One hates to give a "sell" rating to an artist who actually knows how to draw and paint -- no small accomplishment in this day and age. Unfortunately, such is the case when it comes to analyzing the market potential of Jim Dine.
During the late 1950s, Dine got his start as a performance artist (back then, performances were called "Happenings"). Often, an artist goes into performance because he lacks any real talent. Jim Dine, however, was different. He possessed serious art skills and soon discovered his direction during the birth of Pop Art.
Dine found representation with the Sidney Janis Gallery and began his series of hearts, bathrobes, house tools and trees. The work won immediate acceptance as collectors found the imagery easy to live with. Had Dine kept moving forward and allowed the work to evolve, he may have had an even more impressive career. Instead, he took the easy way out.
It's been said that once an artist finds acceptance painting a specific subject, it's extremely difficult to move beyond it. An artist can work away for ten, 20, or more years when suddenly a body of work clicks with the public. Your dealer is happy, the positive reviews pour in, and your sales keep increasing.
The truly great artists don't rest on their laurels. They take risks and continue to explore new possibilities. Imagine what would have happened if the great artist Philip Guston had played it safe by sticking with his Abstract Expressionist style. Instead, he chanced everything by painting his now-famous quirky representational subject matter.
For whatever reason, Dine has never felt compelled to endure the painful soul-searching that Guston must have faced. Almost 40 years after painting his first heart and robe, he continues to crank out variations of the same images. This is not to be confused with the example of Gorgio Morandi and his wonderful still lifes. In Morandi's case, his humble bottles and objects were painted over and over, with an ever greater sense of meaning and spirituality. Dine's paintings lack that sort of depth. They are what they are -- attractive depictions of a limited personal vocabulary.
It says something about Dine's market that only one of his pictures has appeared in an evening auction over the last two years. In that one instance, at Sotheby's last May, the picture was of day-sale quality. One sensed they placed it in the sale out of desperation for material. The painting, Car Crash, an immature work from 1959-60, sold for $68,500. Other than that fluke, nothing else has recently come up in the prestigious "Part I" sales, and it's not because the work is scarce -- it's because collectors and dealers are scared to take a chance.
In general, the day sales have been kinder to Dine. Often, when a quality early watercolor or pastel comes up, it sells within, or slightly above, estimate. Two recent examples come to mind. At Christie's (Nov. 2000), a flashy watercolor from 1972 of two hearts, Untitled (Hearts), sold for $39,950, against an estimate of $25,000-$35,000. Over at Sotheby's (Nov. 2000), a convincing drawing from 1975 of a pair of farmer's pitchforks, Two Forks, sold for $24,900, just below its low estimate of $25,000-$35,000.
The message to Dine collectors seems clear. Unless you can find a first-rate painting of a heart or robe, better to spend less money and buy a work on paper. A large heart or robe canvas would probably bring $150,000 to $300,000 at auction. A good representative drawing can be had for $25,000-$45,000. By acquiring a work on paper, at least you end up with something that shows off the artist's real strength -- drawing.
From his gallery's standpoint, Dine is a cash cow. He is rumored to be PaceWildenstein's biggest selling artist. Obviously, unless you're Pace's accountant, you'll never know for sure. But it's a highly plausible theory, given the massive number of prints the artist produces and sells. Once again, when it came to his prints, it appeared that Dine took the easy path.
Occasionally, artists produce black and white etchings that they hand-color with pastel or watercolor. Wayne Thiebaud is one artist who comes to mind who enjoys doing this. However, most artists do this as the exception -- Dine has made it the rule. It's incredible how often he releases a print and then hand-colors the entire edition. By doing so, the dealer can mark up the price and get away with selling the print as unique. These prints often sell in the $5,000-$20,000 price range. If you insist on supporting the artist, better to stick with a regular editioned print.
It's often uncomfortable writing negative things about a legitimate artist. In a way, I have always felt that unless I could do any better, perhaps it was wiser not to say anything at all. It reminds me of the time that I once witnessed the great baseball player, Barry Bonds, come under relentless heckling from a lone fan. Bonds scanned the audience, located his tormentor, and then made a gesture with his bat -- as if he were handing it to the fan. When he made eye contact, Bonds then brought his finger to his mouth, making the universal gesture for silence.
The message, to the now stunned fan, was crystal clear -- unless he thought he could hit a major league fastball, he had better keep his mouth shut. The difference is that the fan was only paying $25 or so to watch the game. Jim Dine's fans pay tens of thousands of dollars. For that kind of money, he had better improve his batting average.
Recommended reading: Jim Dine by David Shapiro.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.