PRINT April 1963

The Phillips Collection—Diebenkorn, Mullican, Woelffer: A Discussion


I KNEW YOU FIRST in Chicago, Emerson, and that was over a decade ago. I remember paintings of yours which came East to be shown in Boston, and although you have changed much, basically these were symbols and loose in broad fields of strong colors, or so it seemed to me. And symbols seemed to be very important and tended to repeat themselves. I know that you are not the only painter in such a language, although of course in some degree this is a very highly personal language or we wouldn’t recognize your paintings as your very own, and perhaps you could tell us when this set in. In other words, when you began to paint this way, tell us something about the changes, and about painters you felt sympathetic to and who influenced you when you were younger.


Yes. I left school, the Chicago Art Institute, in 1937 and that was the last time I had contact with the figure in my painting. I had the fortunate opportunity to study at the Art Institute in Chicago, not that it was a great school, but the fact that they had the most marvelous collection of French painting at that time, which they still have, and I think that my first contacts were painters such as Miró, Picasso, Kandinsky. I painted from the figure every afternoon, drew from the figure every morning. I’d ask the instructor about so and so’s painting and he said, “Never mind that, study from the model, study the muscles and the bones.” This was sort of my background.

Very fortunate, there was a place in Chicago that still exists called the Arts Club where I first came in contact with African sculpture in about 1931, 1932. Secondly, Katherine Kuh had a gallery in Chicago at what is now the Time and Life Building and this building opened up with a beautiful courtyard, a fountain inside of it, a fountain by Carl Millis I guess his name is—a Swedish sculptor. And for the purpose of prestige, the building thought it would be a wonderful idea to have an art gallery, so they were very wise in giving Katherine Kuh this opportunity to have an art gallery, where I first came in contact with Picasso, Miró, Jawlensky, the German expressionists, etc., and I used to hang the shows there. And this made me investigate a little more into the Burnam Library in Chicago at the Art Institute, which is one of the finest libraries—art libraries—in the country. And I gathered and worked and fretted and this is really my background, and I can’t say that it had anything to do with my real academic training in the classrooms of the Art Institute in Chicago.

At that particular time, in the way of American painting, there was such people as Charles Burchfield, Rafael Soyer, and this group of guys who were trying to make a kind of—set up a geographic situation—Thomas Benton, and Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry. They were fighting any kind of influence that was coming from Europe. And I felt that this was something much bigger than State or the United States; it was international.

(A slide of “Jet Plane and Laying Bird,” is shown.)

This I think was about 1956–1957 when I was in Colorado. Any inference of any kind showing space or color or the illusion of any sort is completely due to the physical makeup of the color frequencies or something else because my interest in painting has primarily been and is today to retain the flat surface, the picture plane without trying to show any kind of depth. I would say that 90 per cent of what I might say about this picture is probably rationalization; trying to recapture a concept I had in 1956 which is impossible. But just to give you a background and let you come to your own interpretation about it, I was living at that time just outside of the city of Colorado Springs and it had a beautiful four acres of land and some wonderful birds living on my property which we fed constantly in the winter. And we had magpies and all kinds, and at the same time, our house, our land was associated geographically on a jet pattern where the Air Force jet planes came in and took off constantly, and I suppose we might say that this poor little bird sitting at the bottom here is the actual bird and the jet airplane is up at the top. This upper horizon line sort of started to take place at this particular time without any known reason. As Mr. Nord land writes in the foreword of the catalog for my show at Pasadena, there had been some people, right now I can’t think of his name offhand, a Curator of a Museum in Switzerland, it reminded him of some of the Corinthian or Gothic—not Gothic, but Doric, you know the top of the columns and Dr. Valentina attributed it to the bookshelves I have in my house which had constantly been occupied by pre-Columbian sculpture. It’s a kind of painty kind of painting which my recent work has gotten away from. I’m trying to—not for the sake of cutting down on paint of any sort, but I’m trying to bring something down pure; I’m trying to bring my life in fact down to a much simpler kind of way. And I think this is something that you find in Matisse, the last things in Matisse which I think are so beautiful, where he draws with a pair of scissors, and colored paper. It didn’t take pigmentation. At one time I was very wrapped up with all kinds of pigmentation and I feel now that this is only a kind of surface effect which has nothing to do with the overall thing that I am trying to portray.

(A slide of “Yellow Room,” is shown.)

