Jim Dine first saw Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines in ArtNews in 1955—and it was a wake-up call, prompting him to move from Ohio to New York in 1958. He soon got involved with the artists creating Happenings, which included Red Grooms, Allan Kaprow, and Claes Oldenburg, among others. Refusing to systematically follow Kaprow’s rule for art that included, “sound, movement, people, touch….paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights,” Dine created his own medium of ‘painter’s theater,’ which involved crafting live performances at various galleries (A. Kaprow, quoted in V. Katz, “Symbols for the Self”, Art in America, December 1999, p. 101).
These performance pieces soon gave way to something else; instead of using found objects in theatrical works, he began to use them in collages and paintings. Dine’s assemblages, like Rauschenberg’s Combines, took objects like a simple suit of clothes, and turned them into something else. Take Green Suit, 1959, which consists of oil, cardboard, and a corduroy suit, and has a ghostly, even forensic, affect—as if the man in the suit has somehow vaporized, not entirely voluntarily.
In these early pieces, Dine treated clothing in particular in a totemic-almost fetishistic way—as in Nancy’s Tie (1960) which consists of aluminum-painted tie against an aluminum background. This important piece, Shoes Walking on My Brain, 1960, consists of a large swath of cloth onto which a pair of the artist’s paint-covered loafers has been mounted. At the upper edge, more cloth gives way to the painted canvas, which anthropomorphically, shows two eyes peering out from behind a band of red paint, topped off by a bunched-up red-and-white checked shirt. The overall sense is as if a corporeal being, maybe the artist himself, had melted onto the canvas, leaving nothing but scraps of clothing and shoes, a disembodied self-portrait that simultaneously seems to eulogize and question the essence of the being that has disappeared, leaving only these concrete traces of life.
With Shoes Walking On My Brain, Dine may be literally following in Rauschenberg’s footsteps, but the piece nonetheless feels authentically autobiographical. The palette alone, which includes cloth that evokes the color of over-ripened flesh, suggests an ode to intimations of mortality. Dine would return to the shoe theme in more than a few other works, including a simple painting of two-toned shoe, redolent of the haberdashery of the 30s, Shoe, 1961, All in One Lycra, 1965, with two sneakers and three partial shoes, all attached to an oil-and-charcoal image on canvas, which also depicts a woman’s girdle, and the sculptural works Large Boot Lying down and A Boot Bench Ochre, both 1965.
As Dine said of his painting, Shoe, 1961, “I was trying to reconstruct a history for myself of whence I came from. A personal mythology that I tried to make for myself, so that I am in this world, so that I am not of ether, I am not of vapor, I have two feet on the ground, I am trying to say it’s me” (J. Dine, quoted J. West, “The Shoe in Art, The Shoe As Art,” in S. Benstock and S. Ferriss (eds.), Footnotes: On Shoes, New Jersey, 2001, p. 48).
Dine’s early work, very different from the more recent images of palettes and hearts with which he is often associated, shows him isolating and fetishizing an anthropomorphic element or object into something that represents the idea of self, usually his own. By the late 1970s, Dine had begun painting clothes, rather than using actual garments, as in his well-known series of empty bathrobe paintings.
Shoes Walking on My Brain is an important example of Dine’s early exploration of self through the collage and assemblage. It is interesting to see the artist’s work in the context of the Pop era in which it emerged. While many of his peers played with found objects and images, advertising or otherwise, their work seemed to refer, in a meta sense, to the object itself. Dine has imbued Shoes Walking on my Brain, with not only a sole (or two), but with a soul. Dine never really considered himself a Pop artist. As he once said in an interview, “Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rauschenberg—they painted everyday consumer items. I use familiar objects, but I use them as a metaphor for my interior landscape” (J. Dine, quoted in “Interview,” Financial Times, April 16, 2004).