way.” Baudelaireian rhetoric aside, Solomon does hit on an important aspect of Dine’s work – one that links it to poets with whom he collaborated, as well as to some of the sophisticated popular music of the time (Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Beatles) – namely, that Dine is capable of pursuing joy, where others would simply deny its existence. Despite the trials and tribulations he has gone through, his enthusiasm for life, for the current moment, is always palpable.
There is a sexiness to much of Dine’s work, more in the attitude than in any explicit subject matter, although the artist points out the erotic qualities in the forms of the heart, as he paints it: “As a kid I liked Valentine’s Day, not because I was in love, necessarily, but because I liked the redness of it. It’s everything, really, a vagina, an ass: it’s pretty basic stuff, this cleaved, full object.”
There is another way in which Dine’s work is erotic, and that is in the physical relationship of the artist to his paint. This is especially evident in the paintings in the present exhibition. Lynne Cooke, in an essay on Willem de Kooning’s 1960s paintings, specifies the erotic component of paint in de Kooning’s paintings of women. Much of what she writes could be applied to Dine’s new heart paintings:
…de Kooning concentrated on the body as fleshy matter. Moreover, he loaded the means – that is, not just the imagery and form but the process and pigment – with metaphorical meaning: in place of an overlay of associative imagery, the means themselves become the chief connotative vehicle. Physical matter as apprehended through touch rather than as defined exclusively by sight is called upon to imitate sensuously aroused, sexually available flesh… An extraordinarily powerful suggestion of moving flesh, which responds to the brush stroke as if to the touch of a caressing hand, is conjured to convey the impression that the whole body is aroused, as if feeling were now the source of information, as if the artist were now handling instead of simply seeing the form over which his arm tracks.
The erotic has played a part in his work throughout Dine’s career, for example in two paintings from 1971, Hit My Summer Hard And Fast and Coming In The Sun. Not only the titles, but the ejaculatory application of the paint in these works gives evidence of sexual inspirations behind the paintings. The first, in addition to a large stick and hammer affixed to its middle, where the globes of the heart meet, has a passage of intense dripping on its right, while the second depends on masses of splattered paint.
In one sense, Dine gets closer than many other painters to the situation described by Cooke; that is, in his use of hand-painting. By removing any object between himself and the painting, he can give himself over to a primal, caressing experience. The painting is suggestive of bodily fluids and also birth and death, and perhaps, in conjunction with the erotic, of the child-mind state of a completely eroticized being. Cooke refers to Norman O. Brown’s book Life Against Death, which, she writes, “argued that the core of human neuroses lay in mankind’s inability to live in the body, that is, to be sexual and to accept death.”
Dine has said that all his work is autobiography, and much of it is rooted in the experiences of his early childhood. As he told his dealer Robert Fraser in a 1966 interview, shortly after he moved to London, “I do deal exclusively (because I can’t help it) with my sub-consciousness and the references I saw as a child and the things I have accumulated in the back of my head.” There were traumas – the death of his mother when he was 12 and his father’s subsequent decision that Jim should go live with his grandparents. Dine has spoken bluntly of those times: “…when I lost [my mother], and was left with a parent who didn’t even care about me, I was like…shit. Like nothing. I was nothing in this world. Art saved me.”
So you see how remarkable – and real – it is for someone to feel those things and come up with such a desire for life, and to transmit it to and through his work. It takes belief in the possibility of transformation, in the possibility of joy, otherwise known as optimism. Nicolas Calas, the Greek-born champion of Surrealism and of American art of the 1960s, wrote perceptively of Dine’s work in 1962. He could see the tradition breaking through Dine’s contemporaneity. He also saw something of what Dine calls the alchemy in his work. Calas wrote, “…abstract art banned imitation, fearful lest the artist be confused with the magician. But the iconoclasts forget that images can no more be confined to mirrors and shadows, than feathers to birds and leaves to trees. May the day never dawn when painters are deprived of the magic power to rob reality!” Calas was only stating what today we take for granted, though at the time it was still controversial: that art will never be shackled by an dogma, no matter how seductive. But Calas cut to a deeper issue in his concluding assessment: “Jim Dine’s understanding of tools is entirely personal. He is a sensitive and impassioned observer. His view, it would seem to me, is reconditioned by those hours of the night when sleep has been interrupted and the censoring of the unconscious has not yet asserted itself. He is a poet.”
The paintings in the current exhibition are so much about painting, and they produce a tension between a pure joy in the physicality of paint and the simple presence of a drawn heart. There is something innocent about Dine’s work. He is able to make work that is direct, without the insecure artist’s overload of philosophy or theory. Thinking of the “hot artist in a cool time,” the 1960s, I wonder how he views the present moment, whether he thinks it is a hotter time and whether that affects his work. “For me it’s a much hotter time,” he answers. “I don’t know how other old people feel, but for me, it’s hotting up. It really is. There are so many complications with age, because, I believe, one has experienced more and sees the layers in human relationships, and the world, and it’s a crappy time for that anyway. The world sucks right now!”
Even though the world does suck, there are things we can do, and for an artist one of them is doing his work. In addition, the optimist needs to look at people and things clearly, to know that life is not all suffering. This exhibition is not a summation, but rather another step in the work of an extremely active artist. The energy with which Dine is able to produce so much good work keeps the individual pieces fresh, each one part of a continually reaching evolution.
All quotations of Jim Dine, unless otherwise indicated, are from interviews with the author in October of 2003 and January of 2004.
In conversation with Marco Livingstone, 22 and 23 July 1986, quoted in Jim Dine: Rise Up, Solitude! Prints 1985-86 (London: Waddington Graphics, 1986), pp. 18-20.
Vincent Katz, “Symbols for the Self,” Art in America, December, 1999, p. 101, an
article based on Dine’s Guggenheim exhibition Walking Memory 1959-1969.
Herbert Read, The Meaning of Art (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1949; first published 1931), pp. 195-6. Read writes, “The real function of art is to express feeling and to transmit understanding. We come to a work of art already charged with emotional complexes; we find in the genuine work of art, not an excitation of these emotions, but peace, repose, equanimity.”
Alan R. Solomon, “Jim Dine: hot painter in a cool time,” in Dine Oldenburg Segal: Painting/Sculpture (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1967), unpaginated.
Jim Dine, quoted in Graham W. J. Beal, Jim Dine: Five Themes (New York: Abbeville Press, and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1984), p. 36.
Lynne Cooke “De Kooning and the Pastoral: The Interrupted Idyll,” published in Willem de Kooning From the Hirshorn Museum Collection
(New York: Rizzoli International Publications, in association with the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 1993), pp. 102-3.
Jim Dine in Robert Fraser, “Dining with Jim,” in ART AND ARTISTS, September, 1966, p. 51.
Jim Dine in an interview with Marco Livingstone, 1 December 1995, quoted in Jim Dine: The Alchemy of Images (New York: Monacelli Press, 1998) p. 21.
Nicolas Calas “Jim Dine: Tools and Myth” in METRO 7, 1962, p. 76-7.