This is 1961 I think. It really has nothing to do with abstract expressionism. I don’t claim to be an abstract expressionist. I feel myself much more closely associated with a surrealist attitude which is of course the automatic, the chance, the accident. The intellectual intervening comes about entirely after the painting is painted; sometimes I work, sometimes I don’t work. I don’t think it’s very complex at all; it’s just as simple as that. It’s just that I happen to have a twelve inch calcimine brush that I was saving for years and years and finally had enough courage to use it one day. And I think that this whole attitude is a kind of surreal kind of thing, you know, having something around and . . .


I’d like to ask Emerson if he feels that this painting is very greatly different from the one that we just saw. For me, it really isn’t; it doesn’t have a recognizable image like the bird and the sort of simplification of the jet airplane forms that were in the last one, instead symbolically this has been replaced by what appears to be just a large—almost a large white brush stroke—yet as Emerson tells us, he feels that it is a surrealist painting, so that we can assume that this is somehow more than just a brush stroke. Do you feel that this is materially, substantially different, Emerson, from the last painting?


No, not at all. I don’t think that you can escape yourself. Many times one tries to. They try to hide from themselves, but it’s absolutely impossible. Probably just at the first balance, if somebody looks at it, it may feel like it, but if he would go back to it, I mean, the handwriting is there—it’s something you can’t escape from. Your handwriting is there . . .

(A slide of “Birdland” is shown.)

Sometimes I feel much closer to jazz musicians rather than to other painters. Most of my friends are jazz musicians, rather than other painters, and I enjoy sitting in front of a guy or a group of guys sitting there and really working a tune over, playing it around upside down, backwards, coming back to something. I feel very close to this kind of painting, as a musician taking a theme and working it, going around it.

(A slide of “Forio” is shown.)

This was done in Italy. I don’t think it makes that much difference whether it was done in New York or Italy or some other place. I can be transplanted, or I can sit down here; some people have a lot of difficulty; they have to get acclimated to the environment around them before they can work. I mean, I can be transplanted here tomorrow and I can just go on just like I stopped last night. I have no difficulty.

It is again very automatic, nothing said anything to me until it was completed. I did many others at the same time which do not exist anymore; they found themselves ripped up immediately. So, I think the whole thing, regardless of whether you’re a figurative painter or an abstract painter, these are just a lot of terms, a lot of nonsense, that the thing is to the painter, the big thing, is the selectivity, to be able to see when, to see when it happens, when it doesn’t happen. I think that this is the important thing.

(A slide of “Medicine Mesa” is shown.)


I was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Indian country, although at the time I really wasn’t very interested in Indian lore or Indian craft, but it was there, and only after, really after the war that I put in time in New Mexico and Arizona. And naturally, I looked at the landscape because everything I do, I feel, comes from the real world, from the real landscape, and the thing that I’m doing is to abstract from landscape, to abstract from nature, to transform the world as I see it and turn it into a more personal world. I never really consciously copied Indian motifs or Indian pictographs. I’ve looked at them and admired them. I think that partially, this so-called Indian influence, it comes about, the way it go to me, is through the technique that I use. It is broken down into little squiggles of paint—and on the surface, it looks like Indian porcupine quill work on textiles, blankets, and certainly basketry.

As a painter I have to paint something—and perhaps teach a little. But I’m interested in the world, and at the same time, I’m interested as a painter in adding something to it. So, I walk through the woods, I walk through the desert, and I try to absorb what I see so that I am interested in the essence of nature, in the essence of sand, in the essence of true color, many things like that, all kinds of vegetation. Creativity almost always begins with selection. Choosing what you want to leave out. In one painting, I may have more interest in color, and in another I may be more interested in texture. It breaks down into a game I used to play in San Francisco which was called “The Creation of the World.” We would sit around a table and each of us work on a sheet in front of us and we would let go in stages, and the first stage was to create the atmosphere, of the kind of environment of Mother Matter which was what the world was created out of—and then after we had drawn this in, we would pass the sheet on to the next person and he was to add to this Creation of the World by putting in the vegetation—and then it would pass on to the next person who would put in creatures who lived in this world, and then the last step would be the architecture or whatever that the creatures made. So I think you have to stand back and understand that a lot of painting that is being done today, they do create a world, a crystal world. And sometimes I work only with the atmosphere; in another painting, I put in the creatures. Sometimes this is atmosphere and vegetation. But it’s just a personal way of conjuring, of playing God.

