Preferred Citation: Creeley, Robert. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.

Jim Dine/Five Themes

Jim Dine/Five Themes


Just as one's self will serve as constant in a world of otherwise shifting reference, a heart is sign that one can care, that there is a consistent presence of feeling. In a curious way this heart is neither inside nor outside oneself but, rather, exists in a hieratic determination of its own possibility, and so lives in a place that can be as powerfully singular and remote as the moon or as physically evident and contained as one's own hands, feet, and head.

This heart is an imagination, of course. One knows the actual heart looks not at all like those most familiar from the iconographic slogans of Valentine's Day—which seems itself an invention from faint root except that there must be one day on which, unequivocally, hearts triumph. Have a heart  . . .

It would be an error, however, to presume that these specific hearts are either symbolic or ultimately abstract. They are far more like weather, a shifting presence that has faces but is not itself a fixed content. More apt then to call them, among other things, a ground or context which serves as means for feeling out the possibilities of what is going on.

The insistent echoes of this image must have been delight to an artist so remarkably open to language and its powers. One can trust the associations here of everything from 'A heart as big as all

Jim Dine/Five Themes , ed. Graham W.J. Beal (New York: Abbeville Press, 1983).


outdoors' to 'hardhearted' or 'broken-hearted' or, simply, 'The heart of the matter.' The language of the titles is a useful evidence of how variously this 'heart' can find occasion, whether it prove "I'm Painting with my Animals," where a veritable outside comes in to lean against the heart, or "Nancy and I at Ithaca (Straw Heart)" with its backward pun upon The Wizard of Oz . The point is that it does not stand for something else nor has it only a force determined by what it means, or wants to. As a presence it gathers resonance as would a cross or flag, even without information. Playing literalizing objects against it, or determining it as object also (as must be the case with "sheet iron and straw, 60 × 70 × 12 1/2"), leaves it much as a whale on a beach, persistently itself in whatever locus.

Therefore what changes is all else, and that is why one does engage in "Romancing in Late Winter" and "Painting a Fortress for the Heart." It is an elegant, fructifying image, often voluptuous in its provocatively paired French curves. Yet one feels the pain and frustration its emblem has incessantly borne with it, pierced with arrows, split in two, blackened, cracked. It wears its colors bravely.


If clothes can make the man, these robes exist in a place that is neither quite one nor the other. They stand foursquare through the years, sometimes primarily an outline but always with an intrinsic volume much as if an invisible man were their occupant. In that way they are like houses for a particular imaginal body, a self embodied in a 'self portrait,' which sees always what it is either doing or what is being done to it. The heads are missing because the plane of the painting has no room for them. They would fall off like those ships once were thought to, having come to the edge of the ocean. But more, the torso is under the cloth, not apart from it. There are no necks or hands, for example.

It is also interesting that they are robes, not suits, or coats or other modes of clothing. It seems that a robe, a bathrobe or dressing gown as it may variously be called, makes a dignity possible between a state of usual dress and undress. It is both intimate and intently formal. So too is the repetitive stance, faced to a presumable mirror, taking a clearly determined look.

Initially it all seems playful or at least open to an employment of possibilities which are more fact of the situation resolved on than


what's brought to it. "Double Isometric Self-Portrait (Serape)" and "Self-Portrait Next to a Colored Window" each have a double play on any presumed fact of person, not only this one. In short, the same is not the same but always different. It thinks apart from itself, by objectifying mechanical agency in one instance (it holds itself together, thank you (twice)) and, in the other, what's alongside so defines it that there's no getting out of it at all (a dotted line no less). Another work of this year (1964) has much the same intrinsic humor, "Charcoal Self-Portrait in Cement Garden," the garden a few fragmented bits of funereal oddment or possibly pedestals for birdbaths—but nothing, in fact, very funny at all as the figure back of them finds its dimension and substance somehow located by these squat, small solidnesses. Its belt, for example, has become curiously persuaded.

A little more than ten years later one finds much changed, although the apparent form has survived. Yet one might say that in this work, all of it, content is never more than an extension of form(s). Paradoxically, that formula can be read either way since the terms prove inseparable, at least in thought. And while this work is not overtly intellectual exercise, any of it, it is deeply thoughtful, thinks through feeling. Now there is nothing in front of the image, no term of inherent reflection. All that happens, or that has happened, is manifest directly on the face of what one sees. There one is, whoever, and again as with the surface of the hearts—or literal person or painting—what happens happens here, and is that information, happy, sad, all the same. And all comes closer.


Here associations are more explicit, although that may have only to do with the fact that one's information of the Dine family's involvement with classic hardware tools —they had a store in Cincinnati—is both provocative and secure. It was the substantial factor in the family's economy. The young artist worked occasionally in the store relating. Tools are both insistent and functional, suggest a complexly ranging physical environment and also keep the stability of 'home,' are familiar and strange.

He obviously thought about them a good deal and if the hearts were and are the emotional weather of his life, the robes the at-


tempt to see oneself not only as others might see one but as that sight given back, then tools are somehow what one does and can do. Or, perhaps better, one can recognize things are done and these things do them. The occasional presence of a glove in the company, in "Untitled (1973)," for example, makes clear the transitional factor of agency, the who does what with what. The tools are forever. At times they are far more than what their function, taken literally, will provide for and two hammers with immensely elongated handles become "The Hammer Doorway." How can one confidently propose this is simply a metaphor for what hammers can make, or a play on the visual suggestions of a hammer head, or even some threatening possibility there is to be violence 'inside'?

