SOME REFLECTIONS ON RICHARD DIEBENKORN’S MID-PERIOD WORK, AND WHAT IT MAY REVEAL ABOUT THE STATE OF THINGS
“Historical development is really a hindsight thing. I think they’re really interesting intellectual games, but the critic who steps into the breach and selects somebody who is the next logical step, well it’s really ludicrous because the next step might be some crazy throwback into left field which then in hindsight becomes the perfect next step.”
Richard Diebenkorn, 1977
Some people never really seem to quite fit the often facile categorisations of their times. Some have the parameters subtly redrawn around them as priorities and vicissitudes shift. Looking back now, it’s possible to identify figures such as Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke who, during the sixties and even seventies, were considered by some too quirky even for Pop, but have since slowly been realigned somewhere close to the centre of a somewhat oxymoronic mainstream pluralism.
Richard Diebenkorn, another complex figure, but coming from a very different place, has also been similarly realigned, but only as an idiosyncratic Late Modernist. Known primarily as the painter of the Ocean Park Series, Richard Diebenkorn had three clearly delineated modes of working during his career. The first group of paintings to gain serious attention circa 1950-57 were maximum impact abstract expressionist works. Then came the radical and clear departure from that, the mid career figurative period. Having gained notoriety under this new identity he confounded everyone yet again by apparently ceasing to work figuratively and starting the abstract Ocean Park series in 1967. I’m sure that many of the people who have since helped to elevate his reputation, primarily as an abstract painter, would be more comfortable had his middle period, which was in part a reaction against the dogma of abstraction, never happened.
In Europe during the Seventies, when I first became aware of his work, it was only possible to see these mid-period paintings, or indeed any of his work, in reproduction. What little I was able to see fascinated me because it seemed to throw off the prescriptive bonds of Greenberg, and also to offer another way of working which did not rely overtly on photography, collage, or hijacking and re-contextualising cultural references, whilst being heavily influenced by the kind of processes in paint handling associated with gestural abstract painting (for many, the post 1970 work of Philip Guston became similarly liberating). I would argue that Diebenkorn’s mid-period is his most awkward, self-challenging and most wrong footed, and thus, by the standards he most admired, the most successful.
After several meetings with him, if there was one characteristic I had to prioritise it would by that of prevarication, his pathological mistrust of the neat, easily won, formulaic or prescriptive. Despite being primarily recognised as an abstract painter, the author of the Ocean Park series, he was to the last still producing figurative drawings in his studio. One of a figure seated in a room and another of a pair of scissors produced the week before a visit to his northern California studio in 1991. There was a seasoned sense of mischief about him, and he merely shrugged and smiled when I showed my surprise at this. During one meeting he mentioned that he often reflected on how his work may have developed had he not reverted to figuration, yet in almost the next breath he was challenging the ultimate validity of abstract painting. We talked for a while about his admiration for the Degas painting of the ‘Fallen jockey’ in Basel. I remarked that it was possibly the most awkward and yet direct painting of his I had seen. He agreed and said that was exactly what he liked about it.
Already established as a second generation Abstract Expressionist of some stature, it was no doubt brave, rash, and inadvisable of Diebenkorn to turn his back on, or in his own words ‘dump’ that mode of working. This was around the same time as some of the most challenging works of Johns and Rauschenberg were being made. When I passed comment on this he was very wary of making too much of it. His was a much less calculated and more of a gut response to the way things were.
His first significant abstract period had all the improvisational elements that one would expect to find in late modernism, but with one significant difference – there is the usual emphasis on the flatness of the surface with the painterly activity happening without reference to perspectival space. There does, however, seem to be a sense of distancing, albeit parallel to the picture plane, where nothing seems to happen before the appearance of a series of spacial incidents, all within a very narrow band of illusive depth (particularly evident given these works were inspired by flying over the desert landscapes of the south-west where Diebenkorn was working). The reference to landscape remained important throughout his work, as well as the traces of change and overworking left so visible, reflecting the way a landscape partially revealed to an Archaeologist gives clues to the changes of usage of the land over time. The paintings reveal and discover the image through a working process, improvised, not illustrated.
The San Francisco area in the late 50’s had already been established as a delinquent centre of cultural dissent by the Beat poets. Similarly, a group of artists were beginning to kick against the cultural hedgeonomy of the East Coast. They were David Park, Elmer Bishoff, and most significantly Richard Diebenkorn. This group of artists, later lumped together as the Bay Area figurative artists, had a similar reaction to Claus Oldenburg, in wanting to react against the sterility which the reductive nature of late modernism had succumbed to. Oldenburg stated at one point that he wanted to ‘ take Art out for a beer and get it laid’. The Bay Area artists, no less resolutely, made referential imagery based on the life around them. Park and Bishoff, despite notable exceptions, fell into a slightly corny and sentimental mode. Diebenkorn, however produced works that reflected a structural synthesis – a synthetic model of reality as opposed to a photographic rendering, and I believe he produced some truly iconic and memorable images which echo some of the best qualities of Edward Hopper.
The painting ‘Man and a woman in a large room’ of 1957 shows us two people stranded in a huge space. Typical of the figures in rooms of this period there lingers a whiff of existentialism, these two could almost be Ham and Clov from ‘Endgame’.
