New York

“Jim Dine: Walking Memory, 1959-1969"

Many artworks were noisy in the ’60s—much clanking and buzzing in the galleries. Most of them are now silent. More memorable is a nonsound, the implied thud of ax into wood in several of Jim Dine’s dangerous-looking artworks. That echo has relayed itself to my ear over three decades, and I brought it back with me to “Jim Dine: Walking Memory, 1959–1969” at the Guggenheim.

Yes, there the hatchets were, whacked into the wood with a vigor that told you then, and tells you more emphatically now, that Dine was never suited (or bathrobed) for classification in the, to my mind, relatively benign Pop-art category. There is, it seems to me, a rage in this exhibition that serves it well—a rage and a sweetness that perform dialectical switches from paralyzed hammers to a children’s room. What makes the work direct and unguarded is the absence of the irony that hedges bets and opens space for commentators to lark around in. Strong feelings still swirl around many of these artworks, forestalling hobbyists of “appropriation” and “objecthood.” Dine’s objects are pedigreed only by his having laid his hands on them in the course of the day, and they have his DNA on them still. It was a time (and those of us who were there will never forget it) when the canvas became a magnetic field to attract objects, on the one hand, and a kind of propulsive regurgitator of objects, on the other (look at the twenty-three feet of galvanized-steel pipe thrown out by Dream #2, 1963, venting fumes from hot art).

You can’t talk about objects in the early ’60s without mentioning Dine (born in 1935) and his older colleagues, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, all rummaging around to see what object could be forced into a shotgun wedding with a canvas. The exact relation of Dine to his two confreres needs clarification. To see his work in the context of theirs is to compromise his originality. Dine’s program then was different, more radical in its way, for in those days he would do anything, as his slightly crazed happenings confirm. Dine’s objects are assertively secular; they could be plucked off the artwork and returned to the store (that is, they are only a step away from utility). There is a blur of hands pulling and squeezing and grasping around Dine’s artworks, along with the implied sounds of hammering, drilling, clanking, swishing, shoveling—sounds sometimes thwarted (The Red Axe, 1965). Dine might agree with Thomas Carlyle’s Prof. Treufelsdröckh (in Sartor Resartus) that “Man is a Tool-using animal . . . of which truth, Clothes are but one example.” Tools, shaped by and for the hand, and clothes, wherein our “whole Self lives, moves, and has its being” (Carlyle), are major players in Dine’s intense commedia dell’arte, which in its wit has something in common with Carlyle’s professor of clothes.

Dine’s painted clothes in this exhibition are missing a body, but he has left liberal traces from which to reconstruct—in a kind of aesthetic forensics—their former occupant. The evidence—brushes, color charts, painted palettes with painted paint on them (beautifully exploiting the double pun)—confirms that the missing person is an artist. Many of his themes converge on a paint-bedraggled green suit from 1959; the pants are in tatters and only a bound penis survives uncut. Like the poem that accompanies it (Dine writes good poetry, not “artists’ poetry”), many of his works reach toward the literary, which situates his work away from that of his colleagues, and sometimes permits unfortunate rehearsals of neo-Dada sight gags (bench with feet). Following the traces further, the missing artist would be rather nattily clad in a selection of ties (man’s last vestige of expressive ornament) and flat bathrobes from which the occupant has been steamrolled out.

The bathrobe—a little like a tailor’s pattern—is an unexpected index of artisthood, more George Sanders than SoHo. But Carlyle might speak of it as an emblem of privacy, leisure, intimate company, diurnal routines, and a kind of substitute skin, the last layer before the self is exposed. It does a lot of traveling in this exhibition. When depicted horizontally on the canvas behind sawhorses bearing a log with two axes buried in it, the forced execution by proxy has a darkness emphasized by that schematic robe. Many of Dine’s best works issue from this dark side: Hatchet with Two Palettes, Slate No. 2, 1963, the vertical axis of a log, an ax buried in it, set behind two painted palettes on which the ax casts several painted shadows is a kind of martyrdom of the artist by the artist. This is Dine territory and he is the sole occupant. Dine’s earliest work (which is, I think, of limited interest) tried on various masks—only to discard them—at the mirror. When matured (this is also the difference between his early vaudeville and his later happenings), this search is far from play. Flirting with your doppelgänger is now almost de rigueur. Dine was playing for keeps, that is, desperately seeking knowledge. If found, the search would stop and the new identity would perform itself without anxiety.

There was a visceral restlessness about Dine’s work in the ’60s, a dissatisfaction that extended beyond the conventional borders of the art community. Perhaps this led him to say, in 1966, “I’m not a Pop artist.” Then what kind of artist is he? He broke many of the then-emerging rules: didn’t generate closed sign systems that trap meaning or something like it; didn’t present the deadpan cool; didn’t use ironic distance. His humor, when he exercised it (Lawn Mower, 1962), was more like someone telliig a joke than constructing a witty enigma. It was not the sort of art in which criticism could see its subtlety reflected. But one of the more interesting of Dine’s almost cavalier données lay in the way he made the canvas—that blank latency overlaid with conceptual systems—perform almost against its will. The Hammer Acts, 1962, raises a hammer on the painting’s left flank while three nds await it on a ledge below; between them, a void of canvas, an empty potency summarily ordered to apply its vast powers to accommodate this stretch. Similarly—and brutally—with Vise, 1962, a pipe thrusts into the belly of a blank canvas through an ulcerous crater of paint as the rest of the canvas monitors the rape of its picture plane. The pressure of these tools and objects against the numinous void of the canvas could be seen as an allegory—the world, cold and hard, pushes against the “boundless Phantasmagoria” of the imagination in an attempt to answer “that unanswerable question: Who am I: the thing that can say ‘I”’ (Carlyle again).

In one decade, Dine's cascade of subjects and themes poured out in an astonishing plenitude and variety—variety not just of subjects but of attitudes, conscious and unconscious. Everything is in a rush, chances are taken, sometimes without knowing their full implications, inspired and uninspired blunders jostle each other, extremes of sophistication and naïveté coexist, the emotional temperature swings wildly. Childhood memories, bits of biography, mortal anxieties are subsumed in a kind of painted grand opera, the main theme of which is an obsessive search to find, define, possess a self that resists such attempts with an equal and opposite violence. Though Dine was not politically active, this personal drama reenacts, in its anxieties and energy, a version of what was then afflicting a disturbed and conflicted social body.

In his great decade, Dine was brokering what I see as contradictory elements of his nature—antic, sentimental, harsh, angry, sweet, impatient, dangerously calm—into a working persona. I suppose that's what we all do. But Dine performed this in terms of art during, those marvelous and appalling '60s, after which nothmg was ever the same. This may be part of what makes Dine's prolific decade ultimately so exhilarating. But its contradictions continue to provoke misreadings. It's time to place Dine where his work assumes its maximum authority, unclouded by irrelevant “influences.” He was, in the '60s, an expressionist who, through some jurisdictional error, was granted a visa for entry into Pop country, from which, using its methods, he passionately strove to get out. Labels do change perceptions. If Dine is united in spirit, but not in method or subjects, to his AbEx predecessors, the exact degree of his isolation and originality can, perhaps, begin to be calibrated.

Brian O'Doherty is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

“Jim Dine: Walking Memory, 1959–1969” travels to Cincinnati Art Museum, Oct. 22, 1999–Jan. 9, 2000.