New York

Richard Diebenkorn

M. Knoedler

I overheard a woman at Richard Diebenkorn’s show say to her companion, “Don’t you just love his edges.” The companion apparently did, and so do I. And I love his pentimenti, and his composition, and his sense of color too. Diebenkorn knows, perhaps better than any other living American artist, how to combine paint and canvas to maximum advantage.

But it’s not simply technical proficiency that puts Diebenkorn at the forefront of American painters today. In all great art there is a creative leap from the mechanical to the spiritual, and it’s the size of Diebenkorn’s leap that makes his art so breathtaking. The individual elements of a particular work of art can be dissected, described, traced to their sociological and art historical roots, and analyzed ad infinitum—without ever explaining why that work may move large numbers of people for centuries. In the end the creative process remains a mystery.

Diebenkorn’s recent show consisted of nine of his latest “Ocean Park” paintings and 28 mixed-media paintings on paper, which related to the “Ocean Park” paintings. All the works were done in 1978 and 1979. The “Ocean Park” paintings, named after the section of Santa Monica where Diebenkorn has worked since 1966, were begun the following year after almost 12 years of figurative painting. This show included Ocean Park No. 107 through Ocean Park No. 115. (The last painting in his 1976–77 retrospective was Ocean Park No. 94, 1976.)

Diebenkorn’s work changes slowly, and I think most people will be happy to learn that the paintings in this show were not substantially different from what he has been doing for the past 12 years. Although he has made several stylistic shifts in his career—from figurative work in his earliest student years, to abstraction in the early to mid-1940s, back to figuration in 1956, and finally to the abstract “Ocean Park” paintings in 1967—those changes, in retrospect, seem to have been inevitable developments. Because his changes are organic, Diebenkorn avoids repeating himself. Many artists who paint in series simply paint the same painting again and again. See one and you’ve seen them all. But I’ve seen 50 or 60 of the 115 “Ocean Park” paintings and have felt that each was unique and unlike any other painting.

Although there were no surprises in this show—unless one had forgotten just how good a painter Diebenkorn is—there were two areas of development that suggested a refining of style.

One was that the colors in these paintings are more muted than in many of his earlier works. Much has been written about Diebenkorn’s capturing the “California light.” Well, California light—even coastal southern California light—is not one thing. The sharp, clear light of November is quite different from the diffused light of March, when the coast can be shrouded in fog for two weeks at a stretch. Many of his earlier “Ocean Park” paintings, if I remember correctly, dealt with the kind of bright light that makes objects stand out distinct and defined, which I suppose is the “famous” California light. In these recent paintings the colors were softer, toned down, as if seen through a mist.

Another development, evident in one painting and in several of the works on paper, is the use of curved lines. Until now the “Ocean Park” paintings—at least the ones I’ve seen—have been characterized by straight lines only, meeting at sharp angles. But Ocean Park No. 108 in this show has a line running up the two sides and across the top which curves at the upper corners rather than make the more expected 90-degree turn. This line tends to frame the picture and hold the incidents at the more active edge and away from the open center of the canvas. And several of the paper works contain a shape similar to a race track seen in plan.

Otherwise, the paintings have not changed much. The vertical format—possibly to discourage a literal reading as landscape—still predominates. The pentimenti—suggesting work, trial and error, and human fallibility—are still there, making these paintings particularly painterly, sensuous and delicate.

The day before this show opened, looking around the gallery at the just completed installation, Diebenkorn said, “I’ve always wanted to paint a completely abstract painting, but I’ve never been able to.” While he may consider this a shortcoming, I certainly don’t. Much of his broad appeal, I think, comes from the degree to which his paintings are tied to the physical world. Although they are not landscape paintings, they show the influence of—and I think a love for—light, air, land and water, all of which are essential to landscape. And all of which are equally essential to human existence.

Jeffrey Keeffe