Works that are less Pop, more personal

ART

June 11, 2008|By Glenn Mcnatt | Glenn Mcnatt,Sun art critic

Jim Dine, whose inventive prints and drawings are on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, belonged to the generation of Pop artists that succeeded the Abstract-Expressionists of the 1950s.

Ever since, Dine has been trying - with notable lack of success - to shake the Pop label applied to such better-known contemporaries as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

History is replete with examples of artists who, for one reason or another, hate being tagged by the movements that made them famous.

Half of New York's Abstract-Expressionists actively despised the label. In the 19th century, French painter Edouard Manet was just as prickly about being lumped with the Impressionists. In neither case did the public pay them any mind.

Dine's work is different from that of other Pop artists, though he shared their passion for tearing down traditional distinctions between art and life and their fascination with commonplace, everyday objects.

But where Warhol and others mostly viewed America's mass-produced soup cans, comic strips and fast food with a certain ironic distance, Dine invests his everyday objects with a heart-on-the-sleeve autobiographical significance.

The exhibition of Jim Dine's work is part of the BMA's Front Room series on contemporary art. The museum has been collecting Dine's work since the 1960s, and Ann Shafer, its assistant curator of prints, drawings and photographs, has assembled a lively selection of about 20 works on paper spanning Dine's 50-year career.

What they reveal is the artist's decades-long fascination with the materials and methods of print-making and his incessant experimentation with the medium.

In the 1973 etching and drypoint print Five Paintbrushes, Dine depicts a row of ordinary hardware-store brushes against a neutral background that suggests a house painter's drop cloth.

Yet these are not the sleek, flawlessly manufactured commercial products one might see in a glossy home-improvement catalog.

Instead, they're a bunch of battered, everyday tools that look as though they have been adapted to the habits of their owner through years of useful service. Every errant bristle and stray dab of paint on them breathes character.

Knowing certain autobiographical details - Dine's father and uncle owned hardware and paint supply businesses when he was growing up - make it easier to envision these humble artifacts as symboling portraits of the men who served as role models for the artist in his youth.

They are also, of course, stand-ins for the artist himself. Dine prides himself on his working-class ethic that treats artwork creation as of no greater intrinsic value than painting a house.

If life and art truly are to be brought closer together, art must be divested of its mystical pretensions.

Though Dine is known today primarily for his activities as a printmaker, he made his initial reputation in New York as a performance artist with colleagues such as Allan Kaprow, who helped develop the Happenings of the early 1960s.

Happenings were improvised group events or performances, often lacking a clear narrative thread, which encouraged various forms of audience participation. At their outset, they were self-conscious attempts to break down the wall between art and life.

Dine's 1960 lithograph series The Crash #1-5 had its genesis in a Happening he performed after miraculously surviving a car accident that killed one of his friends.

The Happening took place in November 1960 at the Reuben Gallery in New York. Dine dressed up in a silver raincoat and cap to portray a car weaving wildly through traffic, represented by other actors with glowing flashlights tucked under their arms. The general uproar was punctuated by shouting voices and car horns blaring through loudspeakers.

Dine's five Crash prints, created after the Happening, make no attempt to depict the accident in realistic terms. They are wholly abstract representations of pain and loss, masses of densely scribbled black marks that express only the urgency of an emotional response.

They are not beautiful in any conventional sense, and yet they manage to convey an unmistakable sense of awful finality.

The show also includes several of Dine's more lighthearted pieces, including a delightful ink drawing of four hearts floating woozily in space and a book of botanical engravings based on prints by 19th-century English naturalist Robert John Thornton.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

ONLINE

Read more about arts and entertainment in Baltimore and beyond at baltimore sun.com/criticalmass

If you go

Front Room: Jim Dine runs through Oct. 5 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.

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