Sometime during the summer of 1990 my sister, who was then living in San Francisco, phoned to get my take on Jim Dine – I told her I loved his hearts and his robes and his use of real objects in his paintings. She listened patiently to my cursory knowledge of Dine’s oeuvre, then asked what I thought of his figure drawings, to which I responded I didn’t even know he did them.
“You should really get here right away and see this show,” she said.
My sister isn’t generally given to hyperbole, so the first chance I got, I made the trip to see Jim Dine: Drawings 1973-1987 at the de Young Museum. The show was comprised of figurative work, still lifes, and pieces which don’t fall into such neat categories – Dine’s hearts, robes, tools, et al. are images which, even when convincingly modeled, don’t inhabit space in the same manner as objects in more traditional compositions. Although I was attracted to all his imagery, at the time I was pretty much exclusively doing figurative work, so it was that to which I gravitated.
Dine started his career in the late 1950s and early ’60s with performances, installations, and paintings with actual bathroom fixtures and bedroom furniture; but in the early ’70s decided to focus his energy on perhaps the least avant-garde course of action an artist could have taken at that time: life drawing. His intensely-observed works of the human form eventually became aggressively-produced and expressionistic – characteristics which instigated the call from my sister. Dine draws, rubs out, builds up, erases, and reworks images with graphite, charcoal, pastel, acrylic, oil, enamel, and other media. This process results in multilayered works with rich, often distressed surfaces which reveal the histories of their creation. Despite the amount of reworking associated with these drawings, they are not labored or heavy-handed; on the contrary, they appear inevitable. Over the course of three years, two continents, and two different models, in The Sitter Progresses from London to Here in Three Years Dine managed to create a coherent, emotionally stirring and evocative figure which is enveloped by the atmospheric ground in a palpably physical way. The complexity, virtuosity, and diversity of the exhibited work was truly dazzling, and proved Dine to be one of the finest draftsmen in contemporary art.
My sister’s advice couldn’t have been better; seeing Drawings 1973-1987 was one of the most affecting and inspiring art experiences I’ve ever had. It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen heavily-worked mixed media drawings before – I was familiar with those by Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns, both of whom had done pieces I loved which were so layered they could be considered paintings on paper. It was that I related to Dine’s drawings in a way that I was then unable to relate to those by de Kooning or Johns. Dine’s works aligned so perfectly with my aesthetic, I felt as if he had drawn them especially for me. I saw what could be achieved by disregarding the conventional definition of “drawing” and being open to the possibilites in utilizing any process or medium which would serve the work. Although I had never subscribed to the idea that paper is merely a support on which preparatory works for larger, more important pieces are made, and although I had already begun tentatively using paint in my own drawings, the way I thought about art was transformed. Occasionally, one has an experience and afterward never sees the world in quite the same manner – Drawings 1973-1987 was one of those events for me, one that has enriched my life immeasurably.
Jim Dine is still creating, following his muse. Right now, he is somewhere in the world, painting or sculpting or photographing or printmaking or drawing, making art. I love all forms of his work, but nevertheless, I’d kind of like to think he’s drawing.