This exhibition is both sequel and prequel, picking up where the 2008 exhibition at the Harwood Museum titled Diebenkorn in New Mexico left off while also foreshadowing the much more well known work featured in the Orange County Museum’s 2012 exhibition of the Ocean Park series. It focuses on the years that Richard Diebenkorn lived and worked in Berkeley, California (1953-1966), and it has two undeniable hallmarks, the first being its breathtaking
display of sheer painterly virtuosity; the second being the way that it shows the artist taking on all of the already traditional modernist subjects of abstraction, still life, figure and landscape, in every case enlivening them with a fresh and distinctly individual sensibility. And let’s be clear: when I write sheer painterly virtuosity, I mean superlative draughtsmanship and vivacious color manipulation, as well as in almost all cases, a talent for finding the perfect balance points between pictorial and graphic organizations of form, creating picture spaces that perfectly finesse the tension between the dynamic and the static. In short, this exhibition represents a rich and powerful affirmation of painting for the sake of painting, undertaken at the moment just prior to the pandemic of Duchampitus that would keynote the ensuing five decades of art production.
By no means do I want to belittle Diebenkorn’s achievement by raising this issue, and in any event, relatively few of the works presented in this exhibition deserve the scrutiny that it prompts. But it does help us understand just where Diebenkorn’s artistic struggle rested, thereby allowing us to more fully appreciate the many high points of this particular chapter of his distinguished career. Clearly he was a painter who was inspired and challenged by much of the best painting of the 20th century, and he did an admirable job of living up to that challenge. But he didn’t really exceed that challenge until he embarked on the later Ocean Park works, and I think one of the reasons for this was his decision to remove himself from the Bay Area, with all of the personalities and local politics that went along with it. Sometimes, doing the kind of work that everybody likes can be artistically stifling, because it becomes too easy and even a bit dangerous to please a crowd of uncritical supporters.
The exhibition starts with Diebenkorn continuing in the vein of abstraction that he developed during his years in New Mexico, fusing surrealist-derived automatism with gloomy evocations of the same mystery-shrouded desert landscape that so fascinated Georgia O’Keefe two decades earlier. Most of these works are part of a body of work called The Berkeley Series (1953-1955), which usually feature a fast, swashbuckling brush laden with cool color decisively pirouetting through sumptuous fields of warm pigment. For example, in Berkeley #23 (1955) we see the large canvas subdivided by a frothy patchwork of torqued rectangles of red
and green, many of which are corralled and/or enlivened by looping linear forms of darker color, all of which are clustered under broader, less chromatically active forms that evoke the horizontality of sea and sky. As is the case with many other works in the Berkeley Series, Number 23 seems comfortably informed by the idea that second generation (i.e. 1952-1960) Abstract Expressionism as practiced on both the east and west coasts was somehow more “French,” lyrical and finesse-saturated than was the work of the first generation, who, like Clyfford Still, tended to despise the rarified refinements of the French modernist tradition.
Soon thereafter, Diebenkorn’s paint grew thicker and the color brighter, and the world of people, places and things was rediscovered through the prism of lavish color and the abstract expressionist brush. As was the case with Park, Diebenkorn’s earliest explorations of the figure took the form of small head portraits of friends and acquaintances, each a spontaneous capture of the evanescent moment when typical attitude is revealed. He also doubled down on his longstanding commitment to drawing the figure, at some moments quite freely and on other occasions with precisely described renderings of the human form. But even when Diebenkorn was at his most spontaneous, it seemed that he could do no wrong, because his deft touch could turn any accident into an opportunity for pictorial invention.
There are also several works that were previously included in Peter Selz’s landmark 1959 exhibition titled New Images of Man at the Museum of Modern Art, and they bear some mentioning here. One of them is Man and Woman, Seated (1958), and another is Man and Woman in a Large Room (1957), the former richly colored and the latter subdued and somber. Both works have undercurrents of trouble in paradise, their protagonists seeming at odds with each other even as their environment seems comfortable and forgiving. Remembering back to the Selz exhibition, which contained powerfully expressive works by Francis Bacon, Willem DeKooning and Leon Golub, we can imagine that Diebenkorn came off as a bit of a California lotus-eater compared to the urgently tragic images conveyed by the work of those other artists. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that these works carry more in the way of psychological tension than most of Diebenkorn’s other figurative works, suggesting that he too wanted to make statements about the human condition, albeit from a position far removed from the historical traumas emphasized in that exhibition.
Upcoming: “The Intimate Diebenkorn: Works on Paper 1949-1992 @ College of Marin Fine Arts Gallery, September 28, 2013 to November 14, 2013. The show will include 40 works, 38 of which have never been publicly exhibited, representing the locations in which the artist worked: Albuquerque, New Mexico, Berkeley, Ocean Park and Healdsburg.