By Carter B. Horsley
Artists are usually preoccupied with developing
a personal style, a "signature" treatment that distinguishes
Once the "formula: has been developed,
the artist then usually churns out works that conform closely
to the model, fleshing out, amplifying, experimenting, broadening,
embellishing, reinforcing it. He usually becomes defined by it.
Some artists stick with it, seemingly forever.
Others, however, change directions, and explore new artistic avenues,
sometimes dramatically different. Picasso, Matisse, George Inness
and Childe Hassam are such examples.
Richard Diebenkorn is another, switching from
abstraction to figurative works and back to abstraction.
In some instances, the artists may have exhausted
the possibilities of their "style," or merely become
exhausted, and in need of a change of pace. In other cases, such
as Diebenkorn's, the change is not inconsistent with a maturing
process and the temperament is consistent, even visually derivative.
Diebenkorn is such a synthesist, and his late
work, beginning with his famous "Ocean Park" series
of vertical, geometric abstractions of magnificent color and subtle
reworking, transcends much of the art that so strongly influenced
him: that of Edward Hopper, Paul Cezanne, Piet Mondrian, Arshile
Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Henri Matisse.
His is an art that clearly was not exhausted.
One sees the large paintings and longs for more. It engages the
viewer in the potential for variations and involves them in the
creative process. The sensation is similar to the large color
field work of Mark Rothko but as wonderful and viscerally emotional
as those are they are more limited in scope and intellectual fertility.
While Diebenkorn grew up with Abstract Expressionism,
he has, correctly, been lionized as one of the very last "Moderns."
His work bears the stamp of the above-mentioned artists, but also
the intensity and process of Albert Pinkham Ryder, the lyricism
and palette of Paul Klee, the painterly qualities of Hans Hofmann
and the poetry of DeChirico.
While many artists would be demeaned by so
many clear influences, Diebenkorn rises not above them necessarily
but to them. In his best works, and there are many, he is awash
Sometimes, a viewer of art is astonished at
an artist's vision, awestruck by his interpretative powers and
singular imagination. Too often, however, the artist turns out
to be a "one-trick pony," the "first" to giganticize,
or "macrotize," or "pontillize," or "pop,"
and their oeuvre is repetitive, and becomes boring, or predictable.
Diebenkorn's oeuvre does not fall in this category.
His works engage and excite. There is a dynamic force to his compositions
and a haunting musicality to his themes. His art rewards repeated
viewings and is not static.
There is a resonance that rings of the fine
Cubist works of Picasso, Braque and Gris and the Russian Constructivists
and the German Expressionists and the Fauves.
In large measure, this resonance is mostly
compositional. Digitize his works into a computer and play with
the palette and you will produce many very satisfactory variations.
Diebenkorn's color juxtapositions are fabulous and "locked."
In his foreword to the excellent and large
catalogue, David A. Ross, the director of the Whitney Museum,
observes correctly that "Diebenkorn emerges at the century's
end as an artist who restored to late modernism the sense of the
sublime that seemed to fade with each successive decade after
World War II."
Richard Clifford Diebenkorn Jr., was born in
Portland, Oregon, in 1922 and remembered that he was always drawing
locomotives on shirt cardboards as a child. "When he was
too poor to buy first-quality art materials, he drew on recycled
advertising posters that had a coated surface," Jane Livingston
wrote in one of her essays in the catalogue.
As a child, he was also fascinated with medieval
heraldry and the Bayeux Tapestries. Late in life, he reminisced
about the tapestries: "The main events are central and in
flanking panels above and below, and they are dead men and coats
of arms; therefore, these dialogues paralleling one another, horizontally."
In addition to certain artists, Diebenkorn
admits to being influenced by such musicians as Bach Hayden, Mozart
and Beethoven and such poets as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. H.
Auden, William Butler Yeats and Wallace Stevens.
At Stanford University, Diebenkorn fell in
love with the work of Edward Hopper: "I embraced Hopper completely….It
was his use of light and shade and the atmosphere….kind of
drenched, saturated with mood, and its kind of austerity….It
was the kind of work that just seemed made for me."
