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”Drawings of Jim Dine”

Sometimes it seems as if everybody loves Jim Dine. The reactionary art lover can forgive his dabbling in performance, assemblage, and other avant-gardisms over the course of his long career because, after all, he can draw. The more progressive-minded enthusiast, by contrast, is quietly relieved to discover Dine’s wilder impulses, and he comes to view them as a sort of exculpatory evidence, a justification for the artist’s facility and persistence with traditional drawing techniques.

In either view, Dine is ultimately loved for his skill set, and damn the rest: Love, as they say, is blind. It’s a situation that won’t be remedied by “Drawings of Jim Dine,” a 44-work, three-decade retrospective now on view at the National Gallery of Art. Over the years, many have been content to view Dine’s drawings merely as a succession of thrilling gestures, and exhibition curator Judith Brodie must surely be counted among them: The chronologically arranged “Drawings” presents the artist’s work as something not unlike a jazz man’s extended solo. “For Dine,” Brodie writes, “does drawing offer the clearest way of speaking? If by clear we mean obvious or transparent or one-dimensional, then the answer is no…But if by clear we mean uninhibited or persuasive or expressive…then the answer must be yes.”

To understand why this view fails to penetrate the problems in Dine’s drawings—or even how they came to exist—requires a look at the artist’s beginnings. The Cincinnati native first arrived in New York in 1959, where he was soon swept up in the Pop Art sea change of the ’60s. Reductive and self-referential, Pop short-circuited the direct expression so valued by the previous generation, and Dine’s work from the period bears the stamp of emerging postmodernism. Everyday objects—palettes, axes, paintbrushes—were collaged directly into Dine’s paintings, neither transformed nor assimilated into a pictorial whole, remaining stubbornly what they were. This is the style that brought Dine to prominence, a style that favored eccentric personal markers (bathrobes as self-portraits) and inert, ubiquitous symbols that drew attention to the viewer’s futile, open-ended struggle to extract meaning from what he saw (say, paintings of cartoonish valentine hearts).

The oldest piece in the show, 1968–1969’s Name Painting (1935–1963) #1, marks the end of Dine’s formative period. The thing is enormous, roughly 16 feet by 6-and-a-half feet. On it, using a broad, soft stick of charcoal, Dine obsessively wrote and rewrote the name of every artist who had influenced his early development. The names crowd and overlap, become obscured or blurred, and create multiple tightly ranked veils of semi-opaque text. In the Dine mythos, this shamanistic gesture has come to represent the artist’s sense of having exhausted his possibilities—and of needing more substantial ties to tradition.

In the early ’70s, Dine turned from his previous impulses in order to define and develop himself as a draftsman. He began to highlight that abundant facility he’s got tucked away in his toolbox by drawing…well, tools, for starters. In Shellac Orientale (1973–1974), various common household implements have been carefully and minutely rendered in strangely episodic high contrast, appearing to vibrate in and out of focus inch by inch. Odd spots of black strike out the empty space surrounding each clear, machine-precise contour. Hovering randomly in the atmosphere above and around these renderings are indeterminate clouds of Cy Twombly–esque graphite noodling, apparently unrelated.

The transitions from these passages of aimlessness to the bursts of finer representational finish are interrupted by collaged magazine clippings—pictures of children, columns of text, decorative borders—that have been variously glued, removed, and repositioned, leaving ghosts of torn paper and indecipherable lettering in their wake. The openness and inclusiveness of the composition immediately recalls Robert Rauschenberg’s early-’60s silk-screens, in which visual elements were allowed to be stubbornly themselves, resisting interrelation with one another yet inevitably drawing the viewer into a struggle to find or infer some connection. A holdover from Dine’s earlier work, this little conceptual exercise is frustrating but gratifying.

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In a series of seven untitled tool drawings from the same period, however, things have changed. A five-bladed saw, pliers, a brace and bit, a drywall hammer, a C-clamp, an oil can, and a hoof nipper are presented to us, each on a separate piece of paper, in full frontality against an essentially neutral ground. Gone are the collage obfuscations and the all-over feel. Instead, Dine translates the appearance of each tool into an array of competing graphic languages. His voice wavers stylistically through each piece, appearing at turns as that of the neoclassicist, the mechanical draftsman, and the abstract expressionist (or “rabid artist,” as Dine says). Each drawing becomes a meditation on a catalog of influences understood and appropriated.

These pieces are more single-minded than the Pop-era work, devoted to playing a game of absence and presence. With the drywall hammer, he activates the ground around the tool’s handle with vigorous scribbles, leaving the handle itself as untreated negative space. Similarly, while the drill bit in another drawing is vividly realized in a full tonal range accentuated by a black background, the handle and knob of the brace are reduced to a ghostly, tentative contour. The traces of vaporous graphite around these dissipating lines is left to signify its absence, or the possibility of its restoration in the viewer’s imagination.

