Two Views of Richard Diebenkorn: From Figuration to Abstraction

In the spring of 2015 I was in London, where I had a few days to aimlessly stroll, browse the bookstores, and examine the world-class art that is all over the city (and still largely free, even in these austere times). One of the things I discovered entirely by accident was a retrospective of the American artist Richard Diebenkorn.

I don’t recall where I first heard of Diebenkorn, but the name and work had stuck, for as soon as I saw the name I could conjure up one or two of his figurative canvasses. I immediately went in to see the art, spending a couple of hours. At that point I thought of Diebenkorn as a figurative artist, the landscapes being the images that had most stuck in my mind.

I also knew that he had done some portraiture that I enjoyed very much.

What I did not know about Diebenkorn was the painting in the “Ocean Park” series, which were to make his biggest reputation internationally, and which were wholly abstract. These I came to at the end of the exhibit, and stare and stare as I might at them, they left me cold.

I didn’t know what to make of them, although recently—two years after I first viewed Diebenkorn’s late abstractions—I had the opportunity to try looking at them again.

Diebenkorn was known for having three major periods to his work: an early abstract phrase, a middle figurative one, and then the late work, which again became abstract. When he was a young artist, Abstract Expressionism was the dominant form, so it was natural for him to start there. But he grew disenchanted with what he felt was a straightjacket on his work, so in the 1950s he abandoned it for figurative work, by no means an each decision at the time.

Diebenkorn was a California artist, living almost his entire life in various parts of the state, and he was deeply influenced by the work of Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse, among others. It is said that Hopper’s influence can be seen in his figurative work—I see it most in the mood of the pieces, the deep contemplation that his subjects generally seem immersed in, the somewhat distanced feel that the viewer has from the scenes.

It was in 1966, after a move form the Bay Area to Santa Monica, that Diebenkorn abruptly became an abstract painter once again. In an interview quoted at the MOMA exhibit, he explained it, “Maybe someone from the outside observing what I was doing would have known what was about to happen, but I didn’t. I didn’t see the signs. Then, one day, I was thinking about abstract painting again. . . . I did about four large canvases—still representation, but, again, much flatter. Then, suddenly, I abandoned the figure altogether.”

As he returned to abstraction, he became most famous for his Ocean Park series. These are said to be in part influenced by Matisse’s French Window at Collioure, which the painter pushed into an abstract direction when he blacked out the view through the windows, leaving four rectangles of color.

Looking at Diebenkorn’s entire body of work last weekend at the SFMOMA’s major retrospective (which brings in several paintings of Matisse’s to better show the influence), I had a chance to survey Diebenkorn’s entire body of work in an hour and a half. To my surprise, I found myself pulled in most powerfully to the late abstractions, although my appreciation of the middle-career figurative work very much remained. Clearly the desire to resolve the geometry and the palette of the figurative work remains (you can almost see a Diebenkorn landscape in the one below), but this is also clearly very different work form the figurative paintings.

I wonder what had changed in my mind in the two years between my first experience with this work and my second. What I was struck by when I viewed these works a second time are their clean lines: the outlines of the shapes have none of the Impressionistic fuzziness that characterized Diebenkorn’s figurative phase. Also it seemed that the angles of the lines—always on the sharp side—here grow most refined and dynamic of all. What can’t really be seen in these images is the texture of these paintings, which is very rich and again highly refined, especially when considered against the texture of the middle works. They seem to me to be communicating in a very cool, controlled, quietly elaborate, ascetic language, a feel not that different from the minimalist work pioneered in the 1970s. For instance, something like this:

As to myself, I can say that my life in the space between spring 2015 and spring 2017 corresponded to some significant (although gentle) identity shifts, as well as new directions in my work as a writer and in the sorts of books that I most admired and enjoyed reading. The shift from Diebenkorn’s middle to late work makes sense to me, even if I can’t give a very satisfactory explanation of it right here in this small space.

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