22nd May 2015, David Cook and I visited the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Afterwards, as has become customary, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. Apologies, yet again, we’re urging you to go and see an exhibition that’s no longer on.

Albuquerque #4, 1951

Richard Diebenkorn
Albuquerque #4, 1951
Oil on canvas, 128.9 x 116.2 cm
Saint Louis Art Museum. Gift of Joseph Pulitzer Jr.
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation


Richard: We went through this exhibition backwards. (Is there a natural logic to room sequence do you think, which we followed instinctively because we were so wrapped up in talking about the work?)It’s interesting because seeing the work in non-chronological order raised questions about Diebenkorn’s transitions from abstract to figurative painting (and back again). And a more general one about the idea of progression in an artist’s work.

Room one contained this painting, Albuquerque #4, 1951, which for me contains the basic DNA of all of Diebenkorn’s future work. He was working in what has been described as an abstract expressionist style at this point, but it doesn’t quite fit with that description…

David: I think I naturally tend to go clockwise when I have the chance…and ignore the writing on the wall. One thing I liked about this show was that there was no preamble; every work felt mature and fully realised. It did not follow the predictable trajectory of immaturity /plateau/decline like so many shows. But maybe that was because we went through it backwards.

This was my first exposure to a large show of Diebenkorn’s work and it has caused me to rethink my views on Abstract Expressionism. It can be subtle, gently sensual and joyous and not just bombastic, angsty and oppressive. This was a great revelation – maybe he does not fit with my emotional expectations of Abstract Expressionism, but from a painterly point of view Diebenkorn is one of the very best.  Albuquerque #4  is a fine example: he has a highly original use of colour and the paint surface is very rich and subtle.

Richard: I agree with you about the trajectory – and we did start in room one, at least.

Abstract Expressionism is often presented as a very male, aggressive, searching, straightforward, soul-baring, “loud” way of painting. Diebenkorn’s works are quieter, more reflective, as if he is reporting on a feeling rather than acting it out in paint. There’s an objectivity present in these early abstracts; (we’re not just looking at a paint event). And maybe this comes from using landscape as a motif. It’s not an absence of feeling, but a sense of distance – which creates a space for contemplation. Diebenkorn’s work doesn’t appear to be trying to sell anything outside the frame of the picture (spirituality, his artistic persona etc), which, for me, places him outside my idea of the Abstract Expressionists. Do you think we’re looking at an aerial view in Albuquerque #4 ?

David: I think it might very well be an aerial view and I think what you say about a reported feeling is spot on. The emotional content is not derived from the interior as with Expressionism generally. What is the opposite of Expressionism? Is this Abstract Impressionism? Because in many ways it seems to derive from sensory impressions and lets you approach the work from there rather than thrusting raw, bloody emotion in your face.

In a way an aerial view would be the perfect subject. It is detached and abstract –although the landscape is flattened into a two dimensional shape, there is the visceral (and very spatial) thrill of looking down which is something I for one never tire of.

I re-watched the first episode of Shock of the New the other night and Robert Hughes made much of the coming of the machine age and how that effectively kick-started modernism in painting – Cubists, Dadaists, Futurists – all with their own response to the coming of mechanisation. Does this have anything to do with that European stuff, or is it much more American in origin?

Richard: In this first room, I’d say there was a heavy European influence (as with all the Abstract Expressionists) – the flat areas of colour, Diebenkorn’s playing with space and light and his palette are reminiscent of Matisse and Dufy in particular, but also of de Kooning’s paintings of women. And the look of Albuquerque #4 suggests landscape, heat and flight – a bigger view perhaps that is suggestive of the American landscape. Do you think the European influence is a reason for the sense of distance in the work? I always feel with Pollock, for instance, that although he reveres Picasso, he also wants to destroy him (for American art). Whereas, with Diebenkorn, I sense a deeper respect, a desire to develop European ideas.

David: Looking again at the images I was struck by the lack of sharp focus and the exceptional freedom of Diebenkorn’s paint handling. These two things are related of course, and probably feed into the detachment and slightly unresolved qualities of the paintings – two of their most attractive attributes.

The comparison with Pollock is revealing. Pollock was staking everything on a single roll of the dice, Diebenkorn is more of a builder, who is shaping his work without necessarily erasing what went before, without needing to stand on virgin ground. While Pollock may have won big, Diebenkorn’s strategy also paid off – his work is more approachable and doesn’t have that ‘take it or leave it’ quality. What surprises me slightly is that I am in Diebenkorn’s case happier to look at paintings which have more modest ambition, that don’t necessarily want to be The Greatest Paintings Ever Painted.

 To be continued…

* * *

Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest

* * *