Diebenkorn at the de Young

Please stop reading.

Head directly to the de Young‘s special exhibit:  Richard Diebenkorn:  The Berkeley Years (1953-1966).  If San Francisco is too far away, then continue reading for a few notes from the show.

A larger-than-life print of Rose Mandel‘s photograph of Diebenkorn in his studio will be the first image to greet you.  You may, like many others, choose to use this opportunity to photographically insert yourself into history.  Valuable as such visual documents are to me as a painter, I was (uncharacteristically) inclined to ignore it in favor of some nearby signage.  There was no indication whether these Notes to myself on beginning a painting derive from Diebenkorn’s lectures, sketchbooks, or other writing, but they are fascinating.

Sadly, the Notes’ reference to Pollyanna was lost on the teenagers around me.  For those familiar with the 1960s film or its 1913 predecessor, the humorous reminder to maintain optimism forms a fascinating counterpoint to the paintings of quiescent figures, empty landscapes, abstractions, and quirky still lifes.

These Berkeley years, of course, span Diebenkorn’s early abstractions and the work which plainly (with the privilege of hindsight) led to his iconic Ocean Park series.  The combination of an internationally known painter and the art he created in this area form a significant and satisfying show for Californians, and especially for art enthusiasts.

Conceptually, the fluidity of Diebenkorn’s transitions between pure abstraction and representational painting (and the range of stages in between) was prominently on display in this special exhibit.  As one of the show signs points out, Richard Diebenkorn came to see abstract expressionism as a “stylistic straitjacket” and wanted instead for “ideas to be invoked or changed, altered by what was ‘out there.'”  The idea that art should change in response to changes in the artist and their location is often ignored in favor of assumptions that changes in style signal progression or regression.  In that paradigm, a change is either better or worse; when one artist produces two simultaneous, different, and equally valid bodies of work, descriptions of the oeuvre regrettably (but regularly) include knee-jerk references to schizophrenia.

Stylistically, texture and color are two formal qualities of particular significance to this body of work.  I was most interested in Diebenkorn’s contrast of hard and porous boundaries.  In Seawall, for example, the contrast between the sky and land is much harder and more pronounced than the horizon between the same sky and the ocean.  The figurative paintings often link parts of the figure to the background while other body parts are isolated.  This relationship is sometimes a polar one, as when a figure’s skirt matches the color of the sky and creates a sense of connection between the two.  As a consequence, the association and disassociation of the figure to their setting is powerfully conveyed without recourse to pantomime.

It is worthwhile to keep the context of art history in mind while visiting this solo show.  Paintings such as Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad or paper cutouts like untitled (Yellow Collage) invite comparisons to Matisse.  David Hockney and Willem de Kooning are significant artistic comparisons, as are Diebenkorn’s conetmporaries in the Bay Area Figurative Movement (such as Nathan Oliveira, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Wayne Thiebaud).

The exhibit will undoubtedly continue to be packed, but that is no reason to avoid it.  You have until September 29th.