New York

Richard Diebenkorn

If there’s one lasting impression left by the retrospective of Richard Diebenkorn’s paintings at the Whitney Museum, it’s an overriding sense of finicky graphic and chromatic tastefulness. And this carefully crafted rightness—almost every Diebenkorn picture seems like the resolution to a family argument pled for by a kindly old father who wants, above all, to avoid any sign of conflict—is what makes the show seem so out of touch with the times. Of course, there’s bad out-of-touch and good out-of-touch: a retrospective that reveals how academic and timid the artist’s work is, compared with today’s adventurous fare, doesn’t make a great case for itself; a retrospective that demonstrates how comparatively decadent art has become since the heyday of its subject is another story. Which is the Diebenkorn show?

Anecdote no. I: An abstract painter I once knew told me that when he was a student he had an old professor who would constantly recommend the use of Naples yellow as the solution to practically any pictorial problem. After a while, the students got together and had little Amway–like buttons made up that said, “Ask me about Naples yellow.” Anecdote no. 2: When I was a painter in Los Angeles in the ’70s, some of the younger, more radical artists who (plus ça change . . .) thought painting was “dead” had a nickname for Richard Diebenkorn: Mr. Beige. Now I’m not suggesting that the staff of the Whitney sport tags saying, “Ask me about beige.” But I am saying that, with the exception of a few of the early abstractions done in New Mexico and Berkeley, Diebenkorn doesn’t seem to take a hell of a lot of aesthetic chances, even within the rather polite parameters he set for his work.

Diebenkorn’s biography is fairly standard for the second-generation Abstract Expressionists who managed, at crucial times in their careers, to find shelter in art schools and universities as faculty. Born in 1922 in Portland, Oregon, Diebenkorn became a Marine before he could graduate from Stanford. While in Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia, he would use his passes to look at Matisse and Bonnard in the museums in Washington, DC. (On your checklist of Diebenkorn influences, put a big X in front of Matisse.) After the war, he returned to the West Coast and got both a job at the California School of Fine Arts (later the San Francisco Art Institute) and a start as an abstract painter. (San Francisco—having hosted Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still for teaching stints—was AbEx’s second city.) But Diebenkorn then decided to get some more schooling, at the University of New Mexico, and, in Albuquerque, he made his first significant paintings.

The best early ’50s New Mexico abstractions (along with several paintings created in Berkeley when Diebenkorn returned to the Bay Area soon after) are crisply improvisational compositions boasting what was to become Diebenkorn’s trademark moderately intense color and just enough flamboyant brushwork to give them a real edge. Early on, these qualities were enough. But later, in the “Ocean Park” series that was to occupy the artist for the last twenty—five years of his career, they weren’t—the paintings become much paler and faded—looking, and his brushwork seems reined in by the composition. (Let’s forget Diebenkorn’s figurative interregnum, 1955–67; it’s just Edward Hopper redone with thicker paint and thinner psychology.)

The trouble, in general, with the “Ocean Park” paintings is the same reliance on pure taste that plagues the work of Helen Frankenthaler. (In fact, a lot of Diebenkorn looks like Frankenthaler laid over a masculine grid.) Even though Diebenkorn often nails a kind of osmotic mise-en-scène (i.e., the Venice neighborhood after which the paintings are named), he really has nothing to say except, approximately, this: Using a moderately big format, continually faring and truing my system of rectangles, triangles, elegant gutters, and a scrub-in/rub-out drawing, and seeing that my colors arc always domesticated by at least a pinch of white, I can get pictorial harmony every time. That’s nice—especially at a moment when galleries arc filled with militantly ugly paintings. But you want a little more from a major museum retrospective (or at least I do).

I want some hairy eccentricity—like, say, that of Frank Lobdell, a still-living contemporary of Diebenkorn who, in a just world, would get a show like this one. I want some breathtaking excitement, like you get from, say, Sam Francis’ The Whiteness of the Whale, 1957–58. Yes, Francis churned out an awful lot of decoratively tachiste crap over the years, but when his best paintings are measured against Diebenkorn’s, it’s no contest as to who was the greater California painter. And I want a body of work that, in the end, inspires awe rather than a grade. The grade? A-minus, if you must know. But it’s academic.

Peter Plagens is art critic for Newsweek magazine and a painter.