Los Angeles

Richard Diebenkorn

Irving Blum Gallery

I am prejudiced in favor of painting because it is the worst thing to do nowadays, limited and overburdened by its own rich, codified language, and because it is rarely done well. A painter like Richard Diebenkorn is especially vulnerable because he’s so Beaux-arts: brushy surfaces, charcoal lines showing through fleshy, “natural” colors indigenous to oil paint, and the “rightness” of his configurations. But Diebenkorn’s show at Irving Blum; albeit nostalgic and thin in spots, is quite good, compare it to whatever you wish. The look of the whole thing is nice: quiet, airy, serene paintings in a precise, white space above uninterfering gray carpet; and the paintings look “right” on the walls, suggesting perhaps the simplest things, around for a few centuries, are as good an environmental answer as advanced interior decoration, that perhaps it isn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel at every turn.

Diebenkorn’s paintings, generally, include big, angled areas, most stacked up and sideways, faintly reminiscent of his “Berkeley” landscapes, with stripy “cushions” bordered with scuzzed charcoal lines, faintly reminiscent of Motherwell’s “Open” series. The innards are handled with a fleshy stroke, à la Gorky’s Agony or Motherwell’s Je t’aime, and the effect is simultaneously clear and “worked.” Everything seems to be in the correct amounts: handling, size, shape, color, drawing, and one gets the feeling—I mean this as a compliment—that one sees every choice from inside the artist’s head. On the negative side, Diebenkorn is basically a tonal artist, and his color is either on the sophisticated end of the California landscape ochre-blue line followed by damned near every student painter, or, when he attempts more urbanity, quite “nameable” in terms of tube color or elementary combinations. There’s one instance, a raw dark blue in #32 (all from the “Ocean Park Series”) that I can’t figure at all, since it single-handedly destroys the picture, unless it’s that Diebenkorn, like all accomplished artists, can’t resist trying to wring blood from a turnip once in a while. Among the pictures, #27 is the easiest, with puffy de Kooningesque color deftly filling out the space; #29 the most full-blown, using all six “main” colors save for orange, in a frontal, powerful balance; and #36, the hardest because of a raw, black-and-white left-hand edge and an “awkward” but beautiful square up in the corner. What is strangely satisfying about the show is how viable a matrix good canvases still are; not only do they seem not in question, but they may answer some.

Peter Plagens