New York

Richard Diebenkorn

Knoedler Gallery

Here are more paintings in Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” suite named after the area in Santa Monica where he works. Suite? Well, more like saga—he is up to number 125, which is quite a production over 13 years.

As usual, the washy ochres, clays and blues recall landscape, even when there is no evidence for it. The materiality of the paint contradicts any such pictorialism; the planes are not ordered as “grounds” nor do the colors recede as “spaces.” One does not look out from or even into these paintings; one looks, if anywhere, down. The paintings are flat twice over. So the paintings are not disposed to the person who scans, as in landscape. Lines kneecap or lash the viewer at the belly; diagonals and odd divisions set one askew. And yet . . . Why do I contest it so? If landscape is not there, it’s not there. And yet it is there, evoked somehow.

I suspect it’s residual in two ways. Near the top and often on the sides of the paintings there is color that, next to the inner ochres and clays, seems pure. So in line with the eyes is pure color, and opposite the body, earthy color. This corresponds to vision’s purity and the body’s materiality, and to our experience of landscape. We see it purely as a scene, even as one feels a part of it as a body in a field. Other painters play upon this too: with Marden such presence is nearly overpowering. With Diebenkorn the viewer and the painting are on equal terms. It is pleasant, painting á la Matisse’s armchair.

This is one effect of “landscape”—color. There is another here, too—drawing. All the paintings have inner edges or frames: it’s hard not to intuit windows there. Again, no landscape is depicted, but there are yellows that signal “sand,” blues that signal “water.” It could be said that as de Kooning decomposes the figure, Diebenkorn destructures the landscape.

Since the ’40s, he has gone back and forth from abstract to representational painting. It’s unclear here whether he begins representationally and abstracts, or works abstractly against the return of the representational. In any case, the old modern debate—“abstract” versus “representational”—is back on. To be sure, there is art imitative of appearance and art that is less so. But art is nothing but representation (and painting nothing but pictorialism). To oppose “abstract” to “representational” is to reduce both: it suggests that “abstract” paintings are mere diagrams of “representational” paintings.

Diebenkorn seems ambivalent: he wants both, sees them as opposed, and so ends up with neither. Once, perhaps, to achieve non-representational painting (which, I would argue, is the real painting of and about representation), it was necessary to abstract, as Mondrian abstracted a tree or pier into a system of lines. It is not so now. I do not mean that Diebenkorn does this. But there is a diagrammatic quality to the work. The line is compositionally descriptive of form, and so related to drawing in the old sense.

In a review in Artforum (September, 1979) Jeffrey Keefe quoted Diebenkorn as saying, “ ‘I’ve always wanted to paint a completely abstract painting, but I’ve never been able to.’ ” Again, I would argue that no one can. The question here is: why does he resist the “abstract?” Does he see it as somehow apart from the world? It seems so—it seems that he feels he must refer it back to the world, through an oblique recollection of the “representational.” But only philistines and foolish poets now think of “abstract” art as somehow transcendent.

Diebenkorn is responsive to the old modern imperative of the “abstract” (all but an echo now) and, it seems, responsive as well to the even older imperative of the “representational.” And we, forever desirous of the familiar, love him for it. But such ambivalence is not a productive contradiction. It seems, rather, an irresolution, which is not to say a duplicity.

Hal Foster