Before last week, I knew the work of Californian artist Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) only secondhand and had never actually stood in front of one of his paintings. Compared to the giants of the New York school, the San Francisco Bay Area Figurative and other West Coast artists are little known about in the United Kingdom, nor I think elsewhere in Europe. There isn’t a single Diebenkorn painting in a U.K. public collection, for example, and the last solo show in London was nearly 25 years ago.
Unlike recent shows in the United States, such as the one on his Berkeley period previously reviewed on this site, this small exhibition — just 60 works in three rooms — is an attempt to encapsulate Diebenkorn’s entire career. It’s an ambitious undertaking on the part of Sarah Bancroft, the curator, because not only was he a prolific artist, working in various graphic media in addition to oil on canvas, he was also remarkably diverse, starting off as a second generation Abstract Expressionist, before turning to figuration, then finally going back to abstraction.
The show starts with a selection of Diebenkorn’s early works, completed during his time in Albuquerque, the brief sojourn in Urbana, Illinois, and the first years in Berkeley. Although ostensibly abstract, they occasionally include figurative motifs, and gradually one begins to discern the real world in them. This seems particularly true of the desert colors of “Albuquerque #7” (1951), with its baked tans, dusty whites, ochers and pinks, while another painting in this show, “Berkeley #57” (1955), could almost be interpreted as a bird’s-eye view of the Bay Area landscape. Diebenkorn, however, always resisted attempts to link his paintings with his immediate environment.
Between 1956 and 1966 Diebenkorn turned to figuration, which is explored in the second room. There are some fairly conventional life drawings here, made in association with his mentor and great friend David Park, as well as interior and still-life paintings (knives and scissors being favorite motifs). “Girl on a Terrace” (1956), meanwhile, demonstrates the huge influence that European art, particularly the work of Matisse, had on him. The odd thing about Diebenkorn’s “figurative” paintings, though, is that the more you look at them, the more abstract they seem. I think this applies to two of his most famous works, “Seawall” (1957) and “Cityscape #1” (1963). Both are ostensibly “landscapes,” but they are hard to pin down as anywhere recognizable, and seem more the products of his imagination. “Cityscape,” in fact, manages to combine representation and abstraction on the same canvas.
The third and last room is devoted to the magisterial “Ocean Park” series, begun after Diebenkorn’s move from Berkeley to Santa Monica in 1966 and on which his reputation mainly rests today. As usual in this diverse show you see him working in various formats, even painting small-scale on cigar boxes, which he made as gifts for friends. Inevitably, though, it’s the big, eight-foot canvases that grab one’s attention. The earliest here, “Ocean Park #27” (1970), from Brooklyn, is divided into fields of color like stained glass. In the four other large canvases included in the show, such as Philadelphia’s “Ocean Park #79” (1975), the grid has migrated to the top of the picture, and you’re reminded of the distant horizons glimpsed in earlier works. Close up, it’s easy to make out revisions and reworkings, as Diebenkorn struggled to bring each painting to perfection.
This search for “rightness” runs like a thread throughout Diebenkorn’s work, in fact. His working method was essentially improvisational; he didn’t usually make studies, he just got going on a blank canvas. There was frustration and pain along the way, but he didn’t expect it to be easy. Mistakes were an integral part of his approach, and he was quite happy for evidence of the gestation process to remain for all to see. It’s what the late Robert Hughes dubbed “slow” art.
I admire Diebenkorn for his single-mindedness, his rigor, his dislike of the formulaic, and his refusal to be pigeonholed. By all accounts a modest and intensely private man, deep down he knew he was good and that he didn’t need to kowtow to the critics or pander to public taste. On the evidence of this show, he certainly ranks up there with the best 20th-century artists.