Retrospective

From the Archives: Jim Dine on Creating ‘Autobiography Through Objects,’ in 1977

Jim Dine, The Garden of Eden, 2003, steel frame with painted bronze elements.

©2017 ADAGP, PARIS/COLLECTION OF CENTRE POMPIDOU, MUSÉE D’ART MODERNE DE LA VILLE, PARIS

Jim Dine recently donated 28 of his works to the Musée d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris. To mark the gift, the Centre Pompidou has put on a show. With that exhibition in mind, republished below is Jim Gruen’s freewheeling profile of Dine from the September 1977 issue of ARTnews. Included are Dine’s musings on his own work, which often takes the form of paintings of hearts and robes, as well as arguments against classifying him as a Pop artist and in-depth explanations of his dealings with various gallerists. The article follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger

“Jim Dine and the life of objects”
By Jim Gruen
September 1977

Since emerging as a major avant-garde artist in the early ’60s, Dine has engaged in an intense search for personal identity, an autobiography through everyday paraphernalia

To speculate on the psychological implications of Jim Dine’s 15-year obsession with uninhabited bathrooms (11 monumental oil paintings of robes made up the bulk of his recent exhibition at the Pace Gallery in New York), is to ponder on Dine’s personal identity. Four of the robes were given the all-encompassing title of 4 Robes Existing in This Vale of Tears—an oddly revealing name for an image so singularly depersonalized. And yet, these “invisible-man” wraps, each possessed of a larger-than-life weight and amplitude, seem to suggest that the missing figure in each of the robes desperately longs for the comfort and warmth they so seductively promise the would-be wearer.

During a recent interview, Dine offered some intriguing clues on the subject.

“The robes have become much more mysterious than they used to be, and that’s because I understand them more. Obviously, there’s some hidden significance there. But what’s funny is that I don’t own a bathrobe. I don’t wear one. I don’t walk around in one. I never see bathrobes around me, nor do I see people wearing them. I don’t have a bathrobe to paint from. What I use is what I’ve used from the very beginning—a newspaper ad which I clipped out of The New York Times back in 1963. The ad shows a robe with the man airbrushed out of it. Well, it somehow looked like me, and I thought I’d make that a symbol for me. Actually, it all began when I wanted to paint a self-portrait . . . and just couldn’t. It’s important for me to say this, because what I really wanted to do was sit in front of a mirror and paint a portrait of myself. But at the time, I was in analysis and the pressures I felt prevented me from going through with it.

“Also, in the ’60s, I had achieved a certain notoriety as a so-called avant-garde artist, and lot was expected of me. So you see, if I was going to do a self-portrait I had to find some avant-garde way of doing it. Well, I just couldn’t put the figure in it, because I was afraid of being called retrograde. It was a fear of being called a sell-out. So, I found a different way of doing it. Anyway, those early robes were just about painting, or exercises about things or autobiography through objects. And I couldn’t talk about them because I just didn’t know why I did certain things.”

Jim Dine is a reclusive, secret man. Stocky, heavyset, with a bearded, alert face out of Cézanne, he exudes both energy and a strong sense of difference. Behind an open smile and eager, inquisitive eyes, there lurks a wariness—a certain distrust seemingly engendered by some inner unresolved personal conflict. But there is also an expansiveness about Dine, a healthy ego-driven sense of well-being which permits him to speak freely about himself even as he is careful to retain an ample measure of guardedness.

Dine’s career has been well documented—far more so than the personal circumstances out of which it sprang. What is known about Dine the artist, is that within the span of some 18 years he has held over 60 exhibitions in galleries and museums in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and that his output has been as prolific as it has been varied. Working in all media, he has evolved a style uniquely his own, one that is strongly rooted in recognizable imagery, produced by way of a progressively refined craftsmanship based principally on the rigorous disciplines of drawing.