He joined the marines, studied some more at
the University of California at Berkeley and made trips with his
wife, Phyllis, to the Phillips Collection in Washington where
visitors could sit, smoke and talk and absorb the works of Albert
Pinkham Ryder, Pierre Bonnard and Matisse, among others. Diebenkorn
was particularly stuck by the pentimenti (traces of underlying
pigment) in some of the Matisse pictures, and, Livingston wrote,
"These visible traces become an indispensable part of the
viewer's experience of immediacy and lend the work a king of provisional
(though never unfinished) quality.)
Indeed, Diebenkorn's work abounds in pentimenti,
visible overpainting and reworking, but it rarely appears sloppy.
Neither does it appear intentional. It is "found," part
of the process.
"Diebenkorn later called this a 'transactional'
phenomenon in relation to Mondrian, referring to 'the discoveries
made in what appears to be a chance way when changes are made
in the pictures. I can grasp and predict only a few of them -
perhaps only the main consequences of altering the relationships
of a painting," Livingston wrote.
These "human touches," that almost
appear as errors, or mistakes are very important to Diebenkorn's
art, adding a painterly touch. One could imagine him, or more
likely another artist, "cleaning up" such slapdash smudges
and being very impressed with the result as the compositions are
so very strong. But it is these touches, as well as the composition,
the palette, and the painterliness of Diebenkorn that elevate
his works to a higher plane.
In the 1940's, Diebenkorn went to New York
where he became familiar with the works of Robert Motherwell,
William Baziotes and Bradley Tomlin Walker, and became interested
in jazz, even to the point of taking up, briefly, the trombone.
At the time, critics Clement Greenberg and
Harold Rosenberg were becoming highly influential, especially
the former who propounded that art should "spring from formal
purity, or a vigilant effort to strip painting of spatial or representational
illusionism," Livingston wrote.
"The orthodox purveyors of the Greenbergian
dictates of flatness and the primacy of the material, among them
Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, and Kenneth Noland," Livingston
continued, "dutifully expunged from their canvases all vestiges
of window-like pictorial space. Somewhat ironically, in each case,
their work became more decorative than that of the great pioneer
of Greenbergian "literalness," Jackson Pollack - and
more decorative than that of Richard Diebenkorn. Willem de Kooning
never comfortably fit Greenberg'' theoretical mold - though Greenberg
rarely acknowledged him as anything other than artist to be reckoned
with. Eventually, Diebenkorn came to esteem de Kooning above all
the other American painters of his time. Decades later, he remarked
to Tony Berlant that he thought de Kooning "had it all, could
outpaint anybody, at least until the mid-sixties, when he began
to lose it."
At the California School of Fine Arts, Diebenkorn
was befriended by David Park, an artist and teacher who was wary
of some New York artists' "egocentrism" that he found
a bit implicit in "The Doctrine of Action Painting"
and Abstract Expressionism. At the CSFA, Diebenkorn became a teacher
and also became familiar with the works of Clyfford Still and
Mark Rothko, whose painting, "Slow Swirl by the Edge of the
Sea," influenced him considerably with its strong horizontal
Diebenkorn's early abstractions evidence "unusually
multifarious gradations of a single hue even in quite small canvases,
Livingston observed, a characteristic that runs throughout his
"Like so many of his fellow American abstract
painters, Diebenkorn was plainly looking hard at Willem de Kooning's
brilliant juxtapositions of boldly fluid and hesitant, spidery
lines, which often demarcate broad, interlocking color areas.
He was also looking carefully at Krazy Cat cartoons, an
interest Elmer Bischoff characterized as part of Diebenkorn's
'cultivating a deliberate awkwardness.' Until the last few years
of his life, Diebenkorn would periodically go out of his way to
subvert his own graphic facility by inventing ways to appear awkward
- occasionally even clumsy - in his painted locutions….Diebenkorn
had an almost preternatural 'wrist': the sheer inventiveness and
variety of linear effect he could achieve, seemingly without effort,
could be attributed to a Surrealist-inspired automatism, or to
the spirit of uncensored abandon that lay at the heart of the
Beat generation aesthetic."
