San Francisco

Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn is being shown at the De Young Museum in what is undoubtedly the most completely satisfying one-man exhibit of contemporary painting to be seen this year.

The artist’s underground reputation as a painter of great promise began in the early 50’s, and he quickly became nationally known, if only to other artists, by the mid-50’s. His lyrical, abstract landscapes of that period can be likened in breadth of expression, depth of feeling and visual perception to the finest second generation abstract expressionists working concurrently in New York. By 1955, the abstractions, with their obvious references to western landscape (i.e., trueness to local color, up-tilted vistas suggesting real space rendered isometrically), began to tighten and to include obvious rather than oblique references to the world outside the studio. By 1956 Diebenkorn had painted the now famous “Girl on a Terrace” in the Neuberger collection and had become identified with what is now called “Bay Area Figurative Painting.”

The identification of Diebenkorn with David Park and Elmer Bischoff, and what later became an academy of loosely and for the most part ineptly handled figurative picture painting, is an unfortunate occurrence—if for no other reason than that Diebenkorn’s talent far outstrips all other West Coast Neo-Figurative painters, taken singly or at their collective best. It is well to remember that for the last seven or eight years Diebenkorn has attempted nothing less than the consummate marriage of verifiable subject matter, tightly locked in Renaissance space, with the spontaneity and freedom of gesture learned from the abstract expressionist tradition. To accomplish this aim without impinging and finally decimating either the subject depicted or the wonderfully fluid sense of abstract space Diebenkorn has, is a major accomplishment.

For Diebenkorn the constant struggle to join the two elements successfully is of primary importance to his art and should never be overlooked. The struggle to join sets the moral tone and pictorial tension which is the very muscle and bone of Diebenkorn’s. art. His quest for the two precepts is eloquently stated in a work such as “Seated Woman with Hat and Gloves” where the ambiguous identity of the theatrically garbed model is completely unseen at first glance. Instead, one is made aware of the formal possibilities of a crushed felt Garbo hat that leads to a beautifully rendered paint passage, which doubles as an arm and a blouse, which in turn leads to a loose piece of geometry suddenly transformed into a woman’s lap cloaked in a skirt. One is aware that Diebenkorn has used a model as a reference, as her presence is repeated in variants of the same pose, and yet visually her appearance is a lagniappe—a subject to muse over after completely exploring the intense formal relationship engendered in placing one part of her anatomy and garb in electrifying juxtaposition to another portion.

This exhibition makes it clear that Diebenkorn’s Mephistophelean eight year struggle with the object has given birth to painting equal, and in some instances superior, to the abstractions of the ’50s. It has become increasingly evident to both Diebenkorn and the interested viewing pubIic that the abstract landscape series was a difficult act to follow.

Excluding the wonderfully complete “Seated Woman with Hat and Gloves,” the finest works in the exhibit are surely the landscapes. Diebenkorn has approached the problem of depicting an area of the urban environment—the planned single-dwelling subdivision—usually rejected as worthless subject matter by artists. In this case, Diebenkorn approached an area notorious for its 1930s stucco banality. The transformation—one could almost say metamorphosis—is astonishing. Looking at the picture entitled “Ingleside,” the district so named is certainly there, while the changes lie somehow elsewhere, a kind of modulation close to, in quality, if not in execution, what happens to a sleazy hotel room depicted by Edward Hopper. The slight but very meaningful formal beauty of light on a bleak window-sash in a Hopper is equal to the acid green arc a lawn makes against a grey street in one of these landscapes.

James Monte