PRINT March 1977

Diebenkorn Reconsidered

DESPITE ALL THE OPPORTUNITIES we have been afforded during the last two decades to see Richard Diebenkorn’s paintings, his work, for many, has remained peculiarly invisible, hard to get a fix on, difficult to place. That situation, of course, is our fault, not his. A major cause is the way art has been categorized in museums, college art courses and popular histories. Most of the time the history of modern art is presented not as the study of the work of individual artists, but as the unfolding of a kind of contemporary Hundred Years’ War among rival esthetic factions. Territorial seizures are imaginatively reconstructed. Victories are celebrated. Artists are arranged rank by rank into opposing movements, being thereby reduced to so many colored pins on the historians’ battle maps. Theoretically unaligned people like Diebenkorn (and after all these years, even Bonnard) are viewed condescendingly as civilians in the ideological wars, and so are assigned, like inconvenient refugees, vague geographical tags like “Bay Area Artist” or, limply, “West Coast School.” The rule is, if it doesn’t easily fit a category, don’t try to deal with it.

There are other reasons for Diebenkorn’s uncertain position. When he first showed in New York in the ’50s his Berkeley paintings didn’t seem authentically New York Abstract Expressionist. In his subsequent representational phase he wasn’t your average magic, photo or mainstream realist either. And now his Ocean Park paintings have little to do with Minimal, color field, or other later ’60s developments. His independence—he is the quintessential nonjoiner—and the uniqueness of his painterly methods isolate him from everyone else while providing all the elbow room an artist could possibly want. He has moved freely over the years at his own pace, a steady, intelligent tortoise ambling past the burned-out wreckage of many a hare.

I first saw Diebenkorn’s work in 1954, a single painting in James Johnson Sweeney’s “Younger American Painters” show at the Guggenheim entitled Berkeley #2 of 1953. It was a discovery for me then and it remains fresh and beautiful now, at the Albright-Knox, almost a quarter-century later. It is, essentially, an Abstract Expressionist painting, and people professed to see de Kooning’s very strong influence. He had been an influence but the differences between the two men are profound. De Kooning’s line always travels at top speed; it stops abruptly, breaks, then races off in another direction, the diagram of an intense, hyper-active man caught up in stop-and-go crosstown traffic. De Kooning’s color then was sweet-sour city color or black and white, asphalt and soot. Diebenkorn’s color was dry, sunbaked desert color, adulterated with California neon and smudge. His line took its time, wandering around, speeding up, then trickling off into nothing, like a mountain freshet that ends up dissolving somewhere in a sandy gulch.

In 1953 energy was a New York property. One could talk about various Klines and Pollocks and de Koonings in terms of velocity. Diebenkorn’s Berkeley paintings trafficked in this commodity, but something else was there alongside all the activity: its opposite, a kind of informal, backyard lassitude. The emotional mix got very complicated, and one could see how profoundly the different locales—New York lofts and California suburbs—had affected things. Spatially the New York paintings were flatter, stressing the vertical. Diebenkorn, however, seemed to welcome clear suggestions of landscape into his abstractions as a calming force; to the present day he rarely produces a painting without the implication of a full side-to-side horizontal line. What was regarded in New York as a disturbing spatial impurity—or at the least a terrific risk—became a basic Diebenkorn device, working in tandem with his allusive, quasi-naturalistic color.

Another factor which operated against an easy reading of Diebenkorn’s Berkeley paintings, as well as the later figure paintings, was his lack of an easily memorized, highly specific image. Many of the art world’s lazier camp followers still confuse art with logo, and Diebenkorn has never bothered developing a recognizable corporate symbol. His ’50s paintings, like those of Cavallon and, in New York, McNeil, were involved with a number of characteristic painterly operations, rather than a simplified final distillation. Diebenkorn’s paintings were, and still are, true palimpsests. They are slower and remain calmer than most of their New York equivalents. If New York Abstract Expressionism is a majestic series of exultations, catatonic silences and sonic booms, Diebenkorn’s paintings move along through time humming, singing, lapsing into moments of silence, existing on a more reticent, more deliberately human scale.

The vocabulary of forms and the variety of painterly methods which Diebenkorn developed in the Berkeley series remain constant through all his later work. The basic changes involve the varying pressures he exerts on, say, pure, saturated color and thin, grayed-out washes, or strong, abstract structure and clear representational imagery. His paintings are always arenas where various dialogues are underway. A key issue is the co-existence of drawing and painting as complete systems in each work. They merge, intertwine and then separate again to reclaim their integrity. One can view a Diebenkorn as either a drawn-on painting or a painted-on drawing. The absolute unity of drawing with painting that one finds in Pollock and Kline one finds here only intermittently, a transitional territory between drawing as linear direction and paint as colored plane. The clearest source of Diebenkorn’s personal mix is undoubtedly Matisse, who, over the years, seems benignly to haunt Diebenkorn’s studio the way Rubens haunted Delacroix’s.

