New York

Jim Dine

Sonnabend Gallery

Jim Dine’s work once seemed to lie somewhere between the constellations of Johns-Rauschenberg and Pop art. His persistent use of objects in, or dangling from paintings put him on the side of Johns and Rauschenberg, while his subject matter, such as neckties, shoes, toothbrushes, and red bandanas, often brought him closer to Pop imagery. This is not to establish Johns-Rauschenberg and Pop art as opposing poles, but only to establish Dine’s work as generally existing between two major forces. Dine’s earlier work is probably closest to Oldenburg. Their work shares almost no common physical characteristics or devices, but there is a sense of shared whimsical, comic playfulness between them. But that was in the early ’60s. Dine’s work isn’t between or particularly like anyone else’s now, but shares only what seems to me a desperation common to the work of many prominent ’60s artists, which amounts to a repetition of previously successful formulas.

The 13 paintings and 52 drawings in Dine’s show at Sonnabend were all done in 1972–73. The paintings aren’t necessarily like Dine’s early work, but they aren’t really unlike it either. Essentially the paintings are canvases painted in various abstract styles, with rows of tools hanging at regular, grid-like intervals. Generally, the tools seem simply irrelevant. So do the painted surfaces from which they hang. This, of course, leads directly to the question: Irrelevant to what? The notion of irrelevance, as I have formed it, is ridiculous, but the point is that what may once have seemed charming and full of wit now seems formularized and pointless. In The French Letter, the painting, looking like a Monet “Water Lily” painting, rests on the floor and leans against a wall; tools in turn lean against the painting. A two-man saw propped against the middle of the painting is partially painted to blend in with the rest of the painting. But however much the tools form an intrusion of the physical world into a Monet-like painting, and however much they establish the physicality of the painting and its surface in conflict with the illusion of the depiction, this kind of accomplishment by this method seems rather empty in 1973.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the paintings is the regular rows of hanging tools from which several tools are missing. The places for the tools are established, and, in a sense, a place is held for a tool that isn’t there. As there are a finite number of tools on a painting, there are lots of spaces on the surface where there are no tools, and no indication that there should be. We miss a tool when a place held for a tool is empty, but there is no sense of a tool’s being missing from all the areas of the paintings where we don’t sense a tool belongs. “Tool” is a pretty broad class of things. To say “a tool is missing” is, thus, not to have any clear idea of what it is that is missing. The sensing of a tool’s being missing is a product of having been conditioned by the painting.

52 Drawings for Cy Twombly is a set of attractive drawings of small tools, such as a toothbrush, varieties of wrenches, pliers, clamps, and a potato peeler. The drawings are uniformly 8” X 10”, supposedly done one a week for a year, are precisely drawn, shaded, and smudged, in a style characteristic of Dine’s earlier drawings and graphics.

Bruce Boice