Rambling Through Diebenkorn Country
By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved
Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position. —Richard Diebenkorn, from “Notes to myself on beginning a painting”
An acquaintance of mine used to stage an annual Christmas dinner, which was followed by a raucous gift exchange game. Guests were required to bring a wrapped gift, anything with a price tag under $10 (less inflationary times). Numbers were picked from a hat and lucky Guest #1 kicked off the game by selecting a package from the pile. Guest #2 could steal #1’s gift or pick a new one. Guest #3 could steal either of the previously opened gifts or choose a new one. Etcetera, until all gifts were opened and spoken for. Invariably someone would unwrap a package to find a really awful gag gift, at which point the crowd would gleefully crow “YOU’LL BE TAKING THAT HOME!”
I often play this game while wandering through art exhibits. Or, rather, a version of the game in which I am the only player (stealing from myself as I proceed through the exhibit), who actually DOES want to take that gift home. Such was the case recently as I toured the Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years 1953-1956 (at the de Young Museum until September 29th).
“The Berkeley Years” offered many possibilities for my imaginary wall. I admit, the breadth of what was on offer—landscape, figurative, still life, canvas, paper—forced me to cheat a bit. I broke the rules to select multiple gifts.
To me, there is no painter who more evocatively captures the essence of the California landscape. 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 landscapes that evoke the polarity of the Bay Area environment—the intensity of the California sun and that particular quality of our fog, which shrouds but doesn’t always conceal. Pretty much every landscape/abstraction was a candidate for my wall.
The figurative work did not resonate as strongly. The second time through the exhibit another artist accompanied me. We both agreed that, for a variety of reasons, many of the figure sketches were downright awkward and, had they been our own pieces, they might have ended up in the trash bin. Still, I appreciated seeing the missteps intermingled with the successes. Diebenkorn was not afraid to try different subjects and styles. Courage, mistakes can be made.
That doesn’t mean that there weren’t some exquisitely elegant figural statements on the walls. I understand the complaint that some critics have 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.
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.
Which works will I be taking home? Top of the list: 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.
Down The Rabbit Hole
SF Arts Quarterly—“The Diebenkorn is in the Details”
Grace Glück—“A Painter Unafraid to Change Styles”
More California landscape—Early California Art (blog)
A fantastic plein air pastellist—Bill Cone