Around 1960 Dine’s career came into focus, in the wake of Happening and Pop art. Through his early friendship with Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, Robert Whitman, and Lucas Samaras, among others, Dine became involved with the events and exhibitions being held at such anti-establishment galleries as the Judson and Reuben, in lower Manhattan. As early as 1959 Dine and Oldenburg shared their first one-man show at the Judson Gallery, with Dine exhibiting a series of constructions and assemblages made out of old clothes and “anti-art” objects. The following year saw Dine participating in staged Happenings, spearheaded by Kaprow.

With it all, and from the very first, Dine’s excursions into the day’s avant-garde found him curiously restive. Even as he appeared to thrive in a milieu of experimentation and even as critics took note of a young artist of witty and outrageous imagination, Dine inwardly resisted the acclaim that was all too quickly coming his way. In the early years his imagery fixed on actual objects—workmen’s tools, bathroom appliances, household appurtenances, pieces of clothing—affixed on blank canvases or incorporated in constructions that proved both theatrical and daring. Instantly dubbed a Pop artist, Dine just as instantly resented the label, and at the height of the movement was quick to protest such pigeonholing.

“I’m not a Pop artist,” he told this writer in 1966. “I’m not part of the movement because I’m too subjective. Pop is concerned with exteriors. I’m concerned with interiors. When I use objects, I see them as a vocabulary of feelings. I can spend a lot of time with objects, and they leave me as satisfied as a good meal. I don’t think Pop artists feel that way. Their work just isn’t autobiographical enough. I think it’s important to be autobiographical. What I try to do in my work is explore myself in physical terms—to explain something in terms of my own sensibilities.”

Looking back on it, Dine confirmed his early feelings: “Of course, I liked the notoriety of those years. It was a way for people to get to know us. But I was being lumped together with a whole bunch of people, only some of whom belonged together. I wasn’t really part of them, except maybe in the Happenings. You see, Karpow always said that Happenings were an extension of painting . . . that painting was through! Of course, that was ridiculous. That was just his problem with painting. But for me, it was merely a painter’s theater, and I had fun with it. Actually, I never though Happenings were all that revolutionary. But Kaprow was a big influence on me. I valued his opinion, and so I went into what he advocated, creating some four Happenings which I thought were really pretty good. Finally, however, I removed myself. I gave up the Happenings and, right off, everybody thought I had sold out. Kaprow was really down on me, and made me feel absolutely terrible.

“Anyway, in 1962, Martha Jackson came to my studio and bought a few paintings, and offered me a show. Again, Kaprow thought I had sold out. I was moving uptown! But you see, I had to get down to painting and besides, I wasn’t oblivious to what was going on elsewhere. I mean, there was Robert Rauschenberg and there was Jasper Johns, and at the time I thought they were the most important artists alive. I couldn’t think of a bad thing they’d done. I don’t feel that anymore. In fact, I don’t even consider Rauschenberg anymore. Now I consider de Kooning a far more important artist than Rauschenberg. But in 1962 . . . well, Johns and Rauschenberg were the greatest! I didn’t know them personally, but I loved their work. Also, they were always having emotional breakdowns, and I was having a breakdown, too, and that kind of tied me to them.”

If an artist’s work is irrevocably tied to the development of his persona, then Jim Dine stands as an example of the artist as the ever-questioning and inwardly oriented human being. The emotional components of any artist’s life must perforce color the fabric of his creative impulses and, in the case of Dine, these components have produced a man of complex and highly vulnerable sensibilities.

Dine, his wife Nancy and their three young sons live on a farm in Vermont. One day each week Dine travels to New York to visit his analyst. On one such trip he made time for a lengthy talk. We met for drinks, and the occasion yielded a personal panorama of a man secure in his art yet still somewhat troubled with the ways of his life.

“I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 16, 1935,” he began. “I have a younger brother. My father was definitely not inclined toward the arts. My mother, on the other hand, was artistic. She loved music. My family on my mother’s side are quite unusual in that way. They acquired their artisticness because they’re Jews in the Midwest. It’s quite strange to be a Jew in the Midwest—at least, it was for their generation. You see, Cincinnati has always been extremely cultured. The Germans came early, and the German Jews came and started the symphony. Unlike Cleveland, which is a robber-baron town, Cincinnati is a town of old money. So, there was an early symphony, an early art museum, none of which is as good as Cleveland’s, but they had this history of finesse—one grew up with some culture.

