PRINT January 1986


FOR ALMOST FOUR DECADES the career of Richard Diebenkorn has followed a steady, ever deepening course whose several significant shifts of emphasis have never seriously disrupted one’s sense of the painter’s sensibility, which, more than style, provides the wellspring for his work. Diebenkorn’s recent paintings continue in the questioning of the rightness and honesty of each pictorial element that the artist has always been committed to. The paintings’ sense of calm, their flashes of bright color on subtly modulated fields bounded by broad, sometimes tentative lines, testify to the deep-rooted beauty that can be accomplished over months of assertion and reconsideration, leading finally to resolution. Diebenkorn is less afraid of awkwardness than he is of a certain seductiveness that is inherent in the processes of painting itself, and that can lead to a premature solution.

There is a richness and maturity in the work of certain contemporary Modernist painters—Diebenkorn and Cy Twombly, for example, and others of their generation—who by choice or by accident of history have avoided being identified with specific movements and critical ideologies. These painters started their careers in the early ’50s; Abstract Expressionism, a strong influence on young artists at the time, was fresh in their minds, but they knew that theirs was another agenda and a different moment in history. So they selected certain ideals of Abstract Expressionism—its humanism, for example, and its interest in immediate, individual experience, its mistrust of materialism and determinism in life and art. While they were attracted by the tradition of abstraction, some of them felt a desire to speak about a world outside the boundaries of abstract painting, and allowed, indeed insisted upon, the simultaneous existence of abstract and figurative elements in their work. This is the etymology of Diebenkorn’s lush, structured, high-horizoned abstractions, with their evocations of physical movement, of the visual scanning of a landscape, and of Twombly’s loosely knotted, centripetal, tactile reminiscences of the human body and of specific places and times, translated into abstractions through the sensuous immediacy of his graphic touch. None of the artists in question depend on exclusive choices of subject matter, or purely plastic essays in form, in their work; instead, the work finds its continuity within the individual sensibility of the artist as it is expressed over time. For these painters the work of art must wear no exterior mask, play no role, demonstrate no point, but do a most difficult thing: presenting itself with all doubts, ruminations, and hesitations exposed, it must provide the viewer with an experience of the painter’s physical and mental processes. When so much current art is brash and declarative, eager to call attention to itself and to command a position in the cultural spectacle, an art that reveals its equivocations as well as its assertions can be uniquely satisfying.

In formal terms, art such as this clearly is based on the contributions of Abstract Expressionism to the style and structure of postwar American painting, contributions that have been well documented. Less universally acknowledged is the philosophical inheritance of Abstract Expressionism, especially as it has been adapted to the varied personal needs and experiences of these postwar American painters. Certain aspects of the Abstract Expressionist ethos have endured in their work—for example, the belief in the worth of the artist’s individual visions apart from styles and movements, and the commitment to process, improvisation, and the growth of a work through successive experiences in time. It has also remained important that the work be able to sustain an active presence that is more than physical, narrative, and theatrical; these painters have sought to contain and compress realms of feeling and experience, to fill their canvases with the nuances of personal perception, to incorporate the transient and subtle as well as the dramatic. They are less interested in the topical and public than in the intimate. Private apprehensions of a range of emotions, perceptions of physical beauty, and the habits of vision and of life that form a painter’s sensibility over the years—these are the grounds upon which their art is created. Linking a post-Romantic desire for a sensuous, vivid, enhanced experience of life with a reflective, questioning turn of mind, they probe the meaning (though they don’t question the value) of sensuous absorption, even while in the midst of it. Their work is the opposite of the loose, self-advertising adaptations of Abstract Expressionist calligraphy that also emerged in the ’50s, filling galleries and classrooms across America. Much of this work was undisciplined and little more than decorative, and no longer receives attention, but the thoughtful, self-directed painters I have in mind have grown in stature with each passing decade. Such a painter is Diebenkorn.

Diebenkorn’s special gift is his ability to see an honest, almost awkward grace in life. His complex, ruminative sensibility will allow him to present no color, no emotion, unmixed by its near opposite. The world exists for him in no simpler condition than contradiction, and his poignant blend of colors and qualities suggests his mature grasp of life’s full spectrum. His art has taken adventurous turns, beginning in the ’40s, when he was an ardent admirer of Edward Hopper and was painting in a realistic vein. This style he abandoned after his discovery first of early Modernism and then of the work of the Abstract Expressionists, which he absorbed while he was a student and then a young teacher at the California School of Fine Arts, in the late ’40s; Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko taught there briefly, and their work as well as that of other first-generation Abstract Expressionists was often shown in San Francisco museums and galleries. The paintings exhibited in Diebenkorn’s first one-man show, at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor, in 1948, were abstract, and were more heavily structured than the work for which he is now known. Indebted in part to Cubism for their weight and stability, they also invoked a graceful calligraphy and radiant coloration to animate the firm structure he was already requiring as a foundation of his work.

