Archives for posts with tag: Richard Diebenkorn

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.

Richard Diebenkorn Cityscape #1

Cityscape #1, 1963
Oil on canvas, 153 x 128.3 cm
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchased with funds from Trustees and friends in memory of Hector Escobosa, Brayton Wilbur, and J.D.
© 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn FoundationOil on canvas, 153 x 128.3 cmSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchased with funds from Trustees and friends in memory of Hector Escobosa, Brayton Wilbur, and J.D.ZellerbachCopyright 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation 

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!

David Hockney, A Lawn Sprinkler 1967

David Hockney, A Lawn Sprinkler (1967). Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art, Toyko

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).

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #27

Ocean Park #27, 1970
Oil on canvas, 254 x 203.2 cm
Brooklyn Museum. Gift of The Roebling Society and Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Blatt and Mr. and Mrs. William K. Jacobs, Jr., 72.4
© 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

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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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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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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…

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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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