Review: Richard Diebenkorn and the Art of Crossing Borders Print E-mail

rdiebenkorn(Art Revue Magazine December, 1998)

Richard Diebenkorn has in the five years since his death at 70 risen like a phoenix to become arguably one of America’s and certainly the West Coast’s premiere 20th century painter, both abstract and figurative. That one painter has mastered these seeming oppositions and done so unselfconsciously is remarkable and rare. (The other great border-crossing artist who comes to mind is Kandinsky.) Diebenkorn’s full-career retrospective, first shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1997 and now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, confirms what this Californian said he himself wanted to achieve—to paint with "a feeling of strength in reserve—tension beneath calm" no matter what subject matter he embraced.

The magnificent collection of 150 paintings and drawings celebrates Diebenkorn’s devotion to one form and his eager shift to another. The display comprises three periods, nearly a half-century of work done almost entirely in California. The periods include, most recently, the grand geometric abstraction of the large Ocean Park canvases, the figurative and landscape paintings often of his wife with their subtle-to-sumptuous declamations of Bay Area light and vista, and the early bravura Abstract Expressionism.

The early abstract period ended in 1955 when Diebenkorn went outside to find something "new" to paint, and a simple cityscape reanimated his vision. That period ended in 1967 after he moved to Santa Monica, to teach at ucla, and the new surroundings (how exactly remains a mystery) transformed him back to an abstractionist. Though the painter twice changed horses in deep stream, he was always confident of his decision. "I want a painting to be difficult to do," he said. "The more obstacles, obstructions, problems—if they don’t overwhelm—the better."

In fact, if Diebenkorn has a theme, it won’t be found in his subject matter but in his approach. Selecting new forms—figure, landscape, still lifes, geometry, heraldic figures—force him to re-imagine the problems he contracted in the previous style. Whether abstract or figurative Diebenkorn captures the act of painting itself, though far differently than Pollock or de Kooning. His expressions of form and color collect and compound the residue of the many impulses it takes him to complete (or abandon) a painting. No other American artist has kept the covered-over decisions which make a painting as Diebenkorn has, and made them his unmistakable style.

I was fortunate to view the exhibit in San Francisco, where over two floors one follows Diebenkorn’s chronology from three rooms of early abstractions to an alcove of his last intimate "lap" drawings and collages. The most impressive spaces are those on the sunlit top floor that grant a dozen (of nearly 150) Ocean Park works their grandeur. The show, curated by Jane Livingston who also wrote a detailed essay for the collection’s beautiful monograph The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, hinges period to period with an emotionality as dramatic as it is logical.

The artist’s career began outside the Golden State. Newly married in the late 1940s, he took a master’s degree at the University of New Mexico. Flying often from the Bay Area to Albuquerque, Diebenkorn saw the irrigation and geologic grids on the earth’s surface. In these patterns he recognized a deep need: to construct paintings with rich colors and dramatic lines, both hesitantly and heavily cast, so that the piece might seem improvised even though it was worked over—scraped and layered and overpainted and erased—many times. Two things happen, separately, in his early work. First, he lets the color construct the organic shapes in Untitled (Sausalito) 1949, for example, then later, in Urbana No. 6 1953, he mutes the colors and, like Arshile Gorky, destabilizes them with thin, watery or evanescent black lining. When he combines these elements in the "Berkeley" abstractions, he achieves a staggering vibrancy.

Diebenkorn creates tension and repose between the loud, abrasive colors (he felt compelled, he said, to go chromatically wild in these pieces) and his rakish brushstroke. The best is Berkeley No. 52 1955. (By the way, though Diebenkorn, maddeningly, names his paintings for his whereabouts, it is a mistake to see his abstractions representing local geography. Livingston has commented that he "inhaled" his influence from other painters—Cézanne, Matisse, Mondrian—far more than from the view out his studio window.) Nothing is reducible in this "Berkeley" painting: the moody colors are thinly applied with much surface agitation; the grids and lines tilt and quake; only the broad bottom green, then lavender banding suggests calm. Once his passion for reworking color complexity repeats the same impulse in these pieces, Diebenkorn wants a new challenge.

Out in the Berkeley hills and in discussions with artists David Park and Elmer Bischoff (with whom he would later be grouped as the Bay Area Figurative School), Diebenkorn decided to give up the supercharged fluidity of abstraction. But going outdoors, it’s not as though the green or brown fields of the Bay Area’s two long seasons overtake him. Instead Diebenkorn applies his color gesturalism to carefully posed landscapes, usually with figures.

In plein air paintings of the late 1950s, Diebenkorn captures that looking-out and looking-up vision that is characteristically Californian—across a bay, over a low skyline, to the immense banded blue. And into the close and middle distances he paints long swaths of vivid color much like Bonnard. One fine example among several on-the-porch paintings is Figure on a Porch, 1959. Here the land before the bay and the porch itself is made of ocher tones, stacked brighter and brighter. The standing figure turns away in longing or despair from the artist’s intrusion. Perhaps it is her own discomfort as he watches her, twisted between two angled director’s chairs and Diebenkorn’s calm yet dazzling scene.

