"Drawings of Jim Dine," Mar. 21-Aug. 1, 2004, at the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20565.
It is not clear to me why there is a Jim Dine drawings survey at the National Gallery of Art.
Dine's drawings are pleasant enough. But that's about it. Dine isn't a particularly great draftsman, nor is he a particularly poor one. Dine is not particularly innovative, but he's not completely re-visiting old ideas. Ultimately the National Gallery's Dine show provokes a certain extreme ambivalence, like retinal Valium. If you can't handle the news from Iraq, or if you find the Condi-and-Clarke back-and-forth confusing; if you want to shut off your brain and look at the drawing equivalent of an episode of The O.C., this is the show for you.
It's an especially comfy exhibition if you're familiar with Dine's work. All the familiar Dine objects are here: saws, scissors, hammers, brace and bits, hammers, flowers and so on. The Dine process is straightforward: Render daily items with handsy precisionism. Differentiate the work from Pop art by adding just enough scuffing, scraping, knifing or glued objects to be distinctive.
One of the standard observations about Dine's work is that he mixes Pop objects with the gestural techniques of abstract expressionists. It is a standard observation because it's so easy to see, maybe too easy. This show makes much of Dine's personal Pop sensibility. In The Cousins' Drawing Dine places a saw, a paint brush, a hammer and a brace and bit in a garden of flowers. Some people tend to their gardens and treat them with reverence. Dine is speaking from his craft: gardens grow from the ground, his art comes from his tools. Elsewhere in the show, Dine's drawings of Pinocchio reinforce this personal Pop feeling. In the fairy tale, Pinocchio was born from the hand of a tool-loving artisan, just like Dine's drawings are born from the hand of a tool-loving artisan.
While some of Dine's drawings are engaging (The Cousins' Drawing, Tree (The Kimono), an untitled series of tools that are in the Museum of Modern Art's collection), many others feel awkward and forced. The first full room of the NGA's show is filled mostly with nudes and other figurative drawing. The nudes look particularly stiff and uncomfortable, like they want to be anywhere but in front of Dine. Or maybe Dine was just ambivalent about them -- the tool drawings, with all their meticulously straight lines and right angles are created with far more passion than these nudes. The attachment of everyday objects to the paper, say a glove, only calls attention to the lifelessness of the drawn image. By contrast, Dine must have been really interested in the representation of the saws he draws, as evidenced by how he carefully rendered the serrated edge of a saw blade.
The show ends on a been-there, done-that, drew-the-t-shirt note. The last room of the show features 40 works collectively called the Glyptotek Drawings. They are drawings of classical objects from the sort of museum where I would expect stiff waistcoats to be en vogue. The drawings, presented in a cavernous room in the NGA's West Building, would look fine in an art student's portfolio. But as the last room of a National Gallery show, it provides the punctuation for two key questions: Why is the National Gallery launching a Jim Dine drawing show and why now?
Here's what I came up with: It is spring break and cherry blossom season in Washington and the National Gallery decided to put on a nice show for the tourists to come see. (Not that the National Gallery would cop to that.)
And why now? The National Gallery frequently reminds us that this is the first Dine drawings survey in over 15 years, as if we need a Dine drawing show every 15 years. No doubt drawing is ubiquitous these days. Many artists are embracing making work with their hands and not with their Duchampian cortex. However it is Marcel Dzama-style drawing, full of figures on white backgrounds lacking context or surroundings, or architecturally-derived drawing, think Julie Mehretu, that is most prevalent now. I can think of no family tree of contemporary drawing that leads back to Jim Dine. If there's an art historical reason for this show to be here, I can't think of it.
Simply, Dine is a safe, serviceable artist, exactly the sort of fellow toward whom a living-artist-adverse institution would gravitate. Dine is the first living artist in almost two years to receive an NGA show. (A Christo and Jean-Claude drawings show opened in the East Building in early 2002.) In the same time span both the National Gallery of Canada and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to name two institutions that are reasonably similar to the NGA, have featured more living artists. "It is always a privilege to celebrate the work of an artist still actively engaged in making art," NGA director Earl A. Powell III says. If it is such a privilege, why is it a rare privilege for the National Gallery, and, still, why Jim Dine?