In the middle ’50s, when Diebenkorn turned to representational painting, he surprised and dismayed many people, including myself. I still prefer the earlier and later works, but I admit it: he was a marvelous figure artist, and I’m glad he painted all those pictures. Nevertheless, at the time it seemed a reckless decision. Realism was widely believed to be a dying thing. Abstract Expressionism, apparently unsinkable, was beginning to achieve recognition and power just as he left it. Instead of stowing away on the Titanic, Diebenkorn appeared to be jumping off the Santa Maria just ten miles from the Florida coast.

But few of us could see how little he had to give up, and how much, in so many ways, he had to gain. His unusually acute painterly intelligence kept everything in balance. Whereas the Berkeley paintings contained horizontal bandings to bring landscape space into abstraction, the new figurative paintings stressed top-to-bottom verticals, to undercut the unity of the three-dimensional space. It was a subtle quid pro quo which served to maintain Diebenkorn’s accustomed spatial complexity.

A second issue he faced was the inescapable psychological power of the human figure as an image, with its ability to drain significance from surrounding areas and to concentrate attention too absolutely. Diebenkorn adopted a variety of remedies, many of which derive from Bonnard. The faces of his models are often obscured by other objects, or turn away from our view, or are less carefully defined than their immediate surroundings. His figures are almost always cropped so as not to take over as complete—major—objects in incomplete—minor spaces; one of the few exceptions to this rule, the Whitney’s Girl Looking at the Landscape, fails for this reason. Like Bonnard, he succeeded most often when he painted the field and avoided stressing potentially dominant objects.

Since the early ’50s Diebenkorn has characteristically divided his canvases in a particular way: small charged areas of intense activity are juxtaposed with large, rectangular expanses of reduced painterly incident. In the Berkeley abstractions the agitated passages often contain curves, letter-forms, and small objectlike shapes. In these new figurative paintings, with a minimum of effort, they became faces instead of curves, coffee cups instead of letters. The large, more blandly inflected areas turned into walls and windows and lawns. No painter since de Kooning has had fewer changes to make when shifting from abstraction to figuration.

The subjects themselves, though, are without emotional overtones. The anonymous women sit, stare blankly, or doze, victims of studio ennui. There is never a trace of the erotic ambience of Bonnard or Matisse, despite these artists’ presence as formal influences. In fact the rigorous, puritanical ghost of Edward Hopper seems to have visited these bare rooms and barren California backyards, insisting that Diebenkorn restrict his voluptuous longings merely to the paint. In a few drawings from the model, a certain Klimtian sexuality seems faintly to have adhered to Diebenkorn’s rougher handling, though these occasions are rare. Diebenkorn’s compositional gifts, one realizes, are so strong overall that single works can simultaneously recall artists as disparate as Hopper and Matisse and still seem completely his own. And surprisingly, this firm-handed reach into art history is accomplished without a hint of eclectic thievery. One sees, instead, a very civilized and committed artist, happy with the richness of his medium, stating the truth: that the house in which he dwells has other occupants.

The figure paintings, more nakedly than the Berkeley or Ocean Park paintings, display Diebenkorn’s habit of approximating pictorial solutions, rather than pushing relentlessly to final resolution and distillation. It is here, again, that we see Diebenkorn as an activist-manipulator rather than as a designer of images, a man who would rather build than polish. He prefers to stop where he is and go on to the next work, understanding that perfection is a goal suitable only for the small-minded, and ultimately only an irritating treadmill for the far-sighted.

The recent Fauve show at the Museum of Modern Art provides an interesting antecedent. Whenever Matisse was paired with Derain one saw instantly how much more finished the Derains were. They had about them the air of success and harmonious resolution. Matisse, by contrast, left things more open-ended and raw. His paintings showed obvious signs of struggle and headlong experimentation. Derain, master technician that he was, provided their buttoned-down museum versions. It seemed to me in the later ’50s that Diebenkorn played Matisse to David Park’s and Elmer Bischoff’s Derain, appearing awkward, jarring, and enormously inventive in their company.