His wife, Phyllis, and her lanky body grace several canvases. Seated Figure with Hat 1967 shows her being dominated by a sunstruck backdrop, a sort of yellow tinfoil, as well as her dominating that backdrop with hyper-long torso and legs. Diebenkorn’s figures always seem distant. But this is the artist’s choice: Any facial countenance would clash with the color-locking construction Diebenkorn values. Yet distance also increases mystery, the mystery of being seen. The effect is further enhanced because these paintings reduce to elemental planes—window, table, chair, figure turned away, floor, wall and porch. The planes patchwork a singularity that makes the interior psychologically penetrating. One feels that Diebenkorn is tightening the scene before us. So intrusive is his staring that the private moment verges on secrecy.

One painting which expresses this encroachment—without a figure—is Window, 1967. A summarily grey floor, abutting a large orange wall, obscures the scene beyond it, a Hopperesque row of one-storey buildings. On the grey foreground sits a rickety folding chair, almost floating in an air of gravitational uncertainty. Above it all is a tranquil sky which contains none of the blocky tension beneath it.

Diebenkorn’s famous Cityscape I (1963) is grandly displayed in the sfmoma, rising up as one ascends to the third floor. For the artist it is a rare but devastating commentary. The canvas depicts a vertically angled slice of buildings extending itself via shadows onto a vaster, unsuspecting countryside. The contrasts are obvious, alarming, coterminous—valley and hill, suburb and field, lazy light and long shadows, blocks of street-butting structures from which one road runs east but will, no doubt, return new dwellers. The painting proclaims the inevitable march of the suburbs. Its Mulholland sensibility reminds us that, for many, California exists not to preserve with planning and set-asides but to conquer with concrete and aqueduct.

When Diebenkorn moved to Santa Monica in 1967, his studio was in nondescript industrial surroundings but it provided clear coastal light with its proximity to the sea. Here the painter worked for 22 years on a new idea in abstraction, often on large canvas (though also on paper) and mostly in chalky oils or gouache, an ambitious, disciplined mix of the improvised and the revised. The new style emphasized pentimento or a "mysterious transparency" in which earlier drafts are overpainted yet remain visible underneath the dissolving surface. These paintings are, as Livingston has said, "flat and not flat." They feel caught in a process of "being added to" and then abandoned.

Ocean Park No. 38 and Ocean Park No. 43 are exemplary of Diebenkorn’s deliberate pentimento. He teases his underneath revisions out by a fairly rigorous sectionalizing of grids: Diagonal lines, trapezoids, long, flat boxes carry the eye up, down or along and keep the blocky-still surface moving. The effect is not unlike a sidewalk air grate on which both rough surface and eerie depth combine for an instant until one balances the two into one.

In the exhibit, one room is devoted to the smaller, more intimate and experimental Ocean Park drawings and collages. Here Diebenkorn’s decisiveness feels more "in" control. Elongated color blocks and even more delicate lines compress ideas from the larger paintings. Diebenkorn obviously liked this form because he did Ocean Park-like compositions on cigar-box lids and dedicated them to friends.

But the bigger works command our attention because the schemata is less friendly, the colors are less opulent and the expansion is immediately more intense. The vastness of these 100 x 80 inch paintings fit Diebenkorn’s tall frame; one feels the artist’s physical reach across the canvas. Clearly he has grown to love large geometric limitations. But their regularity is constantly offset with vertical and horizontal lines that are as rhythmically deft as anything Diebenkorn did while young. Such lines reveal his esthetic—impulsive and strict, bold and semi-erased, shaky and firm. Ocean Park No. 14½, 1968, for example, contains a brilliant skirmish between freehand drawing, ruled lines and careful chromatic sectionalization. The result is, the picture seems to be the most perfectly fussed-over abstraction ever "finished."

Diebenkorn’s prime activity—his fuss—was to make each geometric shape crowd its borders with a multiple layering and submerging of color and lines. His diverse rectangles and nudging trapezoids solidify their color with other colors that leak from beneath. The flatness composes itself uneasily with what it sits upon. That Diebenkorn had mastered this "tension beneath calm" by the late 1980s and then (only a few years before his death in 1993) turned to doing Ocean Park-like ideas with heraldic symbols (several of which are on view) proves that again he was changing, having gotten through dozens of obstacles to attempt them again with aces and hearts, clubs and spades.

Because people are most drawn to Diebenkorn’s Bay Area landscapes with figures, we assume that his work must in all periods reflect his environment. As noted, he rejected one-on-one correspondences between his painting and his locale despite a few critics who suggested symbolic referents, such as building and street grids in Ocean Park, for his work. To complicate things, Diebenkorn himself said that each time he moved—even to a new studio—an atmospheric change showed up on his canvas. Is it wise, then, without stooping to the symbol game, to call Diebenkorn a California artist? Or will this merely provincialize and lessen his achievement?

It may be that his paintings signify a deep cultural restlessness, the peripatetic American who relocates to California and then, overwhelmed, must move again. The coastal light and fog lures people who, in their repose, wonder how many more can also enjoy the rapture. Diebenkorn’s esthetic to cover-over, to encroach, seems to follow suit; departing one painting style, he did so to reassess it in the next. But his pictures do not advocate civilization’s encroachment. Rather, if his middle period is a guide, he sees encroachment as an inevitability one must manage, be responsible for and, above all, see.

Diebenkorn speaks of restlessness and moods, arrivals and departures, and his way of working and seeing appears at first blush tied to California’s concentrated and sprawling growth. But though appearances can be misleading, they can also be true. While we should differentiate geographical transgression from artistic expansion as Diebenkorn did, it’s not that simple. His paintings do suggest the grandeur and the constriction of the state. But I don’t think that what we object to in our surroundings is anything like what we admire in him.