a curatorial conversation with Richard Diebenkorn at the De Young Museum

By Dan Bunn

Studio Wall, 1963
Paintings, despite occasional attempts to hide this, remind viewers that we are human. A hand moves and a surface changes. This simple cause and effect records the human impulse to create. All sorts of myths have arisen from this basic urge. One of the most prominent is of the magician artist. There he is, alone, bent over an alchemic melee of pigments, working to produce history’s next masterpiece. Maybe there’s a pip-squeak apprentice grinding cadmium in the corner or perhaps holding a candle for the master to see: a mirror on the wall, a model on the sofa, a mysterious silence riddled by rat feet pattering within the walls. Yet, even though this myth persists, artists do not exist in a vacuum. Humans are social creatures. We get messy. Together. We play, dance, eat, fight, love and, sure, paint: why? Because people love to communicate and art depends on that communication. Pictures don’t come from some lone lunatic’s mind, but rather a bunch of lunatics shouting at each other. It’s the conversation of arguments and hat tips which mark the ricocheting history of ideas and which we can so clearly see in the De Young Museum’s show, “Richard Diebenkorn: the Berkeley Years – 1953-1966.”

I used to hate museums. They cost money, they’re sterile, there are people in suits whispering about something important that you don’t understand and every five minutes (if you can last that long) a lovely gentleman or lady requests that you hold your backpack in front of you. But of late I’ve begun to hear a new voice in these antiseptic surroundings, coming from the paintings themselves and often talking to artists that have been dead for centuries. What’s wonderful about the De Young’s show is how the curatorial design amplifies Diebenkorn’s participation in a community of painters. Viewers are invited to witness ideas unfurl over the years and take form in compositions and treatments that cross genres and styles. The exhibition chronicles Diebenkorn’s contradictory influences and invites us to eavesdrop on the conversation he was having with other artists. This dialogue is as striking as the paintings on display.

Berkeley #8, 1954

Entering the first gallery, viewers are smacked in the face with a question that will haunt Diebenkorn throughout his career. Is it a boat? A breast? Tangrams with a dose of the squiggles? Face to face with Berkeley #8, 1954, the splash of baby shit orange spread over liquid viridian invites you to dive right into the guessing game. Or maybe we’re more composed than that or just slightly more mature. The boat dock is not a 15-inch phallus, but a carefully composed blue ellipse. Most of Diebenkorn’s abstract paintings take on the spatial arrangements of traditional landscape painting; however, their flatness recalls the impressionism of Cezanne, whose simplified and flattened realism inform much of Modernist painting. Here, Diebenkorn’s abstraction is linked to realism and hints at his later, more representational work.

The show includes an exquisite sprinkling of drawings, noticeably smaller in size than the paintings. In Untitled, Berkeley 1953, 54, Diebenkorn takes an almost cinematic approach to abstract composition. He goes for high drama with sharply contrasting yellows and blacks flecked with red and blue accents. It’s ambiguous. It could at once be a melting cartoon, mountains at dusk or a non-objective abstract composition. While I was considering the drawing, a mother viewing the show with her 4 and 8-year-old children pointed to the picture and said to her daughter, “you’ve painted with watercolors before.”

Berkeley #44, 1955
Berkeley #44, 1955, looks like he just painted it and might continue working on it right now if he were alive. This painting garnered Diebenkorn significant critical acclaim in a 1957 Life magazine profile. He conceded that what “I paint often seems to pertain to landscape, but I try to avoid any rationalizations of this either in my painting or in later thinking about art.” However, he later added, “Temperamentally, perhaps, I had always been a landscape painter.” Despite his relaxed manner, Diebenkorn questioned his work and how it fit into the then contemporary art world. Yet, rather than waste time fretting, he tried things out. If something didn’t look good, he would simply paint over it. It’s as if his painting were in a constant conversation with the world around him.

