Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park No. 125 (1980), oil on canvas, 100″ x 81″; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art
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Long the bellwether of twentieth-century painting and sculpture, the Museum of Modern Art has had a substantial influence on how we view the modernist enterprise. Under the guidance of Alfred Barr, MOMA’s founding director, the museum rooted itself in the European avant-garde. Despite the many shifts—ideological as well as aesthetic—that it has undergone in recent years, the museum has, more or less, remained true to Barr’s vision. Which is not to say that MOMA is without important shortcomings. Who hasn’t bemoaned the rigidity of MOMA’s masterplan, one that compromises the complexity of history for a streamlined and steamrolling succession of -isms? Consider the situation of those artists whose work is hung outside of the galleries, in the hallways of the museum. Occupying a kind of limbo, half in and half out of the museum, they are nonetheless deemed significant enough for transitory acknowledgment. Museums can’t display every object in their collections, of course, but sometimes recognition is indistinguishable from condescension. It is worth recalling that until recently Max Beckmann’s Departure was installed in MOMA’s second-floor hallway near the restrooms.
Similarly, Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park No. 115 (1979) has been exhibited— when it is exhibited—in a stairwell on MOMA’s third floor. This is a thankless spot for any artist, but given a painter of Diebenkorn’s caliber, such placement is inexplicable. Shunting his work off to a nook following the galleries dedicated to Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Minimalism makes chronological sense, given that Diebenkorn (1922–1993) did not reach his full artistic maturity until the late 1960s. But this relegation to “Oh, by the way” status is scandalous—especially considering some of the artists who aredeemed fit to grace MOMA’s major display spaces. For Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings and related works on paper are among the artistic triumphs of the latter half of this century. Did Richard Diebenkorn ever paint a picture as dazzling as de Kooning’s Attic? Probably not. Yet after visiting The Art of Richard Diebenkorn at the Whitney Museum of American Art, no one can doubt the power and aesthetic accomplishment of this “California artist” at his best.
The scare quotes are deliberate. The label “California artist” dogged Diebenkorn throughout his career. Geographically speaking, it is accurate—California is where he spent the majority of his working life. Yet, because of its implied parochialism, the label is also misleading. It may seem ludicrous to maintain that Diebenkorn is undervalued—a full-scale, traveling retrospective is evidence of how seriously his work is regarded. But Diebenkorn’s achievement has been, one feels, only grudgingly acknowledged, particularly in New York. Although tied to the mainstream of modernist art, Diebenkorn always set himself apart. Consequently, his relationship to the New York art world and to Abstract Expressionism forms a curious tributary to the received history of postwar modernist art. Diebenkorn’s paintings have little to offer to anyone who embraces the contemporary clichés about the nature of the avant-garde. They are not, in short, fast, fashionable, or profane. A prominent New York art critic once snidely dismissed Diebenkorn as a painter who made modern art safe for the middle class. Such baloney reveals more about the indigenous provincialism of the New York art world than it does about Diebenkorn’s art.
The show begins with the artist’s first mature phase while under the spell of Abstract Expressionism, follows him through his figurative period, and flowers fully in a generous sampling of the Ocean Park paintings. The narrative of the exhibition, if we can call it that, shows that Diebenkorn was not, as some would have it, given to stylistic caprice. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, but the shifts of emphasis throughout his career were always well-reasoned responses to the aesthetic logic of his art. Their culmination in theOcean Park series, while not preordained, is utterly natural. The Whitney helps us appreciate this logic by providing windows between some of its galleries, so that, for example, we can glimpse Ocean Park No. 128 (1984) while traversing the early portions of the exhibition. What at first seems a bit of museological gimmickry is really a confirmation of continuity. The Whitney’s installation of “Richard Diebenkorn” is (in the artist’s words) as “straight and simple” as the work itself.
For Diebenkorn the “straight and simple” was achieved through a process he likened to cultivation, wherein missteps and corrections are part of the act of painting. Is it any wonder that the young Diebenkorn was drawn to the tangled surfaces of Abstract Expressionism? His work from the early Fifties is typical of the time: brushy areas of color offset by spidery lines demarcating planes and establishing their own wiggly independence. His line owes an obvious debt to de Kooning—“The way he used that line,” Diebenkorn once exclaimed, “that was really it for me!”—but one can also divine the influence of Rothko, Motherwell, Clyfford Still, and William Baziotes. Each early painting reads as a distillation of Ab Ex stylings without becoming a blatant pastiche. Yet despite some irresistible passages, many of Diebenkorn’s Ab Ex canvases are predictable. They are, to be sure, handsome paintings by a sharp disciple of the New York School. But they are the paintings of a disciple, nonetheless. If there is a point in Diebenkorn’s career when the term “parochial” applies, this is it.
By the time one reaches the Berkeley series of the mid-Fifties, Diebenkorn’s paintings flounder; they don’t enliven Abstract Expressionism as much as they give in to it. For Diebenkorn, anyway, the turn to representation was an aesthetic elixir. Almost immediately, his work gained in clarity. The landscapes, still lifes, and figures that came to populate his canvases anchor the work formally as well as thematically. The sense of overlooking a vista that was tacit in the abstractions becomes patent. Works like Cityscape andCityscape I (both 1963), with their flattened and tilting spaces, show an artist learning to structure a composition in a way that mirrors its rectangular support. This explicit geometry reaches its apotheosis in the Ocean Parkpaintings, which Diebenkorn began making in the late 1960s. It must be conceded, however, that the weakest aspect of Diebenkorn’s figurative phase are the figures themselves. The human form, at least in the oil paintings, impedes Diebenkorn’s achievement of pictorial coherence.
The irony is that Diebenkorn was a master of figure drawing. If there is a complaint to be lodged against the exhibition it is that more figure and still-life drawings are not included. As it is, the show does include one magnificent drawing: an untitled ink and watercolor from 1967 depicting a seated woman, pitched just off of center, wearing a floppy hat. Here the figure has autonomy— it hasn’t been squished into a composition —and provides an occasion for focus and discovery. One can see Diebenkorn delight in the frumpy silhouette of the woman’s hat or the challenge of capturing an impromptu gesture. The pressure of the woman’s environment is still felt, but it doesn’t shut the picture down. With its intense blacks and ever so slightly modeled figure, Untitled is a masterpiece.
Whatever the limitations of Diebenkorn’s figurative paintings, it was through them that he came to realize the organizing framework which would engross him for the rest of his life. What is remarkable about the Ocean Park paintings is how their structural solidity coexists with an almost precarious translucency. In them, space is inferred and oblique. The stray diagonal or grouping of bars and rectangles toward the top or sides of the canvas suggest looking through a window or an aerial view of landscape. (Diebenkorn did, in fact, create a series of aerial-view drawings of Arizona as a project for the Department of the Interior in 1970.) They are paintings of distances— high and open—rather than settings we can enter. Nevertheless, the canvases themselves, almost always scaled slightly higher than they are wide, are proportioned to the human form. While the paintings often threaten to dissolve into a shimmer of atmosphere and color, they are held in check by a diligent scaffolding that is Mondrian’s gift to Diebenkorn. Because he applied oils thinly—obscuring but not obliterating previous states of the painting–Diebenkorn lets us see the painting built, so to speak, from the ground up. Each one is as immovable as it is evanescent. The Ocean Park series is the resolution, stout and sure, of architecture and light.
Matisse is the crucial source for the Ocean Park pictures. Not a few observers, after visiting the Matisse in Morocco exhibition at MOMA in 1990, remarked upon the similarity of the backdrop for Zorah on the Terrace (1912