Sunday, October 24, 1999

The object is the art

For Jim Dine, real things make his work; his work doesn't make things real

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jim Dine and two 1962 pieces entitled "A Black on White Tie" and "A White on Black Tie."
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        The green suit has been in Cincinnati before. Maybe Jim Dine wore it here before he left in 1953 or perhaps when he came back to visit. The coat slathered with green paint, trousers slashed with a knife in 1959, “Green Suit” appeared in his first exhibition, Dine/Kitaj, at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1973. Now it is the earliest work in Jim Dine: Walking Memory, 1959-1969, opening today at the museum.

        It's been 40 years since Mr. Dine converted the worn-out corduroy suit into fine art. But as he looks at it at the museum, he's still pondering its meaning.

        It's important to him that it is not a picture of a suit. It's a garment that he wore and wore out. Having lost its first use, it became, with alterations, a work of art. But it remained a suit.

Dine is still pondering the meaning of "Green Suit."
(CAM photo)
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        “Maybe, in the next century, it will not be so important to have the physical object,” Mr. Dine says, but “from where I sit it would be a shame if it were not a physical object. A CD-ROM is not going to give me that much pleasure.”

        There is the key to enjoying the eccentric art of Jim Dine, world class artist with roots in Cincinnati. Each work is a physical object. Not a picture. Not an icon. Not a symbol or a message.

        When the “Green Suit” was shown in 1973, Cincinnatians may have interpreted it as an angry rejection of their city and all it stood for. Mr. Dine was, or was reputed to be, an angry young man fleeing a troubled youth to become one of a famed band of artists about to throw the New York art world for a loop.

        Mellowed at 64, he's amused his former reputation.

        “I left here when I was 18. I left here because I wanted to paint and I didn't feel that this was a place where I could paint. There was nothing terrible about Cincinnati. My young life growing up here certainly made me, as everyone's childhood does.”

Love of physical objects
        Born in 1935, Mr. Dine attended Walnut Hills High School and took art classes at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He started college at the University of Cincinnati's Applied Arts College, but transferred to Ohio University at Athens within a few months.

This sheet-iron and straw piece, "Nancy and I at Ithaca (Straw Heart)," is more than 5 feet high.
(CAM photo)
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        He has fond memories of the art museum — especially of Frank Duveneck's paintings. But the most important thing he took with him was his love of the physical object.

        That came, not from art training, but from working in his father's and grandfather's hardware stores in Cincinnati and Covington. That's why his art often includes hammers, axes and bathroom cabinets.

        He sculpts with chicken wire and straw and makes large paintings that are nothing more than enlarged color charts from the house paint department.

        Mr. Dine arrived in Cincinnati two weeks before the exhibition opening to supervise the hanging of the show. Making art is his life,and he wants to be involved in every aspect of it.

        “Of course, I wouldn't have it any other way,” he says. He wants to be sure that the right works are shown next to the right works.

        The exhibition is large, filling both temporary exhibition galleries. Yet it is half the size of the Dine show that spiraled along the ramps of New York's Guggenheim Museum last winter. Large as that was, it covered only the first decade of the artist's 40-year (so far) career.

        “We've (Mr. Dine and the Guggenheim) been talking about this exhibition for about 15 years,” Mr. Dine says. It was planned to cover his entire career, but he kept adding more and more works. Now he'll need at least three more exhibitions just to bring his story up to date.

        “At 64, I hope I have a long way to go,” he says.

"I see a sequence'
        Calm and relaxed today, he enjoys looking back at art from his early years when he was “everybody's nightmare.”

        “These are things that I certainly remember making,” he says. “It is interesting to see it all again, to see who I was then. I see a sequence. One (work) informed the other most of the time. And it's good to see that they're in good shape. Most of the time I painted with ordinary house paint, but it's held up.”

        How do these works of art look to others, who may be seeing them for the first time? Are they products of the turbulent '60s, dated and showing their age? Are they too confusing and unconventional? Will they befuddle a Cincinnati audience?

        “I haven't any idea,” he says. “They look fresh to me, and the young people in New York — young artists — seemed to respond to them. I'm just interested that I was the person who did them at that time.”

        As for confusing a museum audience, he says, “the battle's already been fought. I can't be worried if it doesn't go over now. If I confused people, I wasn't doing it on purpose.”

        For the artist, the idea behind the art is simple: “Keep working. There is no greater thing you can do than work with your hands,” Mr. Dine says. “That's what I do. That's all I can do. That's what I will always do.”

Seeking something different
        Jim Dine went to New York to paint at a time when the idols of the moment were the Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.

        “I am a student and child of Abstract Expressionism,” he says in an interview in the exhibition catalog. “I learned to paint by looking at those paintings.”

        But to become an important artist, he had to find a way to make art that was entirely different from Abstract Expressionism, something never done before.

        The answer came when he saw the Abstract Expressionists as “landscape painters” who created visionary windows.

        The opposite of the landscape is a portrait, so Mr. Dine painted portraits, symbolically, by building his paintings around whatever physical objects surrounded him at the moment.

        That's why most Jackson Pollock paintings are horizontal and most Dine works are vertical. Pollock paintings are fields; Dine's are objects.

        “I carry my landscape on my back,” he says, describing his work as “Romantic Expressionist.”

        There is a series of bathroom walls, each with a real bathroom mirror. Another series is based on color charts. One, Red Devil Color Chart #2, includes the chart superimposed with a painter's palette, with real paint stirrers attached.

        Search for symbolism or seek deeper meaning, and you may have looked too far. Look at the beauty that surrounds us, here and now.

        A hammer “has been refined to be an extension of one's hand over the centuries in a process of evolution,” Mr. Dine says in the revealing catalog interview. “And it can inspire you that way. It has all this history.”

        There is a series of black paintings that seem mysterious. What is the reason for painting a giant black tie on a black background? Mr. Dine's explanation: “The art store around the corner was selling some strange black oil paint that came in cans, which I had never seen before.

        “And,” he adds, “there is something interesting about making a black painting.”

Art isn't a puzzle
        We tend to be impressed by art that suggests multiple layers of meaning and message, and disappointed if there is no puzzle to solve. With Mr. Dine's art, suspend the search, relax and take what you see as what it is: a physical object. It's a relief to discover that you can get the point.

        Kept free of too much implication, the works invite viewers to invent or interpret for themselves. The Green Suit may suggest a Halloween costume for someone who wants to dress like Frankenstein. Or perhaps men in dress suits become corporate Frankensteins.

        The empty bathrobes, inspired by a magazine advertisement, are portraits of the artist as a kind of invisible man, secret or empty under layers of culture and behavior.

        “Child's Blue Wall” (oil on canvas), a 1962 square of small white stars on a baby blue background, with a light switch, painted wooden shelf and lamp with functioning light bulb, certainly pulls many viewers into thoughts of their childhood or their children. A simple visual poem.

        “A Nice Pair of Boots,” cast from real boots in bronze and spray-painted with aluminum and red paint, has a close resemblance to a famous painting of boots by American realist Andrew Wyeth.

        One large canvas is nothing but names, every name of every person the artist knew. There are names of relatives and friends, artists, art dealers, writers and poets. You can stand in front of it and be surrounded by a sea of names. It's a sea that seems to be three-dimensional, and makes you wonder what your own field of names would look like.

        Each work of art is a physical object that captures a frozen moment, a portrait of the artist at a given time, a slice of a broader autobiography.

Dine art adorns Cincinnati homes
Dine Exhibit schedule

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