Friday, September 1st, 2006

Jim Dine: Some Drawings, at the Block Museum, Evanston

This review of a 2006 survey of drawings by Jim Dine is our Topical Pick from the Archives in April 2010 to coincide with the exhibition, Jim Dine: The Glyptotek Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum through May 20.

The Block Museum of Art
40 Arts Circle Drive
Evanston, IL   60208
(847) 491-4000

April 17 – June 18   2006

Jim Dine Jessie with a Skull #3 1978, pastel, charcoal, oil and turpentine wash on paper, 45 x 31 inches
Jim Dine Jessie with a Skull #3 1978, pastel, charcoal, oil and turpentine wash on paper, 45 x 31 inches

Jim Dine’s  art –  his emblematic hearts, bathrobes, tools, and paintbrushes – is typically associated with the Pop Art movement of the 1960s.  The Block Museum’s exhibition of monumental drawings has a very different story to tell, taking its cue from the artist’s remarkable self-reinvention as a draughtsman of the human figure and portrait beginning in the 1970s.  Most of these unsettlingly expressive works are fraught with  dark intensity,  giving vent to a range of emotions.  “Anger is part of my medium,” said Dine. “I like to walk alongside of it.”

The drawings impress with both their large scale and expressive line.  In some drawings the layers of charcoal are so densely erased and reworked they resemble ash left from some kind of immolation, an elegaic residue of intense emotional combustion.  This is particularly apparent in Dine’s self-portrait series Looking in the Dark and his 1996 portrait Nancy.  These darkened faces have eyes that are full of hard intensity, frozen into expressions of accusation, anger, or wild anxiety.  This same mood is reflected in drawings of sculptures from antiquity such as Homer and Socrates (1989).  The face of Socrates on the top of the drawing is a mask of hard black stone, open-eyed, impenetrable and defiant.  The portrait of Homer just below reflects the opposite mood: the blind poet’s eyes are closed while his face is rendered with a smoky softness that is inward, ghostly, and vulnerable.

This same inarticulate fragility appears in the drawing A Variation of Jessie Learning Things from a Man (1976).  A woman looks over her shoulder to a man seated next her.  Her face is defined by deep shadows whereas the man’s face is practically erased: his tightly closed eyes hold some impenetrable secret.  In Fading Away(1993) the face of a female cat gently holds the chin of her male monkey companion whose face has become a mass of erased charcoal dust.  In both images the female counterparts seem to be the sympathetic witnesses of their partner’s unspeakable melancholy and dissolution.

A number of works feature hearts, trees, skulls, owls, and plants which resonate as comparisons with the human figure and anatomy.  In Drawing from Van GoghII(1983) a frightening tree trunk with breast-like tumors and short clawing branches draws an association with the female figure.  In Study for the Venus in Black and Grey (1983), a voluptuous sculpture from antiquity has  transformed into a monstrous mass of black chiseled rock.  This same Venus is present in a panel from Childhood (First Version) (1989), except the softer arms and head of a woman have been added, completing the figure.  This powerful six-panel piece has other female figures which link her naked body to erotic desire and death symbolized by the image of a skull.  Dine’s unforgettable 1976 drawing A Study From Blake places the skull directly on the body of his nude female subject.  Other works such as Hair (1970) and depictions of plants such as orchids in Mid-Summer, Paris (2002) imply female genitalia.  Plant life becomes erotic, imbued with a mysterious and soft tactility.

Several works are haunted by the brooding presence of skulls that appear in combination with many of Dine’s past themes.  When Dine’s insignia hearts appear with skulls they set up an intense symbolic tension between love and death.  The skull makes a mockery of Dine’s brightly colored Pop Art bathrobe in the drawingDancer (1997).  A skeleton wearing a blue bathrobe has his arms outstretched as if caught spinning in the middle of a dance.  The most moving depiction of a skull is in the drawing Walking With Me (1997) showing the skeleton in a suit carrying a Pinocchio doll on his back.  Here is the artist’s symbol of pop optimism, youth, and innocence merged with existential death.  The contrast creates a powerful synthesis of Dine’s past and present themes,  becoming a poignant reminder of the fragility and brevity of human existence.

Walking With Me 1997, charcoal, shellac, oil and pastel on paper, 67 x 30 inches, Courtesy the Block Museum of Art and the Artist
Walking With Me 1997, charcoal, shellac, oil and pastel on paper, 67 x 30 inches, Courtesy the Block Museum of Art and the Artist

Questions of suffering and melancholy abound in images of sculptures from antiquity.  Many of these corroded visages ask age-old questions through their solemn silence.  The Portrait Bust of the Emperor Trajan (1989) seems rueful with disgust as he looks imperiously out of blank stone eyes.  Large Drawing of a Small Statue (1978) shows an Egyptian pharaoh bearing an ashen expression of wounded sadness.  Study For Europe (1987) depicts a wide-eyed female portrait reminiscent of painted Roman tomb masks.  Her closed mouth seems pregnant with tragic words that cannot be said: only her large glinting eyes seem to speak over the silence of ages.

In retrospect Dine’s Pop Art work did not reflect the true emotional identity he sought to develop and of which he was capable.  Though this earlier work served the purpose of garnering him art world attention it was only a prelude to the artist’s development as a draughtsman with a deeper expressive purpose in the human subject.  Dine hit his stride when he confronted sexuality and death as the major themes of his work.   The Block Museum exhibit shows Dine flourishing in the realm of life’s deeper and darker mysteries, looking to the art of antiquity, its Eros andThanatos, as a meditation on time, desire, and human suffering.