Diebenkorn — the Berkeley years


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.”

Ocean Park

Yesterday I went to the Orange County Museum of Art to see the exhibit of Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park Series. I went with two painter friends and a non-painter. The non-painter felt he was in good company with three potential docents.

I have seen several Ocean Park paintings in museums over the years. Large, quiet, I always welcomed them, often being surrounded by other work I found either less accessible or incomprehensible.

So I looked forward to seeing rooms of this series. And there were rooms of them. Three or four paintings seven feet by eight feet in each room. Strangely as I went through the exhibit I felt little real connection. I did not feel much real presence from them.

In the fourth room along one wall were mounted eight small ocean park pieces done on cigar box lids. They were pieces Diebenkorn had done for friends as gifts and never intended for sale (or perhaps for public viewing).

These small pieces had the juice. They sung; they enveloped; they lured me in and held me.

The one I liked most — five inches by five inches. It was my favorite piece in the entire exhibit (The reproduction here does not do it justice). My second favorite in the entire show was five inches by six inches, two down from it.

Interestingly as I communed with my favorite little painting, the non-painting friend came up and had exactly the same response to it.

I had always loved Diebenkorn’s work. But I realized most of what I had admired of the Ocean Park series was in reproduction. In a book both the five inch by five inch and the eighty inches by a hundred inches are about the same size on the page. The design and density of the large paintings actually looked better in reproduction.

As twentieth century printing became cheaper and more accessible art history went from people viewing originals to viewing pages of paintings, sculptures, alters, tapestries, architecture, all basically the same size, which radically abstracted the work and our relationship to it.

I recommitted to experiencing the large paintings. As I stood before these huge quiet pieces I realized I had an almost intellectual, not  painterly, satisfaction from them. There was beauty in how Diebenkorn articulated the space of the canvas. With horizontals, with verticals, with a few diagonals, repainting and repainting them. He found a way to tackle abstraction, of how to fill this space with such a quiet elegant simplicity. His insight of dividing and orchestration the space so simply created a body of work that defines a kind of abstraction. No one else can do what he did without it pretty much being a knock-off. Ocean Park becomes archetypal in that way.

As I stood in front of them and realized this, it warmed me. They were happy paintings. I wanted to like and admire the paintings. I like Diebenkorn.

But the take home lesson was clearly beauty does not need scale to hold us tight in her arms.