Jim Dine was a heroic figure in American art schools in the 1960s. Linked to the Pop Art movement, his images of everyday objects empowered a generation of young artists with the idea that art could transform the mediocre, turning the humdrum and the commonplace into something magical. It offered a way into images and objects, making a very personal perspective from resources readily at hand.
Some of Dine’s signature attractions were his reverence for the process of making art, his celebration of the tools of art — saws, brushes and hammers — and his energetic approach. His images of hearts and tools, Pinocchio and bathrobes, were rooted in the experiences of everyday life but were enlivened by their placement within a vibrant gestural, painterly ambience. It was also easy to emulate, and many did.
Dine’s dedication to printmaking was another factor in his popularity. His legendary “attacks” on his etching plates with angle grinders and power tools, the epic play of his multiple colour versions of his lithographs, and his virtuosity with chisels and carving tools when making relief prints ensured him a following in the days when printmaking was at its zenith.
It was a medium that could provide art for everyone, by embracing new reproductive technologies and simultaneously puncturing the elitism and pomposity of “high art”. Printmaking as practised by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jim Dine was egalitarian, hip and edgy. Unsurprisingly, it found many devotees.
However, the key element that secured Dine’s following among aspiring artists in the swinging ’60s was his autobiographical, diaristic approach to making art. The objects he chose to represent were either linked to his past or locked into his current interests. The tools he depicted were an echo of a childhood spent in his father’s hardware store in Cincinnati, the heart was a valentine for his wife, and the bathrobe became a representation of self, constantly re-invented and re-imagined in paintings, prints and drawings.
Born in 1935 in Ohio, Dine arrived in New York in 1959. There he made his mark as one of the progenitors of “happenings”, performative artworks that blended theatre, the visual arts, music and ritual.
Along with Claes Oldenburg and Allan Kaprow, Dine became well known for the hybrid artworks he performed at the Judson Gallery. In the studio he continued to make works with a similar hybrid spirit, combining actual objects with an overlay of gestural mark making while developing his iconography of hearts, bathrobes and other everyday objects.
Although he claimed never to have worn one, Dine first embraced the heroic form of the vacated robe as a subject in 1964 and gave his paintings and prints titles that often referred to himself, such as “Double Isometric Self-Portrait”. Without the human body to give the garment a point of specificity or individuality, the robe became an everyman as much as a self-portrait. As a result Dine was able to recast the image as a portrait of Bill Clinton, or to subjugate its human referent altogether with a title such as “Untitled (black robe)”.
“The mighty robe I”, made in 1985 with master printmaker Hansjörg Mayer in Stuttgart, seems to depict the artist as conquering hero. Although without a body, head or hands, he stands resolute and confident. The stained cavity of his absent chest presents an internal glow of strength and power and the robe acts as a kind of cape that provides superhuman powers. Seemingly with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, this image of the hero in his own bathroom is a particularly human and poignant portrait of the artist at age 50.
Dine continued to exploit the bathrobe motif for over 30 years. The current exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Jim Dine: A Life in Print, features numerous variations such as “Two Florida bathrobes” 1986, “The kindergarten robes” 1983, “Blue robe” 2007 and “Cream and red robe on stone” 2010.
The exhibition features more than 100 prints covering 45 years of the artist’s work, selected from an extraordinary donation of 249 artworks Dine has made to the National Gallery of Victoria. The artist has made similar gifts to the British Museum and the Boston Fine Arts Museum, no doubt in the hope that future generations of young students seeking a point of entry into making images and objects might find sustenance in his embrace of the everyday. Let’s hope so!
Jim Dine: A Life in Print is showing at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until October 15 2017.