(A slide of “Meditation on Leaves in a Pond” is shown.)


I see that your paintings, technically, are very carefully, often meticulously worked. Could you tell us something of the process of the painting first emerging, then of your refining it and carrying it further. What happens when you consciously carry it forward, what kind of thing takes place?


Well, I consciously carry things forward in an unconscious way. I think without thinking, so to speak. This technique may look as if it is very tedious and very slow, but actually it isn’t so. It’s just as free in action as if I were splashing with a brush. I usually begin with a whole idea of atmosphere, select. Recently, I’ve tried to narrow things down just to one color, or a close harmony between two colors. So as I follow this technique it goes very fast and it surprises me as much as splashing with a brush on canvas—one stroke is going to go—it doesn’t necessarily go on the side—and the thing jumps around, and it grows in exactly the same way as another technique, and there is very little actually planned. There are moments, there are times, when a canvas just sings out and comes out wide—which is like being in a state of grace . . .

(A slide of “Urbana #5” is shown.)


I should say to begin with that during the war I was stationed near Washington, D. C. where to me, a terribly important collection exists, that of Duncan Phillips, Gifford’s uncle I guess. I went to that place often as a kind of retreat from service. I looked at the paintings of Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Bonnard. I wasn’t consciously studying; however, at the time I was fortunate in the service to have, by various flukes, which I won’t go into now, a bit of free time so I was able to paint quite a bit, so I was working on this during the week, and then, on liberty, I would go up and look at the paintings in Washington. It was sort of an art school thing for me. Also at the time, I think another important thing that came to me was the publication of a magazine that perhaps Lee might know a little more about than I do; I saw two copies of it—the name was “Dyn,”—D-Y-N. And there was one copy of it that was terribly important to me, that had some sort of spiral on the cover. I don’t even know what the derivation of this was; some of you people may know. In it were pictures of paintings that were a new breed of cat to me altogether. I remember a couple of very early Robert Motherwells—the only other name that comes to my mind is Pollock. There was even a picture of Lee’s. Well, this, at a time when I was looking at French modernism, hit me kind of hard. It related curiously to that and yet it wasn’t that. I was painting pictures of people and still lifer and interiors and what not and surroundings, and I don’t know, I started getting increasingly interested in the painting that I was doing and less so in this transient thing about me, and so I guess in a very kind of awkward way, I got into this kind of nonobjective or embryo-action painting. And then they released me from that job and so I went to school in San Francisco. And I found other people of my own age who had also been in the service kind of searching, fumbling around, looking for the same kind of thing. And, of course, there was a rapport.

I guess, to make a long story short, Mark Rothko appeared there and he was quite a bit more advanced and sophisticated along this line; Clifford Still showed up a bit later, and he had an immense impact on me and my colleagues, and there was a greater rapport. At the time, I think I had long since abandoned and felt that it was absurd to try and represent anything. I don’t think they had this word, but it was square somehow to look at anything and draw it, and well, I was behind this emotionally; it wasn’t that it was just something that one didn’t do—maybe it was.

So, I worked along this kind of action painting line for some bit. I taught at the school up there for a couple of years and then I went to live in New Mexico, a state that attracted me just because of its look. I painted along the same lines for some time there. The painting on the screen was done I think immediately after I left. There were colors like blue that I just knocked off my palette altogether because they were just spatial to me and yet they kept popping back, and I’d scrape them off. There were landscape suggestions that kept coming in—I don’t know, they had come in in New Mexico. Here I was in the Midwest, and I was pretty unhappy there because of all this ground and hay and stuff around, and then this painting occurred, I don’t know, a suggestion of a street and buildings and perhaps an ocean on the other side of these things, kept coming, insisting. So, I thought well this is what I want to paint so I’m going to paint it. So, I did it. And then, I’ve always numbered pictures; I did this for some years afterwards, but this one I guess I identified because of the special feelings I had about it, and it was to me like a town near an ocean and just to remember it, I referred to it as “Beach Town.”

(A slide of “Untitled,” 1949, is shown.)


This is the earliest painting of Diebenkorn’s we have to show you. It’s a wonderful painting to me. In this light, the surface seems to move up and down without any specific modeling in it at all. The amount of voltage and glow in it seems to take it into depth or to move it up towards you. In that kind of in and out composition as opposed to up and down which we often associate with Hans Hofmann; it isn’t solely Hans Hofmann but it is something he did a lot of talking and teaching about, what he called “push and pull.”