As a graduate student in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1950 to ’52, and then as a teacher in Urbana, Illinois, for the 1952 school year, Diebenkorn allowed his painting to become more expansive, to respond intuitively to the land, its topography and coloration. He transposed these sensations into abstract planes of pigment incorporating subtle, sometimes frank references to specific places, humorous and erotic experience, and the panorama of the changing seasons in the countryside. From this period on there is always an openness to the physical environment in Diebenkorn’s work, but its appearance there is indirect; distilled over time, it transforms, gathering emotional resonance as it filters through his painterly process.

In 1953 Diebenkorn returned to the San Francisco area, settling in Berkeley, where he soon noticed a marked coloristic shift in his work from the earthy palette of his Albuquerque paintings and the verdant pastoral one of the Urbana period to more intense reds, greens, and blues. One day in 1955 he decided to resume an old activity of his student days; driving around Berkeley, he would stop to observe the various planes of the landscape making up the multifaceted topography of the town, and to sketch. A small but striking representational painting resulted. “I had never given representational painting a mature chance, being unaware as a student is. . . . As a painter, which I felt myself to be now, I wanted to take a shot at it.’’1 This was an important period in Diebenkorn’s life, a time when his mature sensibility took shape and he transposed the lessons of Abstract Expressionism to a new and personal realm. ”As soon as I started using figures my whole idea of my painting changed. Maybe not in the most obvious structural sense, but these figures distorted my sense of interior environment or of the painting itself—in a way I welcomed.“2 This was also the period of his first national acclaim, with his 1953 one-man show at the Poindexter Gallery in New York and his participation in James Johnson Sweeney’s ”Younger American Painters" exhibition, at the Guggenheim Museum, in 1954.

In the latter half of the ’50s Diebenkorn became associated in the mind of the public with a group of San Francisco–area painters, among them David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Frank Lobdell, and with a style critics called Bay Area Figuration. Diebenkorn knew and admired these colleagues, but objected to the label, with its regional connotations and heavy emphasis on the figurative nature of their work. His paintings of the time—sharp, lean wedges of pigment, in images of contemporary-looking rooms with quiet figures gazing out through windows at landscapes composed of abstract color fields—have a cool unsentimental presence and an undeniable beauty Critics often commented on the work’s obvious parallels to the art of Henri Matisse, whose strong influence Diebenkorn has appreciatively acknowledged; he was most drawn to the early, grand, somewhat austere and experimental canvases, like Music, 1910, The Blue Window, 1913, and Piano Lesson, 1916.

As Diebenkorn developed his representational approach, his highly abstracted juxtapositions of figures in structured environments opened up a psychological territory in his work in addition to its spatial vistas. In 1966 he and his family moved to the Los Angeles area, to Santa Monica, and once again a physical change of location paralleled a conceptual change in his work. It seemed that the psychological tension of the late figurative canvases was dispelled as Diebenkorn responded to the broad new environment of Los Angeles, a vast sprawl of a city facing the Pacific Ocean with mountains at its back. He noted the special qualities of the hazy but radiant coastal light of Santa Monica, and the dense geometric interplay of stacked houses on crowded hillsides near the ocean. It was not enough, however, to simply record this, or even to translate it into a partial abstraction. In 1967, barely a year after the move south, he began the “Ocean Park” paintings, named for the part of Santa Monica where his studio is located.

These paintings are entirely abstract, their physical format larger than that of the earlier work and their pictorial space appearing virtually boundless, with sheets of graded washes and calligraphic passages suggesting an interior as vast as the sky. Diebenkorn’s preference fora high-horizoned rectilinear format reinforces the open, expansive effect of his tone and color. The “Ocean Park” paintings are quite geometric in structure, with bonelike armatures of carefully plotted but freely executed lines; moving within these structures are atmospheric surfaces, which might seem to resist enclosure were it not that they depend on the geometry for their sense of vast space. The lines construct rather than delimit. These works function pictorially, suggesting a space larger and deeper than themselves rather than existing absolutely and physically. In the late ’60s such a stance might have seemed traditional or retrograde, but Diebenkorn was determined to retain the possibility of pictorial metaphor rather than following the Minimalist course, then so prevalent, and embracing an entirely physical world. The “Ocean Park” paintings speak of sensations of light and space, expansion and compression, of moods and times of day, without ever illustrating any of these.

