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”

Richard Diebenkorn, Bekeley #57, 1955 Oil on canvas Courtesy SFMOMA

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #57, 1955
Oil on canvas
Courtesy SFMOMA

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!”

Richard Diebenkorn, "Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad," 1965 Oil on canvas © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1965
Oil on canvas
© 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

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).

Richard Diebenkorn, Seated Woman No. 44, 1966 Watercolor, charcoal, gouache and crayon Courtesy Fine Arts Study Collection, University at Albany, State University of New York

Richard Diebenkorn, Seated Woman No. 44, 1966
Watercolor, charcoal, gouache and crayon
Courtesy Fine Arts Study Collection, University at Albany, State University of New York

“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.

Richard Diebenkorn, Figure on a Porch, 1959 Oil on canvas © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

Richard Diebenkorn, Figure on a Porch, 1959
Oil on canvas
(Oakland Museum of Art)
© 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

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.

Richard Diebenkorn, The Drinker, 1957 Gouache over graphite Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery

Richard Diebenkorn, The Drinker, 1957
Gouache over graphite
Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery

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:

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #33 , 1954 Oil on paper © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #33 , 1954
Oil on paper
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

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.)

      1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
      2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
      3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
      4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
      5. Don’t “discover” a subject — of any kind.
      6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
      7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
      8. Keep thinking about Polyanna.
      9. Tolerate chaos.
      10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Richard Diebenkorn, Interior with Doorway, 1962 (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) © 2013 Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Interior with Doorway, 1962
Oil on canvas
(Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)
© 2013 Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Down The Rabbit Hole

Kelly’s Cove Press

The Richard Diebenkorn Catalog Raisonné

SF Arts Quarterly—“The Diebenkorn is in the Details”

CatalogRichard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 (Fine Arts

Museums of San Francisco)“The Unknown Diebenkorn”—L.A. Times

Grace Glück—“A Painter Unafraid to Change Styles”

More California landscape—Early California Art (blog)

Paintings Of California

A fantastic plein air pastellist—Bill Cone

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10 Responses to “Rambling Through Diebenkorn Country”

  1. I’ve alway enjoyed his work. Thanks for posting.

  2. Diebenkorn was such a wonderful colorist, though as a young figurative painter who loved his work, when he went abstract it was like jumping off a cliff. Had long loved the figurative painters John Heliker, Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher who stayed in the figurative vein. I don’t think any of them were as spot on as colorists as Diebenkorn. I do remember a more graphic period of abstraction that reminded me and many of landscapes, where lines and fields of color hinted at horizon lines. But I have never seen a whole show of his figurative works and sure wish I could see this show.

  3. I enjoyed this post and wish I could see the show. I’ve only seen these Diebenkorns in books but love the Berkeley work as well as the abstractions from New Mexico. #57 is a fabulous piece. Thanks for posting.

  4. Great post Liz. You bring clarity to the mix of works and reactions I also had to the show. I have a few of those paintings on my imaginary wall.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing your insights — and for the inspiration!

  6. Thank you for a good read and some great pictures to go with it.

  7. Liz – I just saw the show yesterday and really appreciate your comments. In total agreement but would add Berkeley #12 and #7 for exquisite layering. I also loved his little painting of Seated Man. Worth another trip if you’re interested in going again?

  8. leslielatham Says:

    To me, D is about visual memory, not about representation per se – even when he does his representational work. I agree, his abstract work was unbelievable – esp. Room 2. When it comes to his representational work, what I loved to think about was, what made him feel like a work was finally finished? He leaves evidence of his process, his mistakes behind which is thrilling to see. But, what makes it “done?” Woman by the Ocean – he does 22 (or so) revisions of this which Rose Mandel captures – so, why stop there? You artists will have to answer.

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