Diebenkorn ventured to Albuquerque and in the
early 1950's became influenced significantly by the work of Arshile
Gorky and by a fascination with aerial vistas. After taking a
teaching position at the University of Illinois at Urbana, Diebenkorn's
work became "more structurally complex and chromatically
diverse; he seemed to alternate between works apparently grounded
in landscape structure and those that introduced audaciously gratuitous
formal and tonal elements," Livingston noted.
Diebenkorn, according to Livingston, eschewed
the "Moby-Dickism" of Pollack, Newman and Rothko: "He
never saw the act of painting itself as theater, even in the metaphorical
sense encouraged by critics such as Harold Rosenberg: the 'one-shot'
painting would have been inconceivable to him. The scale of his
pictures never overran his own physical extension; and certainly
he shied away from titling his paintings with literary allusions,
as so many of the New York School painters did. In this striving
for modesty, Diebenkorn was consciously reining in his own nature."
His abstractions of the early 1950's were marked
by strong composition and bravura brushwork and brought him considerable
acclaim. Livingston remarked that his work of the time "rival
the highest achievements of classic Abstract Expressionist painting."
Despite increasing success, Diebenkorn, however, was not at ease
and in 1957 maintained that "I came to mistrust my desire
to explode the picture and supercharge it in some way. At one
time the common device of using the super emotional to get 'in
gear' with a painting used to serve me for access to painting,
but I mistrust that now. I think what is more important is a feeling
of strength in reserve - tension beneath calm."
Thirty years later, Diebenkorn would reflect
that, for him, the absence of people or objects in abstract painting
missed the "dialogue between elements that can be…wildly
different and can be at war, or in extreme conflict."
He would switch from abstractions to figurative
work for most of the 1960's. His still lifes and portraits and
cityscapes of this period manifested the bold brushwork in the
mode of a Manet, but bore a consistent sense of vibrant colors
and very strong compositions. His 1963 painting of "Ingleside"
depicts, apparently, a typical suburban housing subdivision, but
one that far surpasses the reality. The composition is very strong
with a darkly bluish gray sky occupying the top third or so of
the painting, a curving very dark gray road taking up the lower
portion and the middle of the work sparkling with super bright
white abstractions of houses running up a hillside, punctuated
by a few dark trees and some red and orange roofs and some blue
highlighted trim. At first viewing, one is tempted to suggest
some gradation of color for the sky or even some clouds and perhaps
some foreshortening for the lower third of the painting, but one
quickly senses such adjustments are not necessary, indeed, are
wrong. What Diebenkorn possesses in abundance is an original sense
of balance. What he has painted here is a specific place that
is also universal and though it appears to be a scene of brightest
illumination it has a timelessness about it that makes the viewer
supply the time-lapse changes. What lingers is the organization,
the man-made creation and their immense powers.
In 1966, Diebenkorn started teaching at the
University of California at Los Angeles and would soon commence
his famous series of paintings influenced by the Ocean Park section
of the Venice section of Los Angeles.
Here is Livingston's perceptive description:
"One of the most important hallmarks of
the Ocean Park paintings, evident from the very beginning,
is that each one creates its own, self-contained chromatic universe,
and each functions within that universe in a structurally self-sufficient
way. The sheer complexity of incident within each painting, to
say nothing of their comparative serial complexity, is unrivaled
in the abstract painting of the period. It might well be argued
that, in this sense, Mark Rothko takes a distant second place
to Richard Diebenkorn.
