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Diebenkorn & Hopper @ Cantor

 
Sketchbook # 28, page 6, undated, 12 pages nine drawing, pen and graphite, 4 x 13/16 x 8 1/4 x 5/16”
 
by Lawrence Gipe
 
Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center is celebrating two momentous acquisitions with Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealed and Edward Hopper: New York Corner. Both shows share the same gallery – and the side dense with Diebenkorn’s sketchbooks easily overwhelms the Hopper section. But, what’s unique about these two exhibitions co-existing is how the organizers are able to seamlessly illustrate a brief overlap in the lives of the two artists.

Turns out that as a 20-year old in Stanford’s art program in 1948, Diebenkorn (1922-1993) fell hard for the stolid Americana of Edward Hopper (1882-1967). The then-student remarked with a sweet sense of possession: “It was the kind of work that just seemed made for me. I looked at it and it was mine.” Of course, the interest was
Sketchbook # 10, undated, page 12, 46 pages with 23 drawings
one-sided.  In a transition zone between the two shows, the curators (and this must really be what’s fun about curating) utilize a small suite of hitherto unseen works by the youthful Diebenkorn, who was clearly imitating his mentor. Truth be told, the largest painting looks so much like a Hopper, it makes you do a double take on the label. The inclusion of these pieces as a bridge between the two exhibitions neatly embellishes what was formally just a biographical “footnote.”

The gesture also provides a nice antidote to the time-tested story applied to Diebenkorn (and many of his cohorts) of the American artist assimilating the European avant-garde.  Of course, to deny the influence of Matisse and Gorky in the many drawings that make up The Sketchbooks Revealed would be impossible.  But by the time his Ocean Park series begins in the 1980s, any trace of Hopper’s moody austerity had been blown away like cobwebs (no doubt from the breeze blowing through Matisse’s Open Window, Collioure). But now you can travel through this extraordinary survey of over 1,000 drawings, aware of his fondness for Hopper, which informs Diebenkorn’s detached figures, in a fresh way.

The Cantor has solved the logistical nightmare of presenting 29 sketchbooks with technology.  A touchscreen interactive site that includes digitized versions of all the material is in the gallery, and it not only works, it’s easy and fun to navigate online. There’s an irony, though, swiping through his work on a screen like an abstract expressionist Tinder. It underlines how the hands-on work ethic of Diebenkorn – who took a sketchbook, rather than an Android, wherever he went – is a relic of the past.
 
Edward Hopper, New York Corner (Corner Saloon), 1913, oil on canvas
 
The Hopper exhibit across the room consists of only one of the artist’s paintings – a new acquisition titled New York Corner (1913).  The press release touts it as “perhaps” the first painting “made in his representative style”. Perhaps.  Certainly, Hopper was still under the spell of his own French mentors in 1913 — notably Manet.  Equally important, but unmentioned, is the piece’s debt to both his former (American) instructors, Robert Henri and George Bellows.  At any rate, during the war years that followed New York Corner, Hopper concentrated on landscapes, etching and illustration to pay the bills. The moody voyeurism of Nighthawks – and his signature style – was still a few years down the road.
 
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“Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealed” and “Edward Hopper: New York Corner” @ Cantor Arts Center through August 8, 2016.
 
About the author:
Lawrence Gipe is an artist, art professor and writer living in Oakland.  His painting and drawings have been shown in more than 50 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe.
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