New York

Richard Diebenkorn

Ultimately, Richard Diebenkorn’s reputation depends on the “Ocean Park Series,” 1967–88, of which this exhibition gave us 11 paintings selected from at least 150 works. Begun in 1967, the same year Robert Motherwell began his “Open” paintings—and apparently catalyzed by two, virtually objectless, grandly rectangular 1914 paintings by Henri Matisse, Open Window, Collioure and View of Nôtre Dame, depicting interiors with aborted exterior views—the works in this series depict a similar oscillating space. In general, Diebenkorn’s paintings summarize and refine the modern tradition of spatial handling that extends from Cubist to Color Field painting, a tradition in which positive and negative space appear seamlessly to merge.

The question is whether they do so in an anticlimactic way, their indebtedness effacing their achievement, or whether they establish their own particularity, reaching a horizon of meaning the tradition did not foresee, indeed to which it was blind. However much Modernist space seemingly undermines objects and transforms objective into esthetic space, it does not expunge objectivity so much as suggest its unremitting complexity. In contrast, Diebenkorn refuses to become bogged down in the trickiness of perception that this awareness of the subtlety of Modernist space leads to. Nor does he, like Motherwell and the Minimalists (in their different ways), create Platonic, “conceptual” spaces. Rather, he attempts to evoke inner space: his space is uncanny, suggesting the tenuous moment when consciousness is about to alter under the pressure of the unconscious. This moment is symbolized by the apparent collapse of the distinction between external and internal space: Diebenkorn riskily extends the parameters of the Matisses that inspired him by suggesting the convergence, indeed the simultaneity, of the external and the internal.

Thus, Diebenkorn’s paintings are not yet another comment on the perceptual peculiarities of external space, nor are they routinely transcendent and inward-looking like those of Mark Rothko, but, rather, they remain equivocally located on the border between the two—which can no longer be clearly separated. Diebenkorn is neither a devotee of the abstract sublime nor a standard abstract perceptualist. Instead, he conveys those rare moments when the intimate relationship between ostensibly hermetic, resolutely private space and socially shared space becomes evident (if never entirely self-evident)—when they spontaneously reach a state of equilibrium and become emotionally equivalent.

In fact, I suggest that Diebenkorn “represents” the dream screen, as it has been called—that psychic place on which the residues of the quotidian are projected, then distorted by unconscious wishes. The signs of this process of distortion—of displacement and condensation—are evident in Diebenkorn’s pentimenti, which, to me, are the marvels of his painting. Indeed. virtually all of his linear divisions have an erased look—giving them an oddly exposed feel—as though they were questioning their own certainty. The delicacy that results, evident also in the painted color that tends more toward the lightly than heavily brushed, conveys a similar tentativeness. At the same time, the interplay of horizontals and verticals, however marked by diagonals and curves that often appear incidental in the larger framework, conveys a sense of sturdy integrity and structure, making Diebenkorn’s paintings as self-identical as Piet Mondrian’s, however different the tempo of the latter’s dynamic equilibrium. Ocean Park No. 133, 1985, one of Diebenkorn’s few square paintings (81 by 81 inches), is my favorite, perhaps because of the way the narrow band of light at the top balances the overwhelming darkness without relaxing the tension between them: this work epitomizes the opaque vista and uncanny equilibrium of all the works in the series.

Donald Kuspit