“In the summertime, I studied art at the museum. I was very prodigious at drawing. I was very gifted, very crazy, very sensitive. And I was encouraged by no one. Then, when I turned 15, my mother died. It was a very wrenching thing. My father remarried and he didn’t want me to live with him. So I left home and went to live with my grandparents. My brother, who was younger, continued living with my father and his new wife. Well, the moment I left him, I became an adult. Of course, I wasn’t, but at 15 I was on my own, and I became an artist. I took it upon myself to go to the Cincinnati Art Academy and worked there at night with people who were school teachers, shopkeepers and the like. They were amateurs. I painted there three nights a week. I also learned to drive. I was free, and it was the only thing that kept me whole. Basically, however, I was a mess.

“Inside, I felt like James Dean. Outside I was a super-jock—a tough guy. But inside it was all different. You know . . . misunderstood—the tragic figure. I was Rimbaud clothed in Rod Steiger. It was very painful, but extremely interesting. Also, I discovered early on that I had a reading disability. That was painful too. You see, I’m left-handed, and there’s a screw loose in my head in terms of a motor thing. So I have trouble reading, and literature has meant more to me than anything, except for music. The fact is, both music and literature really mean more to me than painting. Anyway, what I was trying to do in all those years was to become a painter and to learn how to read I was also making some plans about getting the hell out of Cincinnati.”

Upon graduating high school, Dine entered the University of Cincinnati, but stayed there for only one year. (“I couldn’t take it. I was at sea with my psyche.”) The following six months were spent at the Boston Museum School, but again the experienced proved discouraging. Finally, at the age of 19, Dine enrolled in the art department of Ohio University, in Athens.

“The art department at Ohio University was hopeless. I mean, it didn’t exist. They had people there who wanted to become art teachers, and the teachers there were old women who had been taught at Columbia School of Education, like in 1910. Well, they couldn’t stand me, and were quite happy to just leave me alone. So I went into high gear, painting like crazy, drawing like crazy and making prints. The work was figurative and expressionist, which seemed to have been my orientation. In retrospect, I feel that expressionism and surrealism, which I came out of, are crosses because they cloud one from speaking clearly—from being oneself.

“As a college student, I schooled myself totally in the New York School, via ARTnews. I remember stealing bound volumes of ARTnews from the ’50s, tearing out pictures, and looking at de Kooning, Pollock, Kline and everyone else from that period. I knew about everybody. It was an impressionable time for me. I was teaching myself about New York—the moves. Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch became familiar names to me. Anyway, I was glamorized by New York.”

While at Ohio University, Dine met his future wife, a fellow art student. They were married in 1957. Upon receiving his B.A. in 1958, Jim and Nancy Dine resolved to tackle New York.

“We got to New York, and we were sort of nobody, and I felt like a yokel. I was 22, married and without a job. But almost immediately I found one—teaching art at a school in Patchogue, Long Island. Of course, we came into New York all the time, and we started to meet people. I looked up a friend of mine with whom I had gone to high school—Marcus Ratliff, who is a graphic designer. He was living at the Judson Student House with Eva Hesse, and going to Cooper Union. Also going to Cooper Union was Tom Wesselmann, and working at the Cooper Union library was Claes Oldenburg. As it turned out, my very first show was at the Judson House, together with Ratliff and Wesselmann. That was in 1958. I also met Lester Johnson and Red Grooms, and everybody was incredibly productive and incredibly young! Anyway, I continued teaching in Patchogue, and I continued to draw and to paint. My work continued to be figurative, and it was beginning to tend toward the absurd.

“We had very little money, but I must say, my family was very generous. I have an uncle—my mother’s brother—who would send me money. And I have a cousin, Richard Cohen, who was always very encouraging about my work. In fact, he was very instrumental in my becoming a serious artist. If I’m painting at all, it comes out of my cousin Richard and the artist Kitaj, both of whom spoke to me about art at a time when I needed it most. I would say that these two people changed my life.”