The numbered Berkeley abstract paintings are violent and wild. There are inexplicable strokes of brown, and scrapes that go through layers of paint exposing the bare gesso. With an unapologetic necessity to create a new language, these works are avant-garde with a sleepy smile. With so much energy permeating his work at the time I wondered where he could possibly go from there? Would anything less active appear contained? In turning the corner to the next gallery, I got my answer. Or, if this were Socratic painting, I got my question. Reactionary? Honest? It’s hard to say, but what comes next looks as if Diebenkorn hopped in a time machine.

Chabot Valley, 1955
Chabot Valley, 1955, is the result of Diebenkorn’s exasperation with Abstract Expressionism, or, as he phrased it, a “stylistic straight jacket.” To rip off the bonds, he left his studio and took to the street. This work was his first painting created outside or “en plein air,” a sort of 1800’s French endeavor that brings to mind the Barbizon school and Claude Monet. Diebenkorn called Chabot Valley his first representational painting. Compositionally it looks like an “a la prima” (work painted in one sitting) version of his earlier abstract paintings. In comparison to California’s rich history of landscape painters, such as Edgar Payne and Granville Redmond, it is really a dreadful painting.

The push for representation continues as you head into the next room. Here we see that Diebenkorn has abandoned any guise of non-objectivity and, like his teacher David Park, began composing his pictures with figures. The De Young’s curators use Seawall, 1957 to explain this transition. They point out how the painting “seamlessly integrates representation with the raw gestural brushwork, surface richness and emphasis on the formal properties of paint and canvas that form the hallmark of abstract expressionism.” Still bubbling in Seawall, this invigorating energy gradually dissipates as Diebenkorn develops a more controlled approach to painting.

Seawall, 1957
The rest of the exhibition is in many ways a blur compared to the initial shock of the abstract works. Inspired by Edward Hopper (who as a student, Diebenkorn copied to a T), the painter deals with the interaction between depictions of interior and exterior spaces, such as Man and Woman in a Large Room, 1957 and Cityscape #1, 1963, a composition of light and shadow on the combative edge between urban and rural landscapes. Several still-life paintings, such as Pliers and Match, 1961, Scissors and Lemon, II, 1959 and Corner of Studio-Sink, 1963 consider abstract composition of representational elements, especially Still Life, Cigarette Butts and Glasses, 1967. In some, such as Studio Wall, 1963, an empty chair takes the place of “the figure” as subject in his painting. Less spasmodic than the numbered Berkeley paintings, these works are textural and direct and display little reworking. By the last room, Diebenkorn seems to be heavily influenced by Matisse, in his flattening of planes and depictions into geometric compositions. Some of the elements, such as curly railings, seem practically copied and pasted from his predecessor. As wonderful as these works are, they are sort of boring; although, it is understandable that he felt the need for change.

Studio Wall, 1963
Diebenkorn moved to L.A. and began the “Ocean Park” series. Compositionally similar to the tail end of the Berkeley works, they are sparse geometric compositions that favor organization over the wild abstract expressionism seen in the first gallery. In this way viewers have been carried along the pictorial curve of Diebenkorn’s fifteen years in Berkeley. The effect is startling. As soon as I reached the end all I wanted to do is race through the exhibit and start back at the beginning. Right at the entrance, the curators have placed a list of notes Diebenkorn wrote, “on beginning a painting.” At first they seem a bit odd—he could have written “walk in the dark and hope you smash into something,” but on reading them again his plea for uncertain and chaotic exploration makes total sense.The chronological display of his work demonstrates Diebenkorn’s comfortable banter with art history as well as his borrowing from figure painting, landscape, still life and abstraction expressionism’s present and past masters. Of course, it’s clear that he did whatever he pleased with all these elements. Diebenkorn flips pre-conceptions on their head, painting doubt, frustration, boredom and joy. Terrible or great, it doesn’t seem to matter to Diebenkorn and so it shouldn’t matter to us. Diebenkorn’s work reflects the conversation of painting, and -- with some gentle nudges in the right direction from De Young’s curators -- viewers old and young can hear the discussion and join the debate. Or maybe it would be better to just go home and paint.


©The CCA Arts Review and Dan Bunn

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