Rambling Through Diebenkorn Country
December 24, 2016
Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position. —Richard Diebenkorn, from “Notes to myself on beginning a painting”
Note: A version of this review of Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years 1953-1956 (De Young Museum, June 22–September 29, 2013) originally appeared in the blog Venetian Red.
To me there is no painter who more evocatively captures the essence of the California landscape than Richard Diebenkorn. Through a palette that embraces both intensity and subtlety—bright greens and oranges, warm pinks, yellow ochers, cool muted blues, purples, turquoises, and greys—Diebenkorn creates landscape abstractions which manifest the polarity of this Bay Area environment—the intense California sun playing across grassy mountainscapes, and the often cascading fog, which mysteriously shrouds without concealing.
In the period between 1953-55, after he had returned to Berkeley, Diebenkorn painted over 50 large abstractions, and a good many of them are included in this show. The work speaks to the influence of Cézanne and Matisse, who were concerned with defining form through color rather than line. The paintings also reflect gestural elements reminiscent of Gorky and de Kooning, the latter whom he had met when he visited New York in 1946-47 and 1953. Diebenkorn synthesized all these into a sublime achievement of expression and restraint. Witness the frenetic brushwork contained by the shapes.
Diebenkorn was a fascile painter, moving easily between the abstract and figurative and there are some exquisitely elegant figural statements in the last rooms of the show. I understand the critic’s complaint about Diebenkorn forcing figures into landscapes; indeed, the more successful works for me focused on either the figure or landscape, and, in the case of the former, my favorites were the intimate works, made with gouache (and and other drawing materials) on paper.
I thought it a bold choice to include many figure sketches that a more discriminating curator might have left out. Still I appreciated seeing the missteps intermingled with the stunning successes. Diebenkorn was not afraid to try different subjects and styles. Courage, mistakes can be made!
Still, we don’t often get to peek behind the curtain that cloaks the artistic process. “The Berkeley Years” offers an incredible opportunity to observe Diebenkorn’s relentless experimentation with underlying structure, form, line, subjects. The development of his stylistic vocabulary unfolds before us. I found this truly the most exciting aspect of the show.
Top of my list of favorites: Berkeley #57. Its “plate techtonic” structure creates a forceful metaphor of the fault line. Also, Seated Woman, No. 44, for the curve of her calf (even though I’m sure the tibia is in the wrong place) and the simple treatment of the pattern on her dress. (Note to self: simplify patterns!) Figure on a Porch—I’m not bothered by the appearance of a figure, who for me becomes another abstract structural element. And finally, this gem:
Get up close to this study to see the multitude of sensational ways that Diebenkorn uses the paint to create form and substance. See what happens underneath and in between the shapes.
One last ramble: Diebenkorn’s “Notes to myself on beginning a painting”— a good manifesto to live by or a reminder to compile your own list. (Spelling and capitalization his.)
- attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
- The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
- Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
- Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
- Don’t “discover” a subject — of any kind.
- Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
- Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
- Keep thinking about Polyanna.
- Tolerate chaos.
- Be careful only in a perverse way.
Beyond This Post
Kelly’s Cove Press
The Richard Diebenkorn Catalog Raisonné
SF Arts Quarterly—“The Diebenkorn is in the Details”
Catalog—Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 (Fine Arts
Grace Glück—“A Painter Unafraid to Change Styles”
More California landscape—Early California Art (blog)
Paintings Of California