PRINT May 1964

Richard Diebenkorn Drawings at Stanford

ALMOST BY FORCE OF HABIT, it had become common to understand that when Richard Diebenkorn offered us, on a small canvas, a pair of scissors and a lemon, we were really getting an essay in abstract principles, an investigation into the many possibilities these two simple shapes could offer. The idea that the artist, in this simple painting, was imparting to us a part of his world-view, an aspect of his personality, a statement, an attitude, seemed simply irrelevant. Something like an “ex-convict” on a new job, Diebenkorn’s audience insisted on seeing all of his performances in the light of the fact that he was an “ex-abstract expressionist.”

In the current exhibition of drawings at Stanford* one could still observe with the greatest pleasure the manner in which a nude imperceptibly takes on the qualities of landscape, a sense of placement in the still-lives as casual and as utterly correct as in Matisse, the employment of a hat as shape so strong that nothing less than an effort of will on the part of the viewer keeps it from entering into completely independent relationships with the other shapes. In this exhibition, as in all his previous figurative work, one could discuss Diebenkorn exclusively in terms of Mondrian and de Kooning, but this time, perhaps, with a feeling that Monet, Degas and Hopper are more relevant than we had hitherto thought. For it was not Diebenkorn’s clear and obvious grasp of what contemporary art is all about that made this exhibition, and his show of oils at the de Young Museum earlier this year, so compelling where a similar “California figurative” exhibition would have been just a bore. Pitched at a high emotional level, peculiarly personal and intense, the exhibition forces upon the viewer an interest in the personality of the artist that is not the Richard Diebenkorn, Still Life, drawing, Stanford Art Gallery same as a previous, almost detached, interest in following his transition from excellent Abstract Expressionist to excellent figurative painter. In these exhibitions, subject matter comes closer to being content instead of simply device than it has ever come before. Our attention is engaged, at last, not by how Diebenkorn manages to invoke his early abstract landscapes in the disposition of a model’s leg, but by Diebenkorn himself, the artist, and his private view of the world.

Especially in his oils, that outlook, despairing, perverse and self-enclosed, is given expression by the most restricted range of subject-matter. In the work of this California artist, one finds precious little of the spectacular California landscape: when he takes to a landscape, it is the drab tract houses on San Francisco’s fringes he finds congenial. There is little enough of the sun—one glimpses it out of a darkened interior furnished with a single chair, near the doorway. His still-lifes never seem arranged: it is as if all the reality the artist needs or trusts exists within a radius of five feet of where he happens to be painting. Still life after still life presents us with a glass of water with a knife in it, a tomato, sliced in half, a saucer serving as ash-tray with a glass beside it, a succession of bleak views, details of a kitchen which no one is inspired to keep gleaming, a studio, bare, a little dirty, uninteresting, some drawings and cut-outs tacked on the wall.

This same uninspired view of a restricted and bleak reality extends to Diebenkorn’s handling of the model, to which most of the Stanford drawing show is devoted. Few models have ever been painted in more uninteresting poses, in more barren interiors. Slouched at a table, sprawled on a couch, leaning haphazardly against a window ledge—the impression one gets is that the artist would no sooner conceive of posing the model than he would of adding a bowl of fruit to his ash tray and cigarette stubs. He takes what he finds—sometimes he will put a hat on her, or a pair of gloves—and proceeds to find in the simple planes of her body, the fall of her limbs, the expanse of her blouse, the material out of which, somehow, art will emerge. Nor does she ever become more than “the model”; in drawing after drawing one observes, with amazement, how utterly indifferent is the artist to the face of the sitter. It is not Diebenkorn’s way, to transform his own relationship to his subject matter. Instead, out of the flat, dull confrontation of stranger with stranger, he will seize upon a relationship between her arm and the wall behind, extend its characteristics to that between her blouse and the table, and find, in the patterns and complexities which his eye articulates, a vitality sadly lacking in the real situation.

The sensibility which informs this work is not an Abstract-Expressionist sensibility, and Diebenkorn seems, in his latest exhibitions, to be less concerned than ever before in consolidating his gains as an abstract expressionist and using them to re-inforce his representational work. To persist in seeing his work as steps toward the solution of the “problem,” supposedly his, of somehow reconciling abstract expressionist techniques with representational art would seem to ignore the consistent growth in his art, and the purposeful employment of subject matter towards ends expressive of completely different concerns.

––Philip Leider



* Stanford University Art Gallery, April 3–26, 1964.