Cityscape #1, 1963, 60″ x 50″, Oil on Canvas, Collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Last weekend I went to San Francisco to see the Diebenkorn exhibit of the Berkeley years. I like Richard Diebenkorn. He kept experimenting and reinventing himself. And each reincarnation produced really good work.
The exhibition presents two parts: the earlier abstract expressionist work of 1953-55 and then what at the time seemed his wild leap into figuration from 1955 to the mid sixties when he started Ocean Park.
The Berkeley abstracts seem flawless. Or rather Diebenkorn’s intuitive aesthetic sense feels flawless. The earlier Albuquerque and Urbana series show the same aesthetic but with the Berkeley series he embraced the bravado of abstract expressionism and lots of paint. They erupt from a fountain of pure aesthetic sense: painterly, dense, inventive and new.
Then in 1955 he dropped the series. He called it a “stylistic straightjacket”. He wanted to work and rework something “out there”.
The exhibition doesn’t have all the best figurative paintings. But most of them. The paintings hover between a response to paint and a representational image.
Velasquez did it of course. And late Rembrandt. Look closely at a Velasquez portrait of a court figure in ornate dress up close. His brush dances in abstract arabesques and flourishes of paint. Step back and at eight or ten feet they coalesce into a strict representational image.
Deibenkorn creates that same sensation. Minus the strict representation of course but both the paint and the image hover together, both at viewing distance, playing off one another. This, I assume, is what he was after. He often played with letting the paint dominate. The most successful let the two wrestle, one shifting in and out of prominence with the other. Occasionally the image dominates. It pulls away and becomes primarily itself in a painterly way. I think these are my favorites, although I’m not sure he would feel the same about them.
Perhaps coming from complete abstraction allows for a looser arrangement between paint and image. I find coming from a stricter representational side I feel resistance to how far I can push the abstraction. I remain fixed somehow in the one camp and as the non-representation looms in, I back away. I fix things up. I tidy the chaos. Representation becomes its own “stylistic straightjacket” dictating terms and conditions.
In an interesting coincidence my wife Anne read me a quote by Fairfield Porter at breakfast this morning that addresses this. ““The realist thinks he knows ahead of time what reality is, and the abstract artist what art is, but it is in its formality that realist art excels, and the best abstract art communicates an overwhelming sense of reality.”