At times the tools are codifying anchor for a reality—the artist's whimsical and perceptive understanding of the powers of order—that includes a solid emphasis upon all manner of literal and abstract thing. "Five Feet of Colorful Tools," crowding in all respects the top of this painting "with board and objects," has as much practical density as people waiting for a subway and as curiously evident a sense of time as old coats hung in a closet. All the echoic layering is, one would think, a good deal more than simple memories. If "a place for everything and everything in its place" were ever to have a chance in this world, this painting would still come to haunt it. The act of hanging things up, putting things back, respecting things the way they were, is all wound in here in a way neither ironic nor pragmatic. Even who hung them up is very much a question.

Still the presence of tools is remarkably particular and common, even when they are in situations of transformation ("The Hammer Doorway") or, in some sense, visually incomplete ("Untitled (Pliers)"). They also take place in the painting, drawing, assemblage, etc., in a very matter-of-fact way, upright, either sitting firmly on bottom margin or plane, or else hung in like manner. Clearly they are the things that do work and can, however various, echoing and unlocated one's own relation to them may sometimes be.


There seems some change in preoccupations here. For one thing, the gates —or more truly the gate, since the images come from one factual gate, as the titles make clear—are a new presence in the ico-


nography. Too, they, along with the trees (which are also new arrivals), are referred to as "forms to hang paintings on." But that is nothing so remarkably new, thinking of the robes and hearts. Often the image has been used as a constant, repetitively, to permit the painting to move as freely in its experience as impulse and recognitions might permit. Insofar as the phrase refers to gates and trees, that sense of "to hang paintings on" is inevitably interesting. One is sure it was no casually determined expression.

"The Crommelynck Gate" can be found at 172 rue de Grenelle, Paris, which is the address of Aldo Crommelynck, master engraver and printer, who with his brother has collaborated in a singular range of etchings, from those of Picasso and Matisse to Jasper Johns and Dine himself, with whom he has worked on several projects in recent years. This gate is the entrance to the atelier and residence. The place has a grand and imposing air, somewhat like a hospital or official residence. Dine must have passed through this particular gate many times, to sit at an immaculate work bench, attended by very specific provision and respect, to make art , as is said. So these gates (or gate) have an unexpected parallel to those gates most common in American habit possibly, those of a factory. The other gates one thinks of quickly are the cemetery's (or heaven's).

Whatever might prove the case, the fact that this image has a literal source is useful. One supposes that most of Dine's images are so founded, but again the accessible fact of this one gives means to recognize the particular modes of investment and change he works with. It is interesting that the image is intently centered, that one sees that much of it which would be commonly seen walking toward it from some short distance away. One is reminded of a cinematic device or focus, curiously, as though one were the 'eye' of a camera.

In quite another sense, a poem of Thomas Hardy's recounts the awesome terror of approaching such a gate—the gate to death itself—to see on its other side the ghoulish objects of despair and terminus beckoning. Then he asks, were it simpler to pass through and have done, rather than to live knowing one will one day come again? These images depend on an almost elegant insistence of tracery upon a vast emptiness of opened space. The formal fascinates because it is all that is there to hold any concept, any possibility, of place. But there is nothing seemingly behind it, but "Fog," but blackness. Even at home ("Vermont") it remains ambiguously inviting.

Is one to stop here? All art would wish to remain at one with its


human limit, to be so contained. Clearly there is to be an end. But here one cannot know whether this is its sign, or simply the thing we see, waiting.


There seems always an emphasis upon the singular, the one. Even in a cluster, of tools, for example, it is their particularity as single objects that determines the nature of their company. It is a feeling that they have come together, as people might in some public situation, each from some specific circumstance or use.

There is, in fact, an anthropomorphic disposition in many of the images but it is not an enlargement of their proposed value, by presumption of human attributes. Rather they are seen intently, intensely, in ways that make of them precise human contexts and evocations.

Of all the themes variously engaged, only the trees might be said to have no necessarily human origin or invention. Certainly the tools and the hearts are each artifacts that have no meaning apart from how one may use them. Again, the image of the heart has finally little to do with that physical organ it so faintly represents, however closely it may relate to an imagined heart's crucial significance to human life itself. So too with the robes and gates.

However, the language of the titles insists equally upon this relation for the trees: "Painting as Summer Ends"; "Red Tree, Flesh Tree"; "A Tree in the Shadow of Our Intimacy"; "A Tiger Lies at the Bottom of Our Garden." Much as a figure approaching or else loomingly present, the trees are central in each image. Either one looks up to them, or sees them directly ahead, so to speak, in a scale significantly larger than one's own. In that respect they are as dense with imminent human information as might be any actual human figure.

Very probably this fact invests the appearance of these trees, this tree (one would feel them to be a single tree, in shifting perspectives but always forefront), with echoes of a human torso or, more aptly, the look of the robe images with open space of the neck a marked parallel to the effect of the tree's crotch. It is particularly evident in "Desire," with its three panels of robe, tree, and heart respectively. Someone is insistently here , one wants to say, whether it be the artist, the onlooker, or the image found in the work itself.


One feels witness to a presence which will momently say much more than its brooding silence will now permit.

To see the trunks of trees, the entangled, twisted branches, as a myriad of human detail (hair, arms, fingers, bodies) would be a familiar nightmare of children, for whom the thing must be the thing as one sees it, without relief. "A Tiger Lies at the Bottom of Our Garden" plays complexly on a diversity of text, both in language and in image, confronting any possibility of securing resolution or containment with unremitting ambivalence. So does a reflecting 'tree of life' become the life itself.

For J. D.

Pass on by, love,
wait by that garden gate.
Swing on, up
on heaven's gate.

The confounding, confronted
pictures of world
brought to signs
of its persistent self

are here in all colors, sizes—
and hearts as big as all outdoors,
a weather of spaces,
intervals between silences.


Jim Dine/Five Themes

Preferred Citation: Creeley, Robert. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.