Cincinnati

Jim Dine

Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

It was high time for the return of the prodigal son. Cincinnati is celebrating its bicentennial anniversary, and the most prominent artist the city ever produced had never had a major solo show here. Jim Dine’s tall bronze Cincinnati Venus, 1988, was being installed in a public square, and he was willing to lend a number of drawings from his own collection that had never been exhibited before. Curator Sarah Rogers-Lafferty selected 78 mixed-media drawings from the most profoundly productive period of the artist’s career, in the medium that by his own admission is “the backbone” of all of his art. This is not so much a show about Dine as a show about drawing, and not so much drawing as image making, the process by which an artist translates his experience into tangible form.

This traveling exhibition begins with several pencil drawings featuring a row of tools—hammers, palette knives, screwdrivers, and the like. These realistically rendered images share the page with elements of collage, shadings and smudgings, and delicate yet brisk strokes that disappear above into the field of empty space on which they seem to float. These date from the year 1973, after the artist left New York, settled in Vermont, and began to draw, almost academically, “out of desperation. . . to find a way for myself.”

Soon, however, new types of subject matter and a dazzling array of technical skills entered his repertoire, and Dine’s imagery and means of expression became intertwined. In 1975, there appeared a psychologically naked, chalky, sculpturesque Self Portrait in charcoal, graphite, shellac, and pastel on orange paper; and two years later, in the nine very different precise, penetrating, graphite Nine Self Portraits (With a Very Long Beard), Dine’s eyes squint and peer and scan and gaze into those of the viewer, just as they did into his own eyes as he struggled to capture his own image.

The show also contains figure studies and portraits (sometimes the two are indistinguishable) of the artist’s wife Nancy; his neighbor in Vermont, Jessie; and other people he knows (no neutral artist’s models). Although the process of drawing is always the real subject, and every mark, erasure, smudge, and realignment is emphasized, Dine’s approach to the sitter in these mid-career drawings is personal, specific, and emotionally charged—the very opposite of the vague, metaphorical, emotionally distant character of his early work. And his more recent drawings, say from 1979 on, continue to call into question Dine’s relationship to the mechanical, deadpan, commercial images of artists with whom he has been associated: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, and James Rosenquist. The show makes it clear that Dine’s work was not only always more draftsmanlike, expressionistic, and autobiographical than that of these colleagues; even his still lifes (which here include potted plants, flowers, shells, skulls, and hands) display these qualities of personality and sheer technical virtuosity. His renderings of historic works of art, which incorporate a variety of textural, factured, loosely drawn gestures, bring to mind Willem de Kooning (both his early drawings and mid-career paintings), Ingres, Andrew Wyeth (pregnant voids), Picasso, and a host of early-20th-century and recent Expressionists. For one thing that Dine’s early works and recent drawings share is an ambiguous relationship to Modernism. Dine has always felt tremendous pressure to be original, innovative, modern. In the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, he took his action to the streets (in Happenings), presented representational images in a cool, ironic way, and carved a niche for himself in the Pop movement with his freestyle drawing and personal symbols—the hearts, bathrobes, toys, and tools. He hesitated to draw from the figure until he was securely established and out of the avant-garde limelight. Ironically, by the time he adopted time-honored techniques and adapted motifs from the history of art, eclecticism and appropriation had become radical chic. But Dine’s drawings of the ’80s have little in common with the works of artists who have emerged during the last decade. They are both more traditional and more unique. His Drawing from van Gogh IX, 1983, with its drips, splashes, and arm-length strokes, is more painterly than the drawings it refers to, more draftsmanly than van Gogh’s paintings, bigger than either, and is tortured in a different way. Dine records the agonizing process of coming to terms with van Gogh’s work in his own way. The Roman, Greek, and Egyptian figures recalled in The Mead of Poetry, 1985, and Three Scenes from the Mead of Poetry, Venice, 1987, are similarly transformed: combined with skulls and self-portraits, created and recreated with strokes, swabs, slashes, and delineations of enamel, acrylic, charcoal, and shellac.

Dine is least convincing when drawing abstract symbols from his mind’s eye, as in the amorphous, symmetrical Atheism compositions of 1986 and 1987. And he’s at his best when working with multiple images or condensing multiple views. When he is struggling to depict something real, he speaks with more clarity and vigor. One line eradicates another. Marks strike out boldly. Brushstrokes obliterate smudges. Even erasures assert themselves as part of Dine’s action-packed battle to define, refine, invigorate, regenerate, and to record that drama on paper. He forgets about his place in history and tells us—through teaching his eyes “to be ruthless and kind”—what it is to be an artist.

Jayne Merkel