Essay by Valerie Fletcher

After leaving Cincinnati for New York in 1958, Jim Dine became one of the pioneers of pop art. Pop artists often chose ordinary everyday objects as their subjects, presenting them with detachment and irony. In part, this was a natural reaction of young artists against the previous generation’s elevated aspirations for abstract expressionism in the 1940s and 1950s. Pop artists consciously developed the cynicism of Dada artists of the 1910s and 1920s (Marcel Duchamp, for example, made “art” from bicycle parts, a snow shovel, even a urinal) to express their rejection of bourgeois society and the concurrent enthusiasm for abstraction.

To that background the Pop artists added an acceptance of the emblems of our consumer society and “low-brow” popular culture. Roy Lichtenstein appropriated images from comics; Andy Warhol painted images of Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes; Jasper Johns favored flags and maps; and Robert Rauschenberg used almost anything from old tires and broken furniture to stuffed birds and electric lights.

Dine painted many images of bathrobes, neckties, hearts, and tools; some compositions incorporated actual objects. Five Feet of Colorful Tools and Black Garden Tools (both 1962) each consisted of a nearly blank canvas surmounted by a row of painted hand tools (one in bright hues, the other in ominous black). This incorporation of real objects marked the beginning of Dine’s interest in sculpture, though he did not develop this tendency until a decade later when he settled his family on a farm in Vermont. The painting Our Life Here (1972) consisted of a row of utilitarian objects, including a penknife, gardening gloves, and a shaving brush. The ordinary objects from his brash pop art days had become personal, referring not only to his own lifestyle but to his family heritage: as a child he had grown up among the wares in his parents’ hardware store.

History of Black Bronze I, 1983

History of Black Bronze I is best understood in the context of art in the 1980s, when many artists referred to and borrowed from historic sources in a process they called “appropriation.” Art became the subject of art.

In format, Dine’s composition of objects on a table may refer to Alberto Giacometti’s surrealist Table (1933), which featured a partially veiled head, a horizontal hand, and a polyhedron on a table. Giacometti’s array of objects referred to other sculptures he was working on at the time. Dine’s History of Black Bronze updated that idea to the 1980s taste for art historical appropriation. He chose objects ranging from icons of classical art to ordinary tools. On the left stands a reproduction of the Venus de Milo, one of the most admired sculptures of a goddess from ancient Greece and one of the major attractions in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Next to the statuette, an upward-reaching hand refers to the expressively modeled hands sculpted by Auguste Rodin in the late nineteenth century. The inspiration for the two adjoining heads is more difficult to pin down; perhaps an allusion to the expressionist heads sculpted by Giacometti in the last decades of his life. On the right, Dine appropriated the head of an Egyptian pharaoh, possibly that of Tutankhamen (a blockbuster exhibition devoted to Tut and his treasures had toured the U.S. in the late 1970s). Dine flanked that image with two hammers, as if to break up the aura of hype and commercialization surrounding King Tut. The tools also refer to Dine’s own paintings of such mundane objects.

Dine’s choice of title and material make further reference to history: the radical transformation of human society and art from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age. As an alloy consisting primarily of copper, bronze starts out as reddish gold and weathers to a bluish green or brown. To become black, bronze requires human intervention; for millennia, bronze casters had applied chemicals to create a black patina over the surface of bronze statues. The word “black” in the title may also allude to the darker history of bronze in ancient times: the alloy facilitated the making of weapons.

Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.