Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy: Six Painters on a Painters’ Painter
Dispatch from London
Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy of Arts
March 14 to June 7, 2015
Burlington House, Piccadilly
London, +44 20 7300 8000
The Royal Academy’s Richard Diebenkorn show operates on the basis that if he is known at all in Britain — and the publicity for and reviews of the show tended to assume that he isn’t — then it’s for his late Ocean Park series, named for the studio in which it was produced, as with all of his serial work. Accordingly, curator Sarah C. Bancroft sets out to challenge that narrow view by stressing the historical and geographic narrative. In three rooms, Diebenkorn’s work moves from an early abstract phase in room 1 (with paintings made in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Urbana, Illinois, between 1950 and ‘56), to a surprising figurative turn in room 2 (Berkeley, 1956-66), to the Ocean Park paintings in room 3 (Santa Monica, 1967-88). The show has 20, 25 and 15 works from those three periods, respectively, including drawings from each, and five of the 145 large Ocean Park paintings.
Ahead of the Royal Academy’s efforts, then, Diebenkorn’s British reputation lay mainly with painters rather than the general public, so it made sense to take six well-established painters to the show and seek their opinions on it. They split pretty much 50-50, with Michael Stubbs, DJ Simpson and Katrina Blannin persuaded of the importance of at least the Santa Monica years, but Claudia Carr, Christina Niederberger and Dolly Thompsett finding little to praise in Diebenkorn’s oeuvre.
There was some criticism of the show’s hanging. Simpson felt that the crowded early rooms left far too little space between paintings. Carr agreed, finding that the experience became “colorful, rather than about color” — as it wasn’t optically possible to isolate the color relationships within a given painting from those of its neighbouring paintings. The third room did give somewhat more space to the work, but the Sackler Rooms on the Royal Academy’s third floor have no natural light, and everyone felt that Ocean Park paintings would have benefited greatly from that.
Looking at the first room, Stubbs emphasised the historical context: the paintings were “typical of the early ‘50s in developing a Cubist space into more fluid forms which value spontaneous gestures, and which simultaneously construct and contradict the space.” Affinities were noted with English painters in the ’50s: Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, and Ivon Hitchens. Niederberger, too, felt that that Diebenkorn’s paintings are very much of their time, making them harder to access today in a way she saw as problematic. A venerable question arose: how did Diebenkorn know that a work was finished? Stubbs felt little judgement was in evidence, suggesting he appeared to, “throw everything at the picture until he decided to throw in the towel as well.”
Simpson was more persuaded by Diebenkorn’s instincts. Quoting one-liner summaries of the instinctual decisions involved, he thought the artist had judged “when there’s enough push and not enough pull,” or when he’d achieved “the right kind of wrongness.” Simpson liked the oddity in Diebenkorn’s colors, and how certain areas – for example, the purple in Urbana #6 — take on the status of objects within the pictorial field. He also liked the variation between dry-looking and comparatively lush application of paint.
Diebenkorn never prepared the ground with sketches. ”A premeditated scheme or system is out of the question,” he said. Rather, all the action can be seen in the paintings. That means they are heavily layered — though the layers are thin. The artists agreed that many early works could be read as aerial landscapes — or sometimes interiors — even though their primary qualities are abstract. They also agreed that Diebenkorn appeared to operate by addition only, with some scratching into the surface, but no scraping off of layers. Indeed, one of Diebenkorn’s own rules (from his list of ten “Notes to myself on beginning a painting”) was that “Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.”
I rather liked a group of charcoal life drawings, which Diebenkorn started to produce in the mid-‘50s at Wednesday evening sessions with his friends David Park and Elmer Bischoff, and which marked the beginning of his move towards explicit representation. True, the debts to Matisse are undeniable, but they have a relaxed intimacy, and integrate the figures convincingly into their architectural settings in a way which links to the frequent presence of windows in the figurative paintings, and to the architectonic character of the abstractions to come. Yet the artists were unimpressed, seeing them as routine implementation of commonly taught approaches, including the treatment of backgrounds.
In fact, none of the painters rated the middle period highly, but their reasons varied. The painters whose own practice is most abstract tended to be the most sympathetic. Simpson and Stubbs thought that some of the paintings succeeded, but that they were too imitative of Cezanne, Matisse and Bonnard. Thompsett felt the diaristic still lifes were less successful than similar painters, such as William Nicolson. The doubters complained that Diebenkorn failed to generate any psychological charge, and that, while there were abstract aspects present, they weren’t interesting in this period. Thompsett provided a partial exception: one mid-period painting, Seawall (1957), was the only one she really connected to in the whole survey. Here, Thompsett felt, “Diebenkorn had generated the language of sensation,” whereas elsewhere, she concluded, “he lacks a soul.” Seawall aside, she couldn’t grasp what he wanted to communicate, what drove him to make art.
