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 the third and final part…
David: I am not sure I can really work the historical links out – his work has caused some of the slender threads that hold my conception of art history in place to unravel. And I’m not sorry about that. One of the things that I dislike about art history is its predilection for a style based taxonomy. That goes for people who think they can identify a genuine Rembrandt based on a few brush marks or for more modern critics (including Greenberg and Rosenberg) who seek to define movements based on superficial similarities of style. Although I admire Greenberg in particular for his advocacy of what was at that stage controversial art, ultimately his intellectual underpinning has stuck his guys to a particular piece of turf. Diebenkorn has eluded that limitation by including some other influences in his work. And in the end I think he will be seen as a greater artist than many of the Abstract Expressionists who were in the end limited by their own innovation.
Curiously I think it is the European content of his work that has meant Diebenkorn is less well known here than Jackson Pollock for example. We want our American artists to be Pure American, and Diebenkorn confounds that. Similarly I think Michael Andrews has less exposure than he deserves because his work feels international. I mean why not depict the West Coast of the U.S. as the South of France? Or the urban architecture of California as London or Paris?
Richard: Yes, I think that’s true – by not fitting the Abstract Expressionist profile, or being part of that particular marketing package, Diebenkorn slips through one of art history’s cracks. I’m guessing he is more widely known in the States. He reminds me of Peter Lanyon – (particularly because Lanyon used the Cornish landscape as an imaginative jumping off point for some wildly abstract works) a British painter who, like Michael Andrews, is difficult to pigeonhole. I don’t know, but I imagine Lanyon is not that well known outside the UK, although he was part of the St. Ives set. They are all three very interesting painters, possibly easier to appreciate now that the notion of relentless forward motion in art history seems to have been derailed. (I wonder if the idea of movements and groups in art were partly a device for giving the audience an “in” – categorisation allows an easier mastery of the knowledge and some firm land to stand on while surveying the choppy, chaotic waters of artistic production).
Let’s talk about Cityscape #1.
David: What strikes me first about Cityscape #1 is that it is a painting about light and the way that light moves across the landscape. So it has its roots in Impressionism, but it’s clearly an American picture. There is that openness about it, and the dense planarity of the architecture and the shadows on the left of the picture place it firmly in the Twentieth Century. The absence of people too is interesting. It seems a very different vision of California from that of David Hockney which was only a few years later (this was painted in 1963). Diebenkorn’s painting knows the land, is of the land. Hockney’s is an outsider’s vision capturing the superficial ephemera of peoples’ lives at a particular moment. It is a European’s vision of America…timely, but intentionally lacking in depth. It glorifies America’s perceived lack of history and connection to European tradition, whereas Diebenkorn is reminding us that actually there is quite a lot of it there!
Richard: Yes, I think Diebenkorn brings a sense of physicality and (emotional) experience to Cityscape #1, which comes from living in California from the age of two, a connection with the landscape Hockney could never have. There’s no sense of (ironic) detachment in Diebenkorn’s version – just an acknowledgement, an acceptance of the facts of the landscape, and a struggle to convey them in paint.
According to various reviews of this exhibition, Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series (in excess of 140 paintings bearing the title), was very popular in the UK in the 1990s – there were posters everywhere, (to the extent that a print appeared as part of the set dressing in episodes of Brookside (now defunct UK soap opera)). Apparently, this huge popularity attracted snobbery in the 1990s. The paintings appear to be unthreatening, and easily explainable as aerial views of the neighbourhood around Diebenkorn’s studio. But there’s an appealing hesitancy left on show in the final images – ghosts of marks past, washed out, sun-bleached palimpsests. A very human geometry. A Ballardian unease that’s less easy to digest.
The series was almost Diebenkorn’s final word on painting (and, of course, the second room we walked into).
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