You can learn a lot about Jim Dine from his self-portraits. There's nobody in them.
When Dine portrays himself he doesn't paint his face. He paints an empty robe. It's a bathrobe or a dressing gown, it's got a sash and a shawl collar, and it holds its sleeves akimbo. It occurs more than 20 times in "Jim Dine: Five Themes," which goes on view today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
The robe is baffling at first. But not for very long. That Portrait of the Artist as a Well-Dressed Absence soon begins to seem entirely appropriate.
Dine's art is mostly surface. This is a hollow show.
Dine, now 49, who has been an art world eminence for more than 20 years, has made some lovely things. In particular I remember an almost Rembrandtesque etching of a paint brush whose curving, beat-up bristles rushed off every which way like some madman's hair. But there are no etchings here. He has made fine drawings, too. Those here of tools are the show's nicest pictures, but they are much outnumbered by more portentous objects. Dine, this show makes clear, is a miniaturist of sorts, an artist who is at his best when aiming at the small. But Graham W.J. Beal, who picked the exhibition for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, has filled it with the painter's biggest, most puffed-up works of art.
Some are wall-sized paintings. Some are heavy bronzes. They depict not only robes, but hearts, tools, trees and gates -- hence the "Five Themes" of the title. Most are sensuously surfaced and handsomely designed. Dine, there is no doubt, can paint and draw and decorate. It's not his hand that disappoints. It's his mind.
Look, for instance, at Dine's "Hearts." Some are big, some small. Some are bright, some dark. Some are rather jolly, like heart-shaped candy boxes. Many more are ominous, and a few drip drips of blood. The new bronze hearts displayed outside the museum are a full 13 feet high. They're encrusted with bronze shoes, flashlights, nails, tools. Dine's hearts arrive equipped with all sorts of attached objects -- lawnmowers, C-clamps, sticks, old gloves. One metal heart inside -- called "Nancy and I at Ithaca" (1966-69) -- is covered with fresh straw.
What, the viewer wonders, is the Dine heart supposed to mean? He offers many answers. "It is a lot of things," he's said, "a living heart, a valentine . . . It's everything, really, a vagina, an ass . . . "
That's the problem. A symbol that evokes "everything, really" -- the sacred heart of Jesus, buttocks, a Hallmark Card or a meal for a goat -- is less a symbol than a shell, an empty shell. Dine's imagery feels gratuitious. The paintings in this show -- some turbulent, some stiff, some gloom-drenched and some happy -- diminish one another by their repetitions.
One of Dine's tree paintings is called "A Tiger Lies at the Bottom of our Garden." He has taken the phrase from "Little Black Sambo," the story of the tigers who chased round and round the tree until they turned to butter. Something of the sort happens to Dine's themes. They are like words repeated too often -- say, "heartheartheartheartheart." They turn to mush.
Dine doesn't seem to mind. He hangs tools on his paintings because . . . well, because he does. "I move them around a lot and the decisions are not based on anything conscious." A heart, a metal gate, a thick-torsoed, leafless tree -- one theme for the artist is much like any other. Four are given equal weight in the big picture he calls "Painting (Cruising) (La Chasse)" (1981).
"I love this painting almost as much as anything I have ever done," he's said. From left to right it shows a Star of David, a tree, a heart, and a metal gate (it also includes a hammer and a mannequin's plaster hand). "The act of cruising was what I was doing here, cruising my themes and cruising as a painter. That is, I was taking chances . . . This was a sort of random search . . . "
Dine, of course, has a perfect right to chase round and round a theme until it turns to butter or liberates his mind. But the randomness that frees his brush -- that suggestion that a tree and a Star of David are of equal value, that the differences between them do not really matter -- soon gets irritating.
The bleeding heart and Star of David, even when they're doodled (and one often thinks of doodling while walking through Dine's show), have important meanings, meanings we are stuck with. That is not true of every form. Oft-repeated formats are much more easily excused when they carry with them no literary baggage. Frank Stella's protractors aren't about geometry lessons; Kenneth Noland's chevrons aren't about gas stations or sergeants. They are skeletal supports for wholly abstract pictures, and we read them as such.
But Dine refuses to be an abstract artist. True, he often paints as if he were one -- he moves the goo about in the New York Abstract Expressionist tradition, he adds a blue clamp to a painting "not because it was a clamp, but because it was a beautiful piece of blue," and he often paints as if he were in some deep trance beyond thought. But he won't give up his "themes," his robes and hearts and gates. He says he needs "a hook," something "to hang paint on."
Perhaps those hooks help him. But they make his viewers trip.
Because he'll decorate a canvas with what Groucho Marx used to call "a common object, something you might find around the house," Dine was once regarded as a kind of a pop artist. In the 1960s, his name was mentioned with those of Johns and Rauschenberg. But we see now that he has less in common with them then we used to think. Today Dine seems a decorative artist, a manipulator of surfaces, a latter-day Abstract Expressionist who, in the act of painting, relies, most of all, on his practiced taste.
Beal, in the adoring catalogue, does his best to make Dine seem much more than that -- a poet, a deep thinker and a prophet, too. Beal, who is now chief curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, cites all sorts of masters -- Gru newald, Bosch, Picabia, Duchamp -- in an effort to convince us that Dine is not just a minor miniaturist, or a skillful professional, but "a leading figure of the revitalized expressionist movement."
With that contention off his chest, Beal soars into the stratosphere: "The theme is the paint;" he writes, "the paint is the theme; the theme is Dine; Dine is the paint." That sort of numbing repetition, that gratuitous reiteration, that blah blah blah, points to the chief flaw of this disappointing show.
Best Products and the National Endowment for the Arts helped pay for it. It opened last summer in Minneapolis and has already been to five other cities. The show will close here April 28.