Jim Dine, Five Feet of Colorful Tools (1962)


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 attempt 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.

Robert Creeley, “Jim Dine/Five Themes”, in The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley (University of California Press, 1989)

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