Looking back at Diebenkorn’s career, with its stylistic and conceptual shifts (from realism to abstraction to figuration and then back to abstraction), it is important to understand that none of these changes constitute a renunciation of the work and the ideas of the preceding phase. Diebenkorn brought abstract and expressionist elements forward into his figurative work of the ’50s, and his long and careful considerations of the psychological dynamics of physical and pictorial spaces inform the abstract paintings he has made in Santa Monica. The “Ocean Park” paintings are ongoing, but they are not a series in the usual sense of the term; the continuous titling and numbering of the paintings since 1967 merely signifies their place of origin. They were made in the artist’s studio in Ocean Park, the place is a part of the artist’s biography and of a phase in his life, but they are not paintings of or about Ocean Park. This distinction is often brushed aside by viewers who prefer to experience the works simply as abstractions of the Santa Monica landscape. Nowhere in Ocean Park, a crowded but affable district of small shops, apartments, and older residential buildings, will one find the towering vertical planes, sweeping diagonal thrusts of color, and calligraphic interstices typical of Diebenkorn’s paintings; that sensibility belongs to the artist, who brought it with him when he came here. If it now fits the place, it is because the strength of his vision has such an effect on our eyes and our imaginations. Similarly, when we look at Piet Mondrian’s great “Pier and Ocean” series, conceived in 1914, we discover an abstract cosmology in a 20th-century Dutch painter’s view of the sea from the harbor. Diebenkorn’s paintings may remind us of physical sensations experienced in a landscape, but their abstraction affords him the freedom to construct a subjective space independent from and not servile to his immediate environment. He is free to establish a coloristic and emotional tenor, thereby reflecting his own sensibility and vision rather than the topography or the picturesqueness of a specific place.

During the almost 18 years Diebenkorn has worked in Santa Monica, with the “Ocean Park” paintings occupying the great part of that period, his vision has grown and changed many times. The earlier paintings in the group, those from the late ’60s and early ’70s, are solidly built, sometimes massive in their effect if not in absolute scale. Color is important, but it is often almost opaque, and its role is delimited by strong geometric structures and their boundaries. In the ’70s Diebenkorn opened up the interior spaces of the works, elevated the dominant horizontals, and allowed washes of pigment to expand the affective boundaries of his canvases. These are among his most compelling paintings in the lean, sure reach of their line, the intimate touch of the soft, translucent washes, and their soaring overall effects. In the spirit of the earliest “Ocean Park” paintings, the works of the past few years are solid and often architectonic; they emphasize construction, and their color is generally more saturated than in the ’70s pieces. This structural interest can be seen in the most recent group of work, shown in New York in November of ’85, in Ocean Path #126, 1984, its central portion sharply cut by wide diagonals and stabilized by a deep plane of blue at its base. The pale, earthy tonalities of Ocean Path #130, 1985, suggest a spirit of coloristic reverie until the influence of numerous incisive, parallel linear tracks and thin, sharp black rectangles brings the edges back into prominence and captures the entire field within boundaries laid by these taut thin lines. In Ocean Park #131, 1985, a smaller, more playful, ruminative painting, Dienbenkorn lets crisp red, black, blue, and yellow rectangles and squares enjoy their prominence until they are upstaged by fascinating if less self-assured linear elements—a round-edged near rectangle, for example, which stands on two short verticals at the bottom edge of the canvas just right of center. This is an open-ended, thoughtful work, compensating in grace and frankness for any supposed lack of mass or finish.

Ocean Park #133, 1985, with its soft warm blacks, and its pale-tan elliptical shape at top left opposite a broken horizontal bar, is one of the most impressive paintings in the group. Although Diebenkorn’s work is known and appreciated for its abundant color and seductive painterly textures, there is an undercurrent of austerity and a fondness for simplicity in the man and in his art. A painting like Ocean Park #133 is more typical and central to his vision than it may appear. Here he creates complex tonalities out of near darkness, and cuts through the dark field to uncover glowing linear remnants of other stages in its evolution. Ocean Park #133 is closer to James McNeill Whistler than to Ad Reinhardt because it depends so much upon a blend of tones and emotions, of oppositions turned into fuller harmonies.

While I was looking at these and other paintings in Diebenkorn’s studio the artist was deciding which of them was ready for exhibition, and in conversation he retraced for me the individual biographies of each work. Some were rescued from oblivion by a strong element that eventually found new more satisfying counterparts to form a whole, while others announced themselves from the outset and required but a little rethinking. Considering them as they were about to leave for exhibition, Diebenkorn said quietly "Finally, a painting wants to be beautiful: The statement, both reassuring and unexpected in its simplicity, needs to be qualified—easily done by turning to the work, in which beauty speaks of something larger and other than itself.

Susan C. Larsen is an associate professor of art history at the University of Southern California. She contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Richard Diebenkorn, interview with Susan C. Larsen for the Archives of American Art Smithsonian Institution, May 1985.

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