In 1959, the Dines moved to New York City, renting a small apartment in Yorkville. Their first son, Jeremiah, was born that same year, and Dine found a small teaching job in the city. By this time he had met Kaprow, and had exhibited his first constructions at the Judson Gallery, together with Oldenburg. In 1960 came the show at the Reuben Gallery and his involvement with Happenings; 1961 saw the birth of the Dines’ second son, Matthew, and in 1962 Dine became associated with Martha Jackson Gallery.

“Martha Jackson came to me and said, ‘How much money do you make teaching?’ I told her I made $4,000 a year. She said, ‘I’ll give you the same amount per year, and a contract. For that, you will give me paintings, for which I’ll pay you $100 each, and drawings, for which I’ll pay you $25 each.’ Well, that wasn’t much money, but Martha got me out of teaching and . . . what the hell! Besides, I thought some of the paintings I did were embarrassing. So for 4,000 bucks she got quite a few paintings, and she gave me money each month.”

It was during this period that Jim Dine was suddenly plunged into serious psychological turmoil.

“I had seen it coming for a long time, but things really came to a head. I was being successful. I was getting a lot of attention, and the paradox is that I was withdrawing. I was cutting myself off from friends. I was productive, but I couldn’t leave the house. It was fierce anxiety. I just went nuts. So, I started analysis and began a very long involvement with myself—which goes on to this day. But at the time, I was going kind of crazy. Still, I worked all the time, always surrounded by my immediate family. What was frightening was that a lot of good things were happening to my career.

“I had only one show at Martha Jackson. Then, I went with Sidney Janis. Also, Ileana Sonnabend came into the picture. She came to the studio, bought some things and said she’d show me in Paris. Then Leo Castelli came and said he’d take me on. So, in the summer of 1962, Leo gave me $500 and said he’d try to work me into the season—but it was vague Well, I couldn’t take the vagueness. Janis was less vague. He also gave me money, and we paid Castelli back, and I finally went with Janis. . . . I had three shows with Janis—in 1963, 1964 and 1966.”

Dine, by now considered an important young artist of the period, continued to produce highly evocative works involving the paraphernalia of everyday life—paintings and constructions of robes, household utensils, ties, toothbrushes and utilitarian objects placed like props in front of various colored canvases. He also made strong, eloquent drawings of the same subjects, as well as of the figure. A superb draftsman, he gave an in-depth intonation to an imagery that made of even the simplest everyday object a lesson in refinement and sensuality. Indeed, while working within the precepts of the going Pop tendencies, Dine’s art invariably contained a personal warmth, and in its execution, strong painterly overtones. By 1966, his name was made and his reputation established. Although Dine’s work was being seen in Paris and London, the artist had never traveled to Europe, and it now occurred to him that a trip abroad was in order.

“In 1966, I went to London. Before that, I had no time. I was too busy becoming famous, having children [his third son, Nicholas, was born in 1965], and having nervous breakdowns. It never entered my mind to go to Europe, because New York was the place to be. But then, I received a commission from Editions Electo in London to do a series of prints. They put money up front, and I took the whole family for a two-month’s stay there. Well, when I hit London, I felt as though I had gone home. I mean, I felt that London was where I belonged. I was 30 years old, and I felt I could live there forever!

“And so, I made my prints, and they were lousy—horrible! But I made some money and it freed me in a certain way. When the two months were up, we came back to New York. . . . I went to teach at Cornell University for a year, [Dine stopped painting from 1966 to 1969] and in 1967, we decided to move back to London. We lived there for five years.

“We lived on Battersea Park and later on Chester Square. I began to paint again. I also did sets and costumes for a play based on Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. At one point I went to Rome and got a job on a movie directed by Elio Petri. I did the paintings for the actor playing the artist in the film. I also began to do a lot of writing—prose and poetry—and I entered into heavy correspondence with my New York poet friends—Ron Padgett, Kenneth Koch, Ted Berrigan, David Shapiro. I had a marvelous time, and living in London was fantastic. I played tennis every day, and went out every night. I became the guy people looked up when they passed through London. Suddenly, I had a way of being friendly, and that interested me, because I have never been friendly before. Anyway, I was a great success in London. I’ve exhibited there since 1964—with Robert Fraser. I have a slight fame there, and I feel I behaved impeccably during those five years.

