Jim Dine is a grandfather, yet in some essential ways, very much the child. His art, full of familiar motifs such as hearts and bathrobes to which he has returned over and over throughout his career, has the single-minded relentlessness of a youngster in search of a lost, loved object. The child knows it is there, hidden among the known, the familiar, and he is convinced he will find it, if only he looks long and hard enough.
The evocation of childhood with respect to Dine's work is more than casually appropriate, for he considers himself on a constant journey into his own early days.
"I'm into autobiography," says the artist, peering intently through his round black glasses at the PaceWildenstein Los Angeles Gallery where his latest works are on display. "I'm doing an exploration of my childhood, making it available to me by trying to understand my own landscape."
At first glance, these large diptychs and triptychs, accomplished mostly during the past year and a half while Dine was in Berlin, are full of the familiar. Hearts. Skulls. Ravens. Owls. For Dine, they also are full of the new.
"These forms come back to me in different ways; I don't like dropping them because I've made them mine. They aren't familiar. Every time I do them, I find something new. I'm not interested in doing what I did 30 years ago," he declares.
In addition, Dine says, the re-united German city is in the midst of a troubling transition and the work expresses that. "The paintings are dark, but so is the city."
Closer inspection reveals a sort of archaeology of Dine's time in Berlin. The surfaces are rough, gritty. Dine explains on the one hand that "regular paints are not easily available in Berlin, so artists mix their paint with a sort of sand to extend them." But Dine also explains that the complexity of the paintings' surface shows a new depth of commitment on his part.
"I took longer with these paintings than I usually do. I gave myself permission. They are deeper, more complicated paintings," he muses. "They reflect my isolation in a city that both troubles and interests me."
Dine's interest in Europe is not new. Dubbed a Pop Artist in the 1960s, Dine vaulted to international acclaim early in his career. Despite the attention his work received, Dine never felt comfortable with the label. "It was a creation of the media from the beginning. They like to put people in little boxes."
Beyond that, "I never felt a part of the '60s," he claims, maintaining that it passed him by - despite his aggressive presence in the performance art of the period, along with other well-known artists of the time, such as Red Groom and Claes Oldenburg.
"I had to grow up in public," he points out, "which was very uncomfortable." Finally he left the country, wife and three young children in tow, explaining, "I ran away to Europe to find my voice."
Once there, Dine went back to the drawing board, literally. He began to relearn basic draftsmanship in the land of the classical masters. "I went to the Glyptotech in Munich, where I would draw at night," he says, remembering long evenings contemplating the ancient stone sculptures and being very moved by them. Dine said it was during this period that he developed a sense of history. "I come from a long line of artists, from the Western artistic traditions, and I realized they were there for me to use and be enriched by."
This move was a wise decision, according to Graham W.J. Beal, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "This is the sign of a serious, dedicated artist who knows he's in danger of repeating himself," Beal says. "He was willing to turn away from the attention he was receiving and regenerate himself, which stood him in very good stead."
In retrospect, says Mr. Beal, the move paid off in Dine's work, where a deeper, more thoughtful approach began to emerge. "You see that Dine moved away from a flatness in his earlier drawings and objects to a more complicated portrayal of three dimensions."
Arne Glimcher, chairman of the PaceWildenstein Los Angeles, maintains that the Pop label was never appropriate for Dine. "Jim was always painterly; he's always been into his materials, which the Pop artists like Warhol were not. They would negate their materials into ideas," he points out, adding that "Jim was really their antithesis in some basic ways."
Mr. Glimcher elaborates by saying, "With the Pop artists, their ideas changed, but their manner didn't. In some ways, Dine is a very old-fashioned painter."
In fact, romantic is a word Dine freely applies to himself, both in terms of his outlook on life and his approach to painting. "Subject matter is the romance one has with the life you're in," comments the artist, saying that he has a romance with all his familiar icons, from the birds to the bathrobes. "I have a romance with my life as an artist," he reflects, noting that he knew this was his life's work since age 2.
Dine says he respects some of the great artists of our times - Picasso, Munch, Giacometti in particular for, as he calls it, "his having an exemplary life in art," something to which Dine aspires.
In pursuit of that goal, Dine works to express what he calls his romance with the simplest, primal things in life - from the tools of his grandfather's hardware store to the familiar face of his wife, filmmaker Nancy Dine.
"I'm interested in exploring my relationship with myself," says Dine, adding, "I'm interested in turning up the heat and putting my foot on the gas."
A concept any child could easily understand. The only card the adult Dine holds over the youngster is the knowledge that while he might never find what he seeks, the search alone is eminently worthwhile.
'Jim Dine: Recent Work' will be displayed at the PaceWildenstein Gallery in New York Dec. 5 - Jan. 11.