I referred to a period before going to New Mexico, living in San Francisco, teaching at the school. I was at the California School of Fine Arts at the time I did this. This means to be, was intended to be, purely non-objective. It was arrived at through the process that I guess is referred to as action painting. It came about through putting down what I felt in terms of some over-all image at the moment today, and perhaps being terribly disappointed with it tomorrow, and trying to make it better and then despairing and destroying partially or wholly and getting back into it and just kind of frantically trying to pull something into this rectangle which made some sense to me.


When you say “make sense to you,” do you mean in terms of unity or condensation, or how do you describe it? You come up to the edge of some kind of definition in speaking of making a painting work, or making a painting make sense, or come off. Can you give us any more specific clue of what is the definition of a painting for you or what gives it the thing that makes it jell or make sense? Is it different for every painting?


Different for every painting. This is an extremely mysterious thing to me. The painting may be all wrong to me at one moment, and ’then perhaps some slight alteration can throw the stance of the thing in a different way so that perhaps it can be almost right, or miraculously right to me. I find this a curious thing, this mystery, and with people who are students of painting who I talk to a bit, since I am supposed to be a teacher, the same thing happens. I see it happening. It’s kind of marvelous. I don’t mean to be mystical about this but . . .


I would like to ask Mr. Phillips to say a few words about the collection which he and his wife put together. He has said to me that it looks differently in a gallery, that this is the first time he saw them at arms length.


Yes. It has been very interesting to see it in a gallery. It sort of externalizes it. I think, as you pointed out, very perceptively and certainly in our case very accurately, Fred, a contemporary collector is a little bit different from a collector of old masters and established painters in that he doesn’t quite know where he is going—because you don’t know where the artists are going—so you don’t really know what kind of a collection you are going to wind up with, and since the house has only so many rooms in it, you don’t quite know what it looks like or even exactly what you’ve collected until you see it outside the house and then you see it in a certain objective sort of way, and this is interesting and very revealing. It has been very revealing to me.

I would only say this much about it. I think the discussion here tonight has confirmed my feeling that the dichotomy between abstract painting and representational painting, that is painting a recognizable image, has on the whole been rather over-emphasized by many critics and writers. We saw pictures that had images that we could identify and we saw pictures where there were those we couldn’t identify. But I think that the art values, the plastic values, the formal values of the painting were pretty much the same in each example. This leads me to the conclusion that whether or not the image is identifiable is a factor but not necessarily the most important one. I think that this has been our feeling all along as we have collected, because we have never consciously collected abstract painting as such although most of the painting we have collected has turned out to be abstract because a great many painters are painting that way.

I felt that perhaps more important than the abstract element has been the symbolic element in this painting or the metaphoric elements in that painting, and I think that you can see the characteristics in all the paintings that we have seen tonight. Symbols are not only in terms of the shape or the associations; in so-called action painting, it actually becomes part of the brush stroke or the way the paint is put on the canvas just as in that painting of Emerson Woelffer that he described as being surrealist. What you saw really was a kind of a large brush stroke. So the actual formal quality in the brush work becomes part of the symbolism and part of the metaphor.

It seems that consciously or unconsciously, Mrs. Phillips and I have a certain bias in favor of what I would call for want of a better term, painterly painting. I think this comes from my background and Mrs. Phillips’ exposure to my uncle’s collection which is—as Dick Diebenkorn pointed out—largely a collection of French painting, of the School of Paris postimpressionist painting. For me, the jump from Matisse to Diebenkorn, Bonnard to Rothko or Matisse to Motherwell has never been a great one although they are very different in many respects. I think that the surrealist element, abstract surrealism which comes in via Miró is very very important certainly in Mr. Woelffer’s work, and in Mr. Motherwell’s work. We have, I think, a bias in favor of painterly painting as contrasted to work that is assembled or work that is more realistic where there is, let’s say, less interpretation, less transformation by the artist. These are just my general observations. Looking at the work in the sense of almost seeing it for the first time, these haven’t been necessarily conscious guide lines in forming the collection, but rather they are the things that I see on looking at it.

Excerpts from a Symposium entitled “Abstract—Action or Reaction,” organized as a joint venture by the Department of Art, the Department of Arts and Humanities, and University Extension, of the University of California in Los Angeles.

All illustrations from the Gifford and Joan Phillips Collection, shown at the U.C.L.A. Art Galleries, Los Angeles, November 4–December 9, 1962.