“In 1968 I went to Paris for the very first time. And that was an amazing experience, because when I got there I couldn’t bring myself to go into the Louvre. I didn’t enter the Louvre until 1970! You see, that first time—in ’68—I was too amazed by the boulevards and the architecture. I really know Paris! And I know it because I don’t speak French. I walked on the complete length of the city for days on end without talking to anybody. I just looked. The longest I’ve ever stayed in Paris was two weeks. But I know that city backwards and forwards.

“The European experience has made me understand myself. It sounds terribly pretentious to say this, but Europe has taught me what my destiny is as an artist. It has solidified that. And that’s because there are eyes there that I trust—especially Kitaj’s. Kitaj has been my friend since 1965, when he came to New York for his first show at the Marlborough Gallery. We instantly liked each other. He’s from Ohio too—Cleveland. But he’s a real Jamesian figure. He’s lived in Europe for almost 25 years now. What’s so great is that Kitaj and I always have something to talk about. It seems as though we were born to talk to each other. Whenever I got to London now, I stay with him. He’s painting better than ever. He’s become a very straight figurative artist now, but in a very personal way.”

In 1970, Dine was given a retrospective at the Whitney Museum. There were one-man shows in Berlin, Toronto, London, Munich, Turin, Brussels and New York. Still making London his home base, Dine commuted between various cities in Europe and New York. Then, in 1971, he felt the need to return home.

“Once again, I got messed up. London was great but, again, I was going sort of crazy and getting crazier all the time. I felt had to be back in America. I felt it was my landscape. I also felt I had to get back into analysis. So back we came, and we bought an old farmhouse in Vermont, where we’ve been living for the past six years. The Vermont experience is something not many Jewish boys have. It’s very Tolstoian, and believe me, we existed under the most dire conditions, particularly during the first year. Anyway, we settled in Vermont, and I continued to work—drawing mainly. The fact is, throughout the years, my work hasn’t really changed dramatically. It’s only strengthened.”

Having broken his ties with Janis Gallery, Dine was without a New York gallery throughout most of his European stay. Then in 1970 he began showing at the Sonnabend Gallery, which had opened a New York branch in SoHo.

“I had shown with Ileana Sonnabend in France during the Janis years. I wasn’t terribly close to her, and she thought I was nuts. But at one point she came to see me in London and offered to show me both in Paris and New York. I had two shows with her in New York—one of paintings and one of drawings. But a couple of years ago I left her. Anyway, to make a long story short, I decided to go with the Pace Gallery. Arnold Glimcher, who owns it, had seen my drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in a show called “Drawing Now,” and he called me and asked whether I’d like to show with him. I agreed, and that sort of brings me up to date.”

Dine’s exhibition at the Pace, held last January, received unqualified critical praise. His series of monumental robes were deemed on par with “Rothko’s universe,” and his charcoal drawings of nudes were considered no less masterful. Asked where, precisely, he thought he stood in the current art scene, Dine replied that he did not consider himself a part of any movement.

“I’m not interested in the so-called figurative movement. I don’t align myself with the present-day figurative painters, and I don’t sit on panels about figurative art. You see, the artists I’m interest in who are figurative artists are Giacometti, Balthus, Kitaj and Lucian Freud. Balthus is the greatest muse. Or I look to the past: Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne. I go to Cézanne constantly.”

As for his psychological life, Dine seems to have found a relative calm. “I think I’m starting to understand myself better, and I’ve had the best year I’ve ever had. I’m still with the same doctor, and he’s changed too, which is interesting. But in many ways I feel as though I’m just beginning . . . that my life is just beginning. I’ve reached a whole new plateau. You see, in the past, my needs were very great and my fears were very great and my defenses looked like torture. Well, I’ve come to terms with a lot of things, because when all’s said and done, there’s really very little one can do about a lot of things. You just accept them. The point is, you just have to keep on working, and you just have to keep on living. That’s the ballgame.”

Copyright 2018, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.

  • Issues