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Jim Dine

Photo courtesy of: College of Fine Arts

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A conversation with Jim Dine

Ask Joseph Becherer to describe his friend and fellow Ohio University alumnus Jim Dine— the legendary pop artist and co-inventor of the 1960s “Happenings” that changed American culture — and the art historian and curator won’t hesitate.

“There’s only one word to describe Jim,” said Becherer, “and that word is intense. No matter what he’s working on, he always pushes himself to the max.”

Becherer — who earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree of fine arts at Ohio — ought to know. As the curator and vice president of the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Mich., he put together a major exhibition of Dine’s most famous sculptures from the past 50 years, part of which traveled to Athens for an exhibition (“Jim Dine: Sculpture and Large Prints”) at the University’s Kennedy Museum of Art.

The exhibition, which featured large prints and sculptures in bronze and enamel on wood, as well as several of the master’s signature pop art offerings, ran July 8 through Nov. 27.

After his graduation in 1957, Dine gained acclaim as an artist and displayed in venues spanning the globe, including Tokyo, New York and Paris. Both the Whitney Museum of American Art and New York’s Guggenheim Museum have honored Dine with retrospective exhibitions.

The latest issue of Ohio Today Online features a behind-the-scenes video pairing images from the summer installation for the exhibition and commentary from Dine’s Nov. 3 campus visit.

“To have this caliber of work in southeastern Ohio is very special,” says Charles McWeeny, dean of the College of Fine Arts. “Mr. Dine is an important artist who has been an international figure for 50 years.”

In this excerpt, Dine offered thoughts on his work — which was exhibited in the 1960s with pop art luminaries Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol — and his life as an artist.

Excerpted conversation between Joseph Becherer and Jim Dine; from “Jim Dine —Night Fields, Day Fields — The Sculpture,” Steild, Gottingen, Germany, 2011.

Becherer: I would like to start out with this idea: You are an internationally celebrated figure in the art world from paintings and prints and, more recently, photographs, but arguably your sculptures are a less well known, less studied aspect of your repertoire. What do you see is the relationship between the two-dimensional work and the three-dimensional work, and what do you see as the boundaries?
Dine: My sculpture is exactly what my painting is. For me, it is all about the same thing. Many times, my painting has incorporated real objects, so you could say it became a kind of bas-relief and that I’ve always made “sculpture.” … Two early pieces, “Untitled: After Winged Victory” (1959) and “The Green Suit” (1959), are constructed of temporary material — cloth for both of them. That’s all I could do financially in those years. It was difficult because sculpture is expensive — bronze particularly. But, as I am an object maker, it becomes a question of does the object differ in the round from one that exists on a two-dimensional surface? Physically, they are different, but I do not think they are different in intent, just in perception. Sculpture’s many-sided physicalness, I’m sure, affects the viewer.

Jim, would you be willing to discuss your early sculptural endeavors, for example, “The Green Suit”? [This work utilizes a green corduroy suit that Dine bought in Athens and wore when he moved to New York. In the absence of money, it became his canvas and, in turn, an early metaphorical self-portrait.]
In 1959, I was a young man with not much money at all. I was 24 years old and had no commercial success. I was teaching school, grade school, and it forced me to find things to make art with because I couldn’t afford to buy paint. I was growing up artistically and I knew [Swedish sculptor] Claes Oldenburg, for instance, and he was five or six years older than I was, and he was already a formed artist. He lectured me on the art of the insane, on children’s art, on [painter and sculptor] Jean Dubuffet. It was another point of view of what you could make art with. So I wasn’t just being thrifty, nor was I just exploiting this possibility of something efficacious to use. It was in keeping with what we were excited about — what we saw in the street — literally what we saw in the streets of New York. In the wintertime, it was dead bums. We saw guys with their legs sticking out of snow banks — that kind of thing. On the Bowery, there were a lot of homeless people. We saw newspapers, discarded mattresses and furniture. … So it was in keeping with the moment. The work spoke a lot about that.

Tell us about tools and tool imagery in your repertoire.

I am a child of shopkeepers who had small hardware and plumbing supplies stores. My grandpa, with whom I lived after my mother died, and my father ran one for a while, too. The earliest memories I have are of being around hand tools. My grandfather thought he could build anything with his hands. He was slightly delusional on this subject because he wasn’t very good with his hands, but he was very enthusiastic about building. He always had a workshop, and by the time I was 2 years old, I was allowed to play there. I never stopped being enchanted by these objects. As I said before, these objects are made by anonymous craftsmen, who, through evolution of the needs of the hand, made something.

In terms of your training, one thing that struck me quite profoundly is that I read that you once said that “Art saved me.” What does that mean?
If I had not been born an artist and had the same set of circumstances that happened to me as a child, I would not be sitting here. It gave me purpose. It gave me a way to work it out. It gave me a friend.

At this moment in time, what is the level of accuracy and your level of comfort with the moniker “pop artist”?

I don’t care. You know, if somebody wants to use it, I understand, it is the easy way to see me. I am completely alone in that world. I happened to grow up with them. I happened to use some common objects at the time, so it was easy to lump me in with them, but I never was comfortable with the term nor was anybody else. It was just what the popular press said. A much more accurate label would be what Sidney Janis called his famous show in 1962, “New Realism.” It incorporated not just so-called classic Pop artists, but European artists like Yves Klein. It included a lot of Italians like Mario Schifano and Mimmo Rotella. “New Realism” is more accurate, but even that is not accurate. It’s me. It’s just me.