Critics’ Picks

Untitled (Albuquerque), 1952, oil on canvas, 68 3/4 x 60".

San Jose, CA

“Diebenkorn in New Mexico: 1950–52”

San Jose Museum of Art
110 South Market Street
October 13, 2007–January 6, 2008

The word ALBUQUERQUE––appended to otherwise untitled and serially produced canvases—raises some inevitable questions regarding Richard Diebenkorn’s early abstraction. Already a young professor at the California School of Fine Arts, Diebenkorn left the Bay Area in 1950 to pursue a master’s degree at the University of New Mexico, where he stayed for more than two years on the GI Bill. How do the desert and its particular topographies resonate in his body of work (one so seemingly wedded to the West’s coastal light and atmosphere)? This cogent exhibition of more than fifty paintings and works on paper aims to give this question some room, if not to answer them outright.

The effects of his new surroundings appear in almost empirical form in works such as Albuquerque #22, 1951, in which a fine web of claylike craquelure is knitted over the entire expanse of the canvas’s tawny surface. But other examples defy the notion that these works mimic the surrounding landscape unequivocally or that the textures and colors of the American Southwest provide the only guide to their formal adventures. The canvases, gouaches, and ink works range from thin washes of gray and black to thick, crusty accretions of bright reds, oranges, and even pastel shades. The rapports between landscape and abstraction, as well as figuration and abstraction, stand as the foremost leitmotifs of Diebenkorn’s oeuvre. But this dialectic is by no means monotonous, and in this exhibition it is worked out in a variety of ways, such as Albuquerque (Motorcycle Wreck), 1951, in which anecdote has been sublimated into the action of the brush. Stray lines alternate with increasingly large fields of color, the largest of which appears in Untitled (Albuquerque), 1952, a canvas that in its loosely knitted forms anticipates the gridded, flattened mapping of his West Coast works. Still, the fortuitous presence of the artist’s Ocean Park #60, 1973, displayed in a separate exhibition in an adjoining gallery, reveals how comparatively spontaneous and improvised are the Albuquerque works.