"The first-period Ocean Park paintings
are characterized by strong diagonals, often disposed like beams
holding up the surface of the picture. The paintings have a sturdily
synthetic character, as though blocks of color and texture were
being moved around and built upon one another, sometimes directly
abutting, sometimes separated by masking-like strips….The
result is a picture trying to look like an enormous montage, the
painting seemingly sectioned out, cut, and reassembled on the
surface. Everything sits right on this surface, yet everything
implies some idea of overlapping planes. A number of contradictory
things are happening at once, all within a relatively reduced
"One of the central defining principles
of the Ocean Park paintings is precisely the dichotomy
between the improvisatory character Diebenkorn acknowledges and
the effect of agonizing discipline they convey. These paintings
above all reveal a process of intense re-thinking - and
yet many of them are among the most lyrical and highly decorative
images in the modernist tradition….
"The interpretation of these works as
either landscapes or cityscapes is well off the mark. The Ocean
Park paintings were intended as - and remain - highly metaphorical
spatial and chromatic explorations."
Later, Diebenkorn's experimented with different
materials and smaller scale, executing several works on cigar
box covers. His technique also changed and some of the works seemed
to have a fluid undercurrent and there are "passages of a
sort of Byzantine, or Sienese, sense of ornamentation…[and
a] higher-pitched and more opaque pigmentation," Livingston
In his catalogue essay, John Elderfield, chief
curator at large and deputy director of curatorial affairs at
The Museum of Modern Art, recalled that "the spontaneous
first impulse Diebenkorn called a performance; it was to be distrusted,
for the artist would want to 'rethink, alter, discard'…the
artist learned to take the risk of not knowing what he was going
to say. He would, he said, deliberately do things wrong at first
in order to set them right. But anything done at first was bound
to be dissatisfying because what was unaltered was unexamined.
He was an admirer of the work of W. B. Yeats and subscribed to
that poet's famous dictum: 'We make out of the quarrel with others,
rhetoric; but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.'"
In his best works, Diebenkorn evokes the notions
of elegy, erosion, memorialization and temporality. His "crudities,"
as he called his intentionally left splotches and pentimenti,
are touchstones of fraility, perhaps even frustration. Above all,
there is a very cerebral character to his work, but it is not
too intellectual and it is not devoid of emotion. Indeed, Diebenkorn
exudes resolute emotionalism and empathy. Some of his paintings
of women, for example, are intensely private glimpses into distraction,
poignant and pregnant not with reverie, but reflection.
There are many surprises in this splendid exhibition
such as "July," a 1957 oil of a man in a blue shirt
on a park bench that somehow has blended into a landscape composed
by the American flag. The man's face is mask-like, but the overall
image is incredible strong. Is the man impassive, or stoic, or
exhausted, or deliberate, or dejected, or stone? His left arm
is barely contained by the side of the canvas while his right
arm comfortably rests atop the bench behind which stretches brightly
colored fields of the country. In such boldness there is still
Asymmetry abounds in Diebenkorn's work and
many of the abstractions seem to have the layered dimensionality
that was a hallmark of the work of Irene Rice Peirera. It matters
little, however, how many different references one finds in his
works to that of others, whether to Matisse, or Ralston Crawford,
or Cezanne, or Bonnard. Diebenkorn was not static and he was not
derivative. He clearly was an artist of great sensitivity and
humility, but, moreover, of depthless ingenuity and spark.
Two years before his death in 1993, he painted
"Untitled No. 10," a horizontal work that is one of
his finest compositions. Although Diebenkorn disliked critics
who read into his work objects and subjects that were not there
or intended, this beautiful painting is a design for the most
beautiful flag ever, one that would put that of England's to shame.
Perhaps more importantly, it demonstrates a renewed vision that
could have led to an major series equally as important as Ocean
Diebenkorn's luminist spirit is shared in part
by artists such as Fairfield Porter and Milton Avery, but Diebenkorn
is an artist who transcended easy boundaries, niches and definitions.
What was paramount was the work, the vision, the problem, the
sensation, the sentiment, at, and in, hand. As the magnificently
illustrated catalogue amply demonstrates, Diebenkorn got a lot
out for which we must be very grateful.
He may not have been the first at much, but,
most importantly, he was a master and his best work stands triumphant,
and most beautifully, on its very own.
The exhibition is sponsored by J. P. Morgan
in New York and San Francisco and by Philip Morris Companies in
Fort Worth and Washington.