Did Diebenkorn emerge as a strong colorist in the late work? Thompsett was unimpressed by their pastel tendencies, finding them “chalky” and too keen to be pretty. Seeing Diebenkorn’s “structure of horizontals and verticals with a relatively desaturated color palette,” Carr said she “couldn’t help wanting them to have the kind of rigorousness and sensitivity that Agnes Martin’s paintings do. She uses color in a very optically active way. His intention with color seems to be entirely descriptive of place or mood.“ Blannin, on the other hand, loved the way she could see that “saturated colors have been diluted by milky washes.” She emerged as the great enthusiast for the late work, admiring Diebenkorn’s ability to achieve his effects on the reduced scale of cigar box lids as well as in the seven-foot-high canvases — with which she said she’d be keen to live, perhaps the diagonal energies of Ocean Park #27 (1970) and the aqueous calm of #116 (1979) .
Diebenkorn denied any representational element, but the Ocean Park series does retain an aerial and window-like feel, which reads across from the earlier abstractions, consistent with their production in a studio overlooking the sea from a high vantage point. Continuity or not, Stubbs thought there was justice in the greater fame of the late work, in which he felt Diebenkorn was “more confident with the edges of forms and with variations between soft and hard edges.” If so, this may be what Diebenkorn got out of the move into and out of figuration: it gave him objects with which to establish his approach to color boundaries in a more natural way, which then carried over into his later abstract work.
I was reminded that Tom Wesselman explained his desire to paint figuratively against the background of Abstract Expressionism as a desire for “definite elements to manipulate in a very specific and literal framework.” That sentiment fits with Stubbs’s appreciation of the Ocean Park series: the geometry gave something for the gestural brushwork to play against,. In contrast, Carr found “his divisions, edges and pauses slack.” She liked Berkeley #57 (1955) for its “honesty and humility,” but was less attracted to the “confidence” Stubbs had identified in the later work. Niederberger was unenthusiastic about all phases, even though she said she’d been impressed by Diebenkorn when she was a student. Now she condemned the work as merely “nice to look at,” asserting that, while Diebenkorn operated well at the aesthetic level, he didn’t engage the brain. If Diebenkorn does engage the brain, I think it’s through the way he solves the formal problems that allow his work to appeal to the eye: we can follow him thinking his way through a composition, and see how he applies his Notes to myself, such as “attempt what is not certain” or “be careful only in a perverse way.”
That seemed to be at the core of Stubbs’s appreciation. He felt that the vehicle of the grid gave the later Diebenkorn “a way to contain his expressive gestures and the interesting and radical awkwardness of his colors successfully.” Blannin thought this “sophisticated,” even though you can see the signs of struggle. Simpson agreed, suggesting that Diebenkorn had found an approach which was quiet, not because he lacked energy or desire, but because he was “unegotistical.” “The coolness is not impersonal,” Simpson opined, “even though it avoids big, heavy, self-aggrandising gestures.” Stubbs agreed that Diebenkorn had desire, “even if it was very cool,” though he conceded that he was “more impressed than moved” by the results.
Maybe that absence of emotional impact relates to Diebenkorn’s contented and straightforward personal life, which provided him with none of the dark materials of such predecessors as Gorky, Rothko and Pollock. I liked a drawing from 1971, in which strategic pentimenti and the dialogue between ruled and freehand lines works well. Moreover, drawing directly onto the canvas with paint is fundamental to the Ocean Park series, and John Elderfield has suggested that Diebenkorn’s drawing is “what holds a structure together and keeps its firm.”
A gap emerged, then, between enthusiasts of the late work and those who thought it merely safe and tasteful, even if it embraced an artful messiness . Thompsett felt that Mondrian — an obvious influence behind the Ocean Park series — succeeded better because his approach was much tighter. Yet it was precisely the tension between tight and loose that appealed to the Ocean Park advocates. Moreover, as Blannin pointed out, Mondrian himself developed his frameworks instinctively, and up close his paintings are alive with brushwork that is far from neutral.
Do Diebenkorn’s paintings have “personality”? Perhaps of places rather than of people, was the view – even when he is depicting people, as they tend not to be individuated as characters. Indeed, one could argue that a small depiction of scissors is more of a portrait than the mid-period works featuring people, who seem present mainly for their abstract qualities. All the same, it was agreed, the personality of the painter comes through, even if it is through choice of color and structure, rather than gesture. The late work, I felt, is monumental yet intimate.
Overall, then, the mixed verdict showed at least that there’s enough variety and interest in Diebenkorn’s work to generate differing opinions. That itself suggests the work has virtues, even if they are hard to pin down given the somewhat subjective nature of the judgements involved — and all six artists said they’d enjoyed their visit, even if the substance beyond that enjoyment could be called into question.