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Artist Jim Dine Finds the Personal In the Popular


by Jean E. Feinberg

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Abbeville Press

127 pp., $35

Artists - particularly 20th century ones - often mark out territory.

They make some image, theme, subject, or format almost exclusively their own. They then - if they are inventive - explore its potential exhaustively, perhaps bringing to it different techniques, styles, scale, or mood. And the more they use it, the more indelibly it seems to become theirs.

It isn't that they post a notice to other artists that says "Keep Off"; but only someone who has a satirical intent, or some other undermining rationale, would want to purloin what is signaled as a different artist's property. Individuality of language and image has frequently taken on such a degree of importance to artists in this century that there is a kind of unspoken respect for the territory of others. You don't paint Campbell's soup cans because, after all, you don't want to be mistaken for Andy Warhol. You probably avoid soft-edged horizontal bands of color: You do not want to be thought to be aping Mark Rothko.

And hearts and bathrobes are probably also out of bounds, because for over 30 years Jim Dine has kept on returning to these metaphorical images and investing them with his individual vision.

This American artist has unquestionably made certain things "his own." Throughout his career he has returned to his preoccupation with hearts and bathrobes (even though there have been some long gaps). He has also made many works out of tools of all kinds, including the typical artist's palette. He has brought to each of these familiar, indeed instantly recognizable forms a persistent variety of approach. They are to him, perhaps, what a sonnet is to a poet, or a sonata to a composer: Their shape and form are set and have their own resonance. The artist can then work with this "given" and concentrate on the expressive possibilities of the way in which he treats it, be it as painting, drawing, sculpture, etching, or whatever.

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Dine (referring to the hearts he painted in the early 1980s) observed: "I've tried to depict ... years of joy and pain. In painting, I would not care to 'illustrate' these emotions. I would rather keep looking very hard and see if the paint itself can do the job. Actually I know it can."

This is quoted in a new book about Dine by Jean E. Feinberg. "Jim Dine" is an admirable presentation of the artist: straightforward, wondrously free of theory and speculation, a good basic introduction. It proceeds chronologically, and in doing so demonstrates the breadth of technique and image of Dine's work, and also shows how his attitude to art has altered radically over the years.

He was initially identified as one of the stars of the Pop Art phenomenon in the 1960s, and his exuberant work (which included "happenings" - entertainments combining elements of theater, music, and visual arts), whether Pop was an apt label for it or not, was part of the youthful ferment of that time. It was then that he made his name.

Dine himself has always felt at odds with the "manufactured images" of Pop Art, however, with their fascination for commercial images and techniques. In comparison, he felt that his work had a "homemade look."

And in the event, he has turned from Pop Art to what sometimes looks like a very conventional, almost academic stance as an artist who admires and is challenged by the art of the past and is in love with the very act of painting and drawing to a degree that Warhol or Tom Wesselmann or Roy Lichtenstein were not.

Dine's closer peers in the 60's were artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Claes Oldenburg (a point that Feinberg might have discussed further, since there certainly are crosscurrents and influences here). Their work, for all its rebelliousness, was no more of a custard pie in the face of the Abstract Expressionists than Dine's.

They did look to the example of Marcel Duchamp and made familiar objects figure in their work (for example, Dine's lawn mower) in a manner the Abstract Expressionist painters would not have countenanced.

But it is probably true that the indignation of the Abstract Expressionists toward the Pop fraternity was far more vigorous than the Pop people's apparent rejection of them.

Even as early as 1963, Dine himself said: "I don't believe there was a sharp break and this [Pop Art] is replacing Abstract-Expressionism. Pop art is only one facet of my work. More than popular images I'm interested in personal images.... I tie myself to Abstract-Expressionism like fathers and sons.''

Even if the bathrobe is a distinctly personal image (to the extent that he has sometimes called it a "self-portrait'' and depicted it as though he were somehow invisibly inside it), still the heart shape Dine has exploited so many times, each time differently, is without doubt a popular image (and he has effectively added to its popularity).

What is extraordinary is that he has treated it not as a dead cliche, but as an image capable of new, feeling-laden life.

And while exercising his prerogative as a 20th-century artist to make popular images his own personal territory, he has also - as he has with a wide variety of other commonplace images from trees to gates to all sorts of tools to the Venus de Milo - illustrated the obverse: that images actually belong to everyone.

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