Venetian Red Bookshelf: Unpublished Diebenkorn

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Editor’s Note: See our companion piece,“Rambling Through Diebenkorn Country”

There is nothing I cannot paint over. —Richard Diebenkorn (from Temperaments: Artists Facing Their Work)

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Richard Diebenkorn,Untitled #23,1981 Gouache and crayon on paper © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn,Untitled #23,1981
Gouache and crayon on paper
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

For many reasons works on paper can offer a more intimate viewing experience than their cousins on canvas. This is partially due to the fugitive nature of drawing materials—handmade papers, graphite, charcoal, gouache—which often keep works on paper in storage. When they are displayed, their relatively smaller sizes and their display under glass, compel the viewer to lean in to works on paper, thereby creating an exclusive relationship that shuts out the distractions of the world beyond. Further, an artist often works out his or her ideas on paper before moving to more expensive canvas. Many works on paper were never meant by the artist be seen publicly. But when they do see the light of day, collections of this kind of work can provide an exhilarating peek behind the curtain of the creative process.

Such was the case for me at the current retrospective of Diebenkorn’s Berkeley years at the de Young.

Now I have even more reasons to be cheerful, where Diebenkorn’s process is concerned. A writer friend recently sent me two exquisite visual monographs on the painter—Abstractions on Paper and From the Model. newly published by Kelly’s Cover Press. to accompany the exhibit “The Intimate Diebenkorn: Works on Paper, 1949-1992,” which opens in September at the College of Marin Fine Arts Gallery.

What’s immediately notable about these volumes is they contain largely unpublished work, “unknown” Diebenkorns, all works on paper.

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Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1957 Gouache on paper © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1957
Gouache on paper
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

The format of these volumes is a refreshingly departure from the expected catalog of artistic work. At 6 x 8″ and around 125 pages, each of these volumes can be held in the hand, put into a pocket for easy transport, pulled out to consult. Like the works on paper they reproduce these books offer an intimate and spontaneous experience.

The production value of these volumes is indistinguishable from a first-rate catalog, i.e. ample page-sized reproductions with great detail, good color veracity, coated paper stock. What a pleasure it is to have something such a beautiful book in your hand (and not anchored on a bookshelf or table)!

Kelly’s Cove Press has broken with another time-honored art publication tradition. Other than a few quotes from Diebenkorn and a biography, these volumes contain no commentary. We are free to form our own interpretations of the work, unencumbered by the flights of grandiose and sometimes tedious rhetoric that often accompany exhibit catalogs.

The volumes were conceived by editor Bart Schneider with the help of Bay Area painter Chester Arnold. I had occasion recently to discuss the project with Schneider.

VR: How did this project originate?

I’ve long been a Diebenkorn fan and in the 90s, I chose one of his paintings Large Still Life, 1966, which is featured prominently in the De Young show, for the cover of a magazine I then edited, Hungry Mind Review.

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Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1956 Gouache and ink on paper mounted on cardboard © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1956
Gouache and ink on paper mounted on cardboard
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

I happily blundered onto the treasures held by the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation, when I approached them last year about using some of his figure drawings for a book we published last fall, Poses, by Genine Lentine. When I learned that roughly 4,000 of the 5,000 known works by RD were on paper, I approached the foundation about doing a book of his works on paper in advance of the show at the De Young. Once I saw the vastness and glory of the Foundation’s collection, I realized it needed to be two books.

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1962 Graphite on paper © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1962
Graphite on paper
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

VR: Why this particular format?

My goal is to make a more casual style art book, with which viewers can have a more intimate experience of the artist’s work. That means small books you hold easily in your hands, or take to bed with you. Also, I like the idea of having very little text to mediate the direct experience between artist and viewer. And if you can make the books so they only cost $20, you have a chance of getting them into a lot of people’s hands. I’d like people who pick up these volumes to have the experience of walking into a gallery and discovering work they didn’t know.

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Richard Diebenkorn,  Untitled, c. 1988-92 Charcoal on handmade "Hawthorne of Larroque" paper © The RIchard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, c. 1988-92
Charcoal on handmade “Hawthorne of Larroque” paper
© The RIchard Diebenkorn Foundation

VR: What’s next from Kelly’s Cove Press?

I enjoy exploring the interplay between literature and art. Those kinds of collaborations are surprisingly rare in publishing. At present, I’m working with Squeak Carnwath on a book that should come out in the fall, Horizon on Fire: Works on Paper, 1979-2013. I’m also working on a Jack London book with William Wiley, for which Wiley’s done 19 original drawings and watercolors.

At $20 a piece, it would be a shame not to own these lovely volumes.

The Rabbit Hole

Squeek Carnath on the creative process

Tate Debate: Do you need to know an artist’s process when looking at art?

Smithsonian magazine—Q&A with William Wiley

Brewster Ghiselin—The Creative Process: Reflections on the Invention in the Arts and Sciences

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4 Responses to “Venetian Red Bookshelf: Unpublished Diebenkorn”

  1. Funny how Diebenkorn’s journey is reminding me so much of Arshile Gorky. I think back on how so often those of us who resisted abstraction sometimes went through a phase that reminds me of Gorky. When I was in school (60s to early 70s), figurative artists were considered old fashioned and wimpy, rather unfairly considering that so many were grounded in Impressionist and post-Impressionist traditions. Gorky, like Kandinksi and Miro ahead of him, morphed into abstraction in what I think of it as automatic writing, like turn of the century Spiritualists looking for messages made of shapes instead of words, and full of cursive flourishes with the brush. But in Diebenkorn’s work it was color that was waiting to become his greatest subject. And I have to also admit to loving how he used color in PAINT–his work is very sensual in how the paint itself is moved around. He even moves the charcoal and pencil that way. There are a lot of similar portrait heads of that era among the figurative artists, broken down into shapes showing how the light breaks up the a complicated volume like the human head. They are all beautiful experiments. But for me, Deibenkorn stood alone as a colorist. These are wonderful images to see. Thanks!

    • Equally important as his use of color is the way Diebenkorn applies paint. In Temperaments: Artists Facing Their Work Dan Hofstadter observes:
      “Many of his preferences in this period— preferences so deep they seem virtually somatic— have stayed with him over the years. One is a happy acceptance of the traditional means of painting: standard colors and brushes, rectangular primed campuses, ordinary drawing paper. Another is a fondness for simplicity of surface, for paint applied in an obvious, every day way; he dislikes the impression that surfaced effects have been achieved in a mysterious, almost super natural manner, a manner you’d be hard pressed to figure out no matter how long you studied the picture.”

  2. Just ordered one of the books. Thank you for posting on one of my favorite artists.

  3. Thank you for making this so palatable.
    I look forward to seeing more to come.
    Nancy Pollock

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