22nd May 2015, David Cook and I visited the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. Here’s part two…

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #5, 1953

Berkeley #5, 1953
Oil on canvas, 134.6 x 134.6 cm
Private collection
© 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard: That’s a very interesting point. Diebenkorn titles his paintings with version numbers indicating he doesn’t consider he can deliver a definitive take on a given subject. Which reinforces the idea that he is not interested in making grand statements, but in taking a more reflective, objective, distanced approach to his subjects – and perhaps, in turn, commenting on the act of painting itself.

Berkeley #5 looks like a loose landscape with suggestions of body parts creeping in and a lush, sweet use of gesture and colour that could only exist in painting. Berkeley #5 is at once surface and subject, each causing signal interference with the other. The games it plays are not straightforward. It’s almost a Conceptual approach to painting.

David: This conversation has highlighted for me that I am not open minded enough when I look at art, indeed you can never be open minded enough.

I was going along with the notion that Diebenkorn was An-Abstract-Expressionist-who-Painted-Figuratively. We have seen traces of European influence, of Matisse and Dufy, we can see his abstract credentials clearly. You have identified a conceptual approach and I was about to compare Girl On a Terrace, 1956 to School of London artists R B Kitaj and Michael Andrews. Truth be told Diebenkorn went his own way, and I should be ashamed that I have such a historically biased taxonomic approach to what is one of the freest modes of individual self expression.

Richard Diebenkorn, Girl On A Terrace, 1956

Girl On a Terrace, 1956
Oil on canvas, 179.07 x 166.05 x 2.54 cm
Collection Neuberger Museum of Art
Purchase College, State University of New York. Gift of Roy R. Neuberger
© 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Is it possible that Diebenkorn was perpetually in at least two minds about the marks he was making? Sometimes they seem very ambiguous. In Girl On a Terrace, 1956 there is space around the figure to the left, but to the right it flattens out. In some places the underpainting is allowed to show through, elsewhere it’s totally covered. Some marks are descriptive, some abstract. And it all seems very spontaneous, as if the painting could have veered towards or away from the figure, or from abstraction. Not only that but he is keen for us to see the evidence of his deliberations in the final pictures.

Richard: Yes, I get the feeling every brushstroke was considered. They’re very deliberate marks and I think Diebenkorn’s enjoyment in constructing the painting is plain to see. It’s like a subtle balancing act – there’s an image there and it’s perpetually on the point of collapse. He’s toying with himself and the imagined viewer. The image in Girl on a Terrace, 1956 is enigmatic and the paintwork is sumptuous and involving – it’s a great cocktail. This painting in particular also reminds me of Michael Andrews – there were several in the exhibition that got us talking about him. And I think this painting shares the slow tension at the heart of Andrews’ work – one that leads to contemplation rather than quick thrills.

I think we should talk more about the art history Dienbenkorn seems to contain – the paintings are fascinating to me in that sense – it’s as if the whole of modern painting is churning away inside him and different elements come out to play at odd times. A bit of cubism here, Matisse there, De Kooning etc. I wonder how aware Diebenkorn was of deconstructionism…

To be continued…

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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

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