The painting ‘woman in profile’ 1958 has the same kind of nightmarish immobility as many figures in Hopper paintings. The structure has an ordered formality to it which some how amplifies this feeling. Areas of orange show through from earlier workings, workings rather than underpainting, strategic planning would be antithetical . The figure itself described largely by tone, unusually the only saturated colour in the distance, almost out of reach.Like the deceptive matter of fact ness in the works of Raymond Carver you may look at these works and think ‘so what’, yet for some strange reason they stay with you, fermenting in the dark.
At the time of this change in direction, the response of many conservative commentators was one of celebration at the defection of a major figure and further ammunition for the cause of anti-modernists. In some ways there was an element of retrenchment, but it would be a mistake to see it as only that. Alex Katz, in an interview with Donald Kuspit for the book Night Paintings, said he preferred the layered surfaces of Shakespeare to the self-consciously jumbled surfaces of James Joyce. Because of my admiration for many practitioners who ‘let the workings show’, the methodology becoming at least as significant a propellant for meaning as content, this statement challenged and interested me. Katz was in the midst of developing an argument for the Iconic. We could define this as the deceptively simple (and importantly, memorable) image which has it’s complexity both of origin and potential meaning layered below an apparently unified surface. The mid-period work of Diebenkorn is extraordinary and much more significant than is generally recognised as it succeeds on utilising both these tendencies without seeming to compromise either. Diebenkorn as much as anyone I can think of confirms Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that an Artist is someone who can hold two fundamentally opposing positions and still function. After the boredom of so many single issue ‘One trick Ponies’ I wish it were a requirement.
During his interviews and conversations Francis Bacon articulated with alarming clarity probably one of the most pivotal problems facing figurative painting over the past decades. How to be referential, to relate to a world outside of the painting surface, without being illustrative. I believe these middle period Diebenkorn’s achieve this in a way which is arguably more successful than Bacon himself, but this is by no means to imply that he is a more important painter. These works are I would argue amongst the most non- illustrative referential works made. The revealing evidence of the under workings as well as reinforcing the ‘Facture’ is witness to the fact that the image was in a constant state of flux and the evolution with elements of the final image often consisting of earlier unrelated incidents, which somehow came together to add up to the whole. In essence this is mysterious, improvisational, organic and immediate. The paintings comply with the modernist tendency of not trying to look like anything other than paint. I doubt that were it not for Diebenkorn’s extraordinary facility as a draughtsman and designer that he could take all these risks and succeed.
His retrospective at the Whitechapel in 1991 was the first chance many Europeans had to see his work, and it included several significant pieces from this mid-period. Noticeably absent for me was ‘Figure on Porch’1959, from the Oakland Museum Collection in California. An anonymous figure, back towards the viewer, looks out across the landscape, sun chairs on the decking mask out hard shadows. We’ve all been there. Close examination of this and other works will reveal under working which in no way seems to relate to the final literal identity of the image. This implies strongly that even this identity was the product of the improvisational process. These are not just the traces of adjustment( the hands of Cézanne’s ‘Woman with Rosary’) but something even more radical. This is not an affectation of that old chestnut ‘the hard won image’, it’s the Artist making it as exciting and risky for himself as he can. Many of the incidents in these works are not anything nameable yet somehow need to be there. It was typical of his lack of careerism that when I lamented the lack of this work in London that Diebenkorn shrugged and said that he and Catherine Lampert had made their selection from the recently published Rizzoli book in which it just happened this work was not reproduced.
In the later Ocean Park series the geometrical rigour of the drawing acts both as armature and counterpoint for the deeply seductive veils and glazes of colour, the sense of light deeply evocative of place. There is a dialogue being played out between them. In another outstanding painting ‘Cityscape (landscape number one)’ 1963 the origins can be seen of many of the later motifs. A hard light rips across from the left, a series of cubes are stacked back along the left-hand side these buildings casting a shadow on some fields opposite. The ground plane banks up sharply due to the extreme angle looking down.
The road in the distance is unnervingly, unnaturally steep, acting as a longstop. The sky behind draped down like a stage curtain. These landscapes are intensely artificial in the most engaging way. There is homage to these works in the landscapes of Wayne Theibaud a long time friend and admirer of Diebenkorn
‘Ingleside’ also of 1963 also contains parallel stacks of buildings, the sweeping curve of the road at the base of the painting leads past a couple of palm trees. These act as figurative signifiers in the way that a Shoe or a Doorknob can do in a Francis Bacon. The Californian suburb inevitably throwing up associations, the Light crisp and direct as Chandler’s prose.
There is an element of trangression in this work, but it’s never simply as an end in itself, or as an attention seeking device. It’s there because of requirement to create new forms to carry something which existing forms can’t contain.
Whilst late Guston still looks fresh and urgent, many of the pop artists as well as many of the late modernists from around the same time have come to look tired. This may just be due to over familiararity it could be argued, but for me it seems more than co-incidental that these are often the ones who fit neatly into the consensual opinions of what was current, what was hot because it had clear-cut agendas. They frequently did not contain much in the way of contradictions. I know that I am not alone in being ill at ease with much of the self-conscious historicism and over reliance on single, usually worthy, issues prevalent at the moment. The problem is obvious, when the ideas are superseded so is the work. Any work that does not acknowledge the profound capability for doubt and contradiction within us, as this period of Diebenkorn’s does, is fatuous. I suspect that much of it will eventually be seen as deeply puritanical and academic.
“What made our work possible was that we didn’t think we were painting for history; we were just making individual pieces. If you don’t assume a rigid historical mission, you have infinitely more freedom”