In the late ’60s Diebenkorn surprised us again and abandoned figurative painting for abstraction in his still-continuing Ocean Park series. The shift was toward geometry, toward clarity, and toward a new sense of grandeur. The paintings expanded in size as the range of their techniques contracted, The encrusted surfaces and elaborated compositions of the figurative paintings disappeared. The immediate ancestors of these new, stripped-down works were Matisse’s most austere canvases, paintings like the black Open Window, Collioure, of 1914, and the Goldfish of 1915. Diebenkorn’s 1969 exhibition at Poindexter Gallery included a number of paintings with wide, diagonal bands which apparently derive from Matisse’s Nymph in the Forest of 1936. This particular Matisse is based on an interplay between wide, flat bands and thin, delicate charcoal drawing, a dialogue that Diebenkorn frequently employs. It is also a large work, 96 by 78 inches, the same general size and proportions that Diebenkorn favors in his Ocean Park series. Its influence seems beyond question.

Diebenkorn’s color has always been a strange mix of clear, saturated hues and thin, indeterminate washes, with large areas of wiped-out, now almost muddy, former color. Drawing operates, as I have described, with and against this mix. The Ocean Park paintings are most successful when they contain the fewest large areas of saturated, opaque color. The reasons for this are complex. The emotional core of these canvases lies in Diebenkorn’s masterly drawing, now hesitant, now sure, weaving in and out of the colored territories, which are, themselves, now thin and hesitant, now flat and sure. His supreme accomplishment is the ability to convey strength and fragility simultaneously, to embed personal uncertainty in works of convincing grandeur.

When Diebenkorn commits more of the surface to opaque, saturated color his line shrinks to a marginal role as edge, or else has to be arbitrarily strengthened to do battle, head-on, with the power of massed and solid hue. Intimacy suffers, hard, architectural overtones emerge, and diagonal lines assume disconcerting perspective implications. When the largest areas are devoted to thin washes of atmospheric color, the line operates magically and Diebenkorn’s particular sensibility dominates everything. His most successful paintings appear as a precarious blending of intuition, intelligence and luck, a combination that requires endless reserves of tactful restraint. The Ocean Park paintings, solidly committed as they are to the geometrical, contain from time to time ghostly curves and organic pentimenti, vague traces of earlier times, half-glimpsed heads or cups or Berkeley knots and whorls. No matter how radical Diebenkorn’s stylistic shifts, the dialogue, the words remain. His oeuvre is a painter’s Remembrance of Things Past, in which a particular pink, or an odd, hesitant line stands in for the madeleine.

Leaving the Diebenkorn show and walking across the Albright-Knox to a room of ’60s Pop and color field paintings I developed a peculiar unease. Having experienced Diebenkorn’s rich and varied surfaces, I saw the Stella and Kelly and Noland—good examples all—as three disparate images which share an almost identical technique. Masking tape and flat, matte acrylic color unified the production of a decade in a way that few earlier modern epochs could claim. And it seemed to me, then, a great impoverishment, as if, leaving the Diebenkorn rooms to come downstairs, I had left painting for printing. I wondered whether the ’60’s gains in imagistic force at the expense of physical abundance had been worthwhile.

These thoughts helped me, finally, to place Diebenkorn in a precise art context. His retrospective demonstrated beyond any doubt that by 1948 he possessed a fully developed Abstract Expressionist style. His innovative beginnings coincide exactly with the Abstract Expressionist beginnings of James Brooks, Franz Kline, Philip Guston and Jack Tworkov. Diebenkorn is, very simply, the youngest and one of the most gifted members of that famous first generation. Robert Motherwell, whom Diebenkorn acknowledges as an important early influence, is represented at the Albright-Knox by what is probably one of his two or three finest paintings. This 1953 Spanish Elegy hangs near Guston’s Voyage of 1956, and a rich, orange and yellow Rothko. It is with works of this quality that Diebenkorn must finally be judged, and against which his accomplishment can most clearly be seen.

In 1955 I helped persuade Elinor Poindexter to give Diebenkorn his first one-man show in New York; we were gallery mates there for a number of years. I very much admired his work, and thought I knew it well, but the Albright-Knox retrospective came as a revelation. Seen in depth his strengths loom larger, gaining immeasurably in resonance and weight. The pins on the maps will require rearrangement, and a number of recent art histories will need extensive rewriting, because Richard Diebenkorn is a bigger, more important and decisive presence than any of us had imagined.

Budd Hopkins is a painter who shows at the Lerner-Heller Gallery.

The Diebenkorn retrospective was shown at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, from November 12, 1976 to January 9, 1977. From there it will travel to the Cincinnati Art Museum, Jan. 31–Mar. 20; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, April 15–May 23; the Whitney Museum of American Art, June 9–July 27; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Aug. 9–Sept. 25; and the Oakland Museum, Oct. 15–Nov. 29, 1977.