We Love Jim Dine

Blog by Dave Dorsey

It'll be Valentine's Day soon, and so our thoughts turn to Jim Dine. OK, well, maybe not our thoughts, but mine, anyway. (I'm already covered, on behalf of my wife, for the greeting card holiday). Dine's heart imagery became an icon of 20th century art, like Robert Indiana's Love, and it still exerts a powerful influence over anyone who gazes for more than five seconds at one of his heart prints or paintings.

Why his work has such depth, resonance, and subtle emotional power remains a bit of a mystery, in a good way: it's the mystery at the heart, so to speak, of all great art. Dine emerged as one of the originators of "happenings". Remember those? They were the mother of performance art and the ancient ancestor of flash mobs. The first of his happenings took place more than half a century ago, in 1959. He quickly reverted to the much older tradition of oil painting and print making, adopting mundane everyday objects as his subject, in the spirit of his friends Claes Oldenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. Yet his work had a far more resonant sense of passion than the work of most others on the Pop scene thanks to his handling of paint and his sense that art is first and foremost a physical and emotional commitment to beauty, not a cool, flat rendering of an already familiar image. Back in the Sixties, his inclusion in a Los Angeles exhibition—New Paintings of Common Objects—that helped launaunch the careers of Ed Ruscha and Wayne Thiebaud, and included new work from Warhol and Lichtenstein, was only one among a series of wunderkind successes he enjoyed directly after graduating from Ohio University in 1957. (He was included in the Venice Biennale in 1964).


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What makes Dine one of the greatest artists to emerge from the Pop era, and one of the American greats, is the way he immediately began to move beyond Pop, while retaining all of its most wonderful earmarks: the humble appropriation of popular, accessible subjects, and the unassuming and endearingly colorful presentation of something as common as a carpenter's tool. He went beyond the big figures of his day, not in the radical purity of his allegiance to the neo-Dada Pop ethos—aas in Warhol's case—but in the way he enriched the movement's pictorial traits. His work has a lyrical beauty, a musical sense of color, and a physicality that make it nearly immune to analysis and incredibly generous in the joy it offers to anyone who stands before it. Like Rauschenberg and Johns, he merged Pop with expressionist practices in his gestural sense of paint. Look at some of his heart paintings, up close, and the gritty scumbled surface will remind you of both Braque or some kind of color-besotted Tonalist. Through those surfaces, he conveys something more fundamental than thought—how the human body moves when it's driven by the heart, not the head. Even early in his career, he depicted his beloved tools: a wrench, a hammer, you name it, the most commonplace, sculpturally ergonomic objects you yourself can own by dropping a few bucks at Home Depot. In a symposium at the Tamarind Institute last summer, he said that whenever he came into a little money as a young man, he always wanted to take it to the hardware store. He wanted to get his grip around a beautiful home builder's tool. He wanted to connect with his body and the world by building something, and so in these tools he saw the same kind of beauty that he would later see in the Venus de Milo. Which goes a long way to explain why he couldn't be simply an abstract artist, but needed to make his eye and hand engage with and evoke a recognizable image of something in the world. As he put it once: "I always need to find some theme, some tangible subject matter beside the paint itself. Otherwise I would have been an abstract artist. I need that hook . . . something to hang my landscape on".

For him, art-making is an emotionally committed way of wrestling with the physical world, and this tough, ancient stance toward life grounds the incredibly subtle, evanescent beauty of the emotions expressed through his color. He is unequivocally passionate in his love of what he represents. There's no postmodern distance from the act of depiction here. Granted, his hearts are a cartoon shorthand, an abstraction, of the knotty, lumpy muscle of an actual heart, but they look as if they pulse with life and Dine's love of color—a wonderful merger of abstraction and reprresentation. Each one is a brilliant and infinitely subtle personalization of one of the world's most hackneyed doodles. All of which is to say something quite simple: Dine's hearts, and the love that drove him to make them, are considerably more "forever" than diamonds.

Blog by Dave Dorsey

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