New York

Jim Dine

PaceWildenstein 22

Although the title of Jim Dine’s recent show, “Some Greeks, Some Romans,” refers straightforwardly enough to the classical sculptures that are the objects of study in this suite of 150 works on paper, the subtitle, “A Drawing,” implies a stronger claim to significance than the literally more correct plural would have. Dine invites us to see everything here as an entity, and not merely as a collection—an invitation easy enough to accept, since these fiercely worked, sometimes richly chromatic sheets contain so little of the sketchy or the simply notational and seem pervaded by a single effort of will. Always retaining the original size A4 format of the notebook with which he started, as he tells us, in the Glyptothek in Munich, many have been constructed from collaged pieces of variously textured paper, and the pinholes in their upper corners suggest they were worked on the wall, like paintings. Still, something of the idea of the sketch, and of the stance of the student, remains, if only in the spiral-pad perforations that run along the top of each page—enough to establish these works as a sort of novel, a fiction of the artist’s sketchbook, comparable to the more familiar case of novels masquerading as writers’ diaries (e.g., Rilke and Malte Laurids Brigge). Dine’s use of a surprising variety of materials, from traditional charcoal to such oddities as diet cola, crushed cherries, Rustoleum, tea, and saliva, manages to suggest both improvisation and obsession.

In an introductory note to the catalogue accompanying the show, Dine speaks of anger as being one of the “mediums” for his work, a comment that reminded me of how a veteran of the Happenings era once said that only Dine’s really fit Susan Sontag’s description of Happenings as aggressive toward their audience (others being, in his recollection, rather sweet and playful in character). Certainly Dine does not approach antiquity in an easygoing or nostalgic mood. While he has re-created these faces with a degree of attention that can only be called devout, such devotion contains the fury one reserves for a parent who never gave enough, or gave only the wrong things at the wrong time. The very authority of these faces is daunting, whether manifested in the work as dignified, desolate, angry, serene, or fear-inspiring. Dine claims this authority for his own art even as he labors to erode it. It’s clear he identifies his own effort as much with that of distortion and destruction as with observation or creation—that he identifies, in short, with that all-devouring time separating us and the art of the past, and which here appears as much in the subjective, chromatic atmosphere that envelops and obscures the monochromy of the statues as in the literal physical damage they have suffered. Look, for instance, on the effort Dine expends in rendering the smashed noses so typical of these heads. It seems as though he’s attacked the paper with a vengeance at just those spots, as though he’d had to build those noses up in imagination in order to have the satisfaction of grinding them down again with luxuriant brutality.

“When I look at antiquity,” Aristide Maillol once exclaimed, “it always seems to me that it must be very easy to make sculpture. But when I look at modern sculpture, it seems complicated, difficult.” Far greater today than in Maillol’s time, there is a patent absurdity, a lack of credibility, to the desire to cleave to some remnant of the classical tradition. This self-conscious folly constitutes its resemblance to or exemplification of the very desire to make art at all, a desire whose ambition is always measured against a felt impossibility. These stunning drawings tell us something about why Dine’s efforts to make sculpture in the classical tradition have been so unsuccessful (in the process making those failed sculptures rather more interesting). Dine is one of the most accomplished draftsmen around, and yet the emotional struggle involved in his efforts at rendering classical statuary so clearly emerges from a technical struggle—a struggle more vividly engaged here than in any of his own sculpture.

Barry Schwabsky