Of course, Dine’s energetic irresolution causes us to question our ability to truly know these objects, as well as our expectations for portrayal. And he even occasionally manages to build relations between his pieces’ isolated incidents, as in the oil-can drawing, where two fully realized pieces of information, the can and its nozzle, are joined by a long, reductive diagonal of hose. Here the artist is effectively moving toward his stated goal of “learning to draw,” and he’s beginning to find compelling ways to reconcile the competing visual codes he employs: A bridge between earlier tradition and present confusion seems possible.

But this vacillation between treatments becomes more problematic in the female figure drawings done a few years later. In Red Glove (1975–1976), for example, the nude sitter’s bruised red lips are a thick smear complemented by outrageously rouged Kewpie-doll cheeks. A red suede glove obscures the upper part of her face, transforming her into an absurd rooster—and leaving us to meditate on her perfect pair of glowing nipples, complete with punched-up illusionistic highlights. The rest of the figure bears an impatient energy that can’t keep pace with these high-wattage passages. Rather than subject other areas to similar consideration, Dine hastily and predictably distresses them, with a few rapid, rubbed-out gestural lines and abused grounds. The details of the bodily topography that are favored never surprise.

Figure drawings such as this and The Skier (1976), whose face Dine worked and reworked until he left a raw white wound of thick backing paper, appear downright misogynistic—or at least “anti-human,” as Cézanne’s portraits were once described. Cézanne, after all, urged that the sitter be treated as just another object, no different than a rock or a basket of apples. Dine wants a similar sort of reduction, but he additionally wants to employ those explosive bouts of “rabid” expression that are so at odds with the earlier artist’s contemplative remove. A furious energy roils in Dine’s drawings: He digs in, he scrapes, he gouges—he does violence.

Yet the illustrational passages still float above the fray, at odds with all this wounded flesh and expressing a clear, calculated desire for mastery, be it sexual or artistic. Were it not for these disjecta membra, we might place Dine’s work in the company of Giacometti’s unfinished and unfinishable figure studies, or de Kooning’s obsessive eviscerations, or even Diebenkorn’s slow, noble trudge toward rightness.

But one begins to sense a failure of nerve, a need to apologize for indulgences. In Owl, Rome (1997), swirls and puddles of shellac mixed with sand saturate the paper and stain it a range of dull ochres. A crumpled rag of the same color is glued to the upper third of the longish sheet of paper. Both this brazen non sequitur and the chaotic vigorousness of Dine’s treatment of the owl’s body feel like a guilty justification for the comparatively precious head sitting predictably atop it.

Or perhaps it’s a magical invocation of that part of his work the artist cannot perform: “I always have to take a bite out of color,” Dine writes, “or the stuff you spray the trunks of automobiles with (the speckled paint) or I have to put my foot on the paper and smear the unfixed marks. I always assume the support I am drawing on (paper, wood, or the wall) is a ‘petri dish’ where the eventual product is hatched and I do anything I can to help it be born.” The work becomes a raging against powerlessness, as Dine continues to employ classical techniques at the same time he undermines them.

This problem is best exemplified in the room that closes out the exhibition. The Glyptotek Drawings (1987–1988), a 40-piece series in charcoal and ink on Mylar, are meant to be taken as one work. Studies of Greek and Roman sculptures from Munich’s Glyptothek, they bring to mind Géricault’s obsessive studies for The Raft of the Medusa, with their collision of Romantic impetuousness and yearning for classical idioms. The subjects are oddly appropriate for Dine’s method: A crouching figure viewed from behind lacks a head or arms; orators gesticulate without hands; sibyls without noses are carefully drawn against finger-painted backgrounds. Broken and fragmentary sculpture meets a broken and fragmentary treatment.

Everywhere, Dine makes decisions that suggest a desire for wholeness, trying to arrive at some basic consideration and integration of figure and ground. But they’re lazy, ready-made choices: Throughout the show, he simply cannot get off the fence, never allowing for the dramatic free association of the early works but never quite finding more substantive visual relationships, either—and certainly never questioning his use of tight illustrational finish in the least surprising places. Dine wants to reduce drawing to a biological imperative whose authenticity we cannot question, a deliberately anti-intellectual drive toward “real” seeing. Yet that unreflective, unquestioning drive, that lack of self-awareness or intellectual curiosity regarding his own choices and influences, leads him again and again to aimless pastiche.

Ultimately, an artist’s work does need to be about its own problem set. Good art doesn’t shy away from its own failures; it comes to embody them, at times almost obsessively. Yet too many of Dine’s drawings seem to exist without the artist’s knowledge of the precipice of failure over which he is staring. Dine lacks self-awareness, and he continues to stave it off with willing self-deception. “Drawing is not an exercise,” he tells us. “Exercise is sitting on a stationary bicycle and going nowhere. Drawing is being on a bicycle and taking a journey.” But as represented in “Drawings,” that journey is really just a workout.CP