Big Black Zipper was created during a crucial year for the artist, near the beginning of a highly-successful and influential career that started in the late 1950s and continues right up to the present moment, in the artist’s eighth decade. The present work is a monochrome painting, entirely in black, the brushwork a thickly applied and diagonally organized crosshatched impasto pattern (evocative of the weave of cloth) occupying the entire surface of the canvas from edge-to-edge. As compositional element, the crosshatching seems to draw the viewer’s eye toward the zipper at the center of the painting. The black monochrome character of the work, together with the symmetry of the composition, marks it as one of the most spare of Dine’s numerous paintings incorporating physical objects within the style of the assemblage art medium.
Through his generous application of paint via brush or palette knife, Dine’s clear intention seemed to be to emphasize the surface of the canvas, possibly as an ironic wink toward the Abstract Expressionist painters. “For the Abstract Expressionists expressive brushwork and evident process were perceived as more honest and sincere vehicles of a personal emotional content. The same rapid execution and thick impasto…seem to be Dine’s way of proposing the reverse: that luscious paint handling may be beautiful surface, but it is the common object described by the brushwork which most powerfully conveys private symbolism, mythic presence, and expressive content. Dine’s use of objects (both real and painted) was at least in part a reaction to the emotional catharsis and focus on the act of painting celebrated by Abstract Expressionism” (M. Daniel, “Jim Dine,” in S. Hunter, Selections from the Ileana and Michael Sonnabend Collection: Works from the 1950s and 1960s, Princeton, 1985, p. 45).
Dividing the canvas exactly in half vertically from top to bottom is a zipper that suggests separation and a dividing line, but also movement and energy. This is not a painted image representation of a zipper but rather an actual object. Zippers suggest connotations of connecting, of opening or of closing two interrelated halves such as would be found with articles of apparel. Indeed, Dine is well known for work employing images of clothing (bathrobes and suits are two of his motifs) as a way of exploring themes of human presence and absence. In Big Black Zipper the zipper functions in a manner very different from that found in the technique of trompe-l'œil; Dine has no interest in deceiving the eye, of creating an optical illusion. Instead, the zipper has the effect of drawing the viewer’s attention to the painting as a surface rather than achieving an illusion suggesting an outside reality that would draw the viewer’s gaze away from considering the painted canvas. Clothing fasteners such as buttons and zippers are ornamental, just as painted surfaces may be decorative. But they also have a practical function. They hold or connect two parts, as the zipper here seems to be joining the two halves of the canvas. But they also obscure from view what is behind them, as articles of clothing cover, protect, and hide from view the human form beneath the garments. Continuing the metaphor to the current work, there is a suggestion that the reality of the work exists beyond merely the visible, painted surface, suggesting a mystery beyond that which is visible on the surface of the canvas.
Dine’s choice of incorporating or juxtaposing actual physical objects in dialogue with painted canvas or other painted surfaces was a characteristic, signature strategy of his from this period. Even before moving to New York, Dine “was particularly seduced by the methods employed by Robert Rauschenberg in his ‘combines’ of the mid-to-late 1950s, hybrids of painting and sculpture that incorporated found objects and fragments of printed matter to provide both structure and imagery…The way in which these artists used objects, and treated the painting itself as a physical object, was ‘so reaffirming of things I was thinking about,’” said Dine, “confirming (his) conviction ‘that anything was possible’” (M. Livingstone, Jim Dine: The Alchemy of Images, New York, 1998, p. 44).
1962 was a watershed moment for Dine. It was the year he met Ileana Sonnabend and began his 14-year long association with the Sonnabend gallery. It was the year that he began to receive major critical attention. 1962 was also the year he was included in the influential “New Paintings of Common Objects” exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), the first significant survey of Pop Art. The approach that Dine—along with Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns—helped to pioneer has been thoroughly adopted as working strategy within post-1960s contemporary art: favoring the comic and ironic over the grandiose, tragic or historic; the local and particular instead of the universal; personal and individual expression rather than all-embracing symbols or meanings. As a strategy, it has had the effect of blurring boundaries between genres such as painting and sculpture, dissolving distinctions. Through paintings such as Big Black Zipper, Dine’s work has been enormously influential—both in its handling of form and content—for artists of the post-60s era.