New York

Richard Diebenkorn

Knoedler & Company

The beauty of Richard Diebenkorn’s small paintings of the late ’50s and early ’60s is inseparable from their aura of resignation. Strangely, something about them recalls the late work of Malevich, of Tatlin, of Rodchenko and Stepanova—work Diebenkom could hardly have known—in which, after the wreckage of their utopian Modernisms, those artists returned to what seems a shockingly traditional form of painting. One might call Diebenkorn’s work, like theirs, painting without ambition, or in any case with no ambition in any sphere other than the most intimate one, a sphere in which art could be, simply, a bulwark against despair. To “see” such paintings at all, one must accept their weakness as a strength: in the most profound sense they refuse to be more than marginalia to a history that refuses them just as firmly.

It is Matisse, of course, who was on Diebenkorn’s mind and not the Russians; Matisse, too, had drawn back from the brink of abstraction and the avant-garde. But like the Russians and unlike Matisse, Diebenkorn had already been an abstractionist in a time when abstraction was the historically correct thing to do, so his return to representation was a very self-conscious turn backward and inward—but not a return to order, or to a reassuring anchorage in the real. In his figurative works, Diebenkom unveils the inaccessibility of the depicted object to the perceiving subject, its intangibility and evanescence. Hence the poignancy of the light in these paintings. Diebenkorn’s light is one that takes with one hand what it gave with the other—a light that is always obliterating what it reveals.

There are astonishing things in Diebenkorn’s still lifes and landscapes, but what is true of his work in those genres reveals itself most intensely in the female heads and figures that comprise the bulk of this exhibition. Here we can see why Diebenkorn’s “formalism” subtends a restrained emotionalism, a peculiarly male melancholia in which the impossibility of possession becomes the core of erotic feeling. In untitled figure studies such as the one, undated, in which a woman in green reclines, pressed to the edge of the composition by the luminous rectangle that is a window, repose reveals the weight, the carnal pressure of a woman’s body as a kind of absolute presence that takes no account of being viewed: the model inevitably turns away, or else her face is so derealized by the violence of light as to become an eyeless smear of matter, returning no gaze. In a few of the head studies, it is true, the model does look back out at the viewer, but what we find there is something remote, unresponsive, like the black holes of Head, 1960, or the green glare of a 1961 study with the same title. (Only in Girl-Black Hair, 1961, do we find the answering gaze of true portraiture.) One tends to say of this kind of figure painting that it has been assimilated to still life, but that’s not quite right in this case. Here, figure studies illuminate the otherwise inexplicable psychological atmosphere, the pathos of mute yearning that surrounds so many of the still life objects. Like the figures, these objects are ciphers of a corporeal existence that sight wants to grasp but cannot.

Barry Schwabsky