Jim Dine, History of Black Bronze I

Jim Dine, History of Black Bronze I, 1983. Bronze, 53-1/4 × 48 × 20 inches Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift of Industrial Petro-Chemicals, Inc., 1987 (1987.363). Photo by Mark Menjivar.

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Valerie Fletcher: When Jim Dine left his native Cincinnati in 1958 to go to New York and become an artist, he did not yet realize that his family’s business would have an impact on his art. His family had a hardware store in Cincinnati. Jim Dine, when he first began working as an artist, was primarily a painter. And as his subject, he often took ordinary objects from everyday life. This put him in the circle of the emerging Pop Artists Movement, which is a reaction against abstraction and very refined sense of aesthetics; Rather, they wanted to return art to a common appeal from ordinary life to ordinary people. Andy Warhol for example was painting soup cans and Brillo boxes. Lichtenstein was depicting comics or images related to comic books. Jim Dine was painting, for example a series of canvases on a man’s tie, a four-foot high tie in peach for example.

As time went on, he moved to Vermont and lived on a farm with his family, and as time went further on in the 70s and 80s, he became caught up equally in the idea that a subject of art could be art. Indeed many artists in the 1980s were addressing the history of art as their motif in their own works. And so in The History of Black Bronze, the sculpture here by Jim Dine in 1983, he is presenting a tabletop array of motifs. One of them is the Venus de Milo, one of the great icons of classical Greco-Roman sculpture and one of the great attractions in Musée du Louvre in Paris. Another one is a Pharaonic head of one of the pharaohs from ancient Egypt. Then there are two heads, possibly female but indeterminate, that had merged together in a very expressionist style, this possibly an evocation of the works of Alberto Giacometti, the Swiss sculptor who worked in Paris, and indeed Giacometti made a sculpture called The Surrealist Table with objects that he thought were of interest in 1933. Then on Jim Dine’s table, there is an upraised hand that is probably a reference to the hand sculptures done as kind of anguished motifs by Auguste Rodin in the 1890s. And then there are a couple of hammers and a pry bar. These tools indeed relate to Jim Dine’s own art because he had been doing paintings and sculptures of tools, hammers, shovels, pickaxes, and screwdrivers, and painters’ brushes. And so together here in this one tabletop array, he has put together his love of the history of art dating back to ancient Greece and Rome. Right up through the present time, through the surrealism of Giacometti and the expressionism of Rodin to his own art, which is using ordinary objects from everyday life as a pretext for creating works of art.

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Jim Dine, Augustus History of Black Bronze I, 1983.

American, born 1935

Born and raised in Ohio, Jim Dine moved to New York in 1958 and established himself in the art world with theatrical Happenings performed in chaotic, artist-built environments. During that time, Dine began experimenting with assemblages and incorporating common objects into his paintings, drawings, and prints. In this tradition, he became one of the pioneers of Pop art. A natural reaction against the previous generation’s elevated aspirations for abstract expressionism, Pop artists often chose ordinary everyday objects as their subjects, presenting them with detachment and irony while adding an acceptance of the emblems of our consumer society and “low-brow” popular culture. Dine painted many images of bathrobes, neckties, hearts, and tools; some of his compositions incorporated actual objects, a decision that marked the beginning of Dine’s interest in sculpture.

By the late 1960s, Dine turned his attention from the ordinary objects used during his brash Pop art days to ones that had increasing personal significance. His composition of objects on a table may refer to Alberto Giacometti’s (1901–1966) surrealist Table (1933), which features objects that refer to Giacometti's other sculptures. Dine’s History of Black Bronze updates that idea to the 1980s taste for art historical appropriation. He chose objects ranging from icons of classical art to the ordinary tools that became symbolic subjects for the artist, a resonance that stems from Dine's time working in his family’s hardware store.

Dine’s choice of title and material make further reference to history, specifically 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 monochromatic surface and size uniformity of the objects on the table elevate the mundane hammer to the level of appreciation warranted by the classical Venus de Milo. 

Jim Dine, History of Black Bronze I, 1983. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Jim Dine, History of Black Bronze I, 1983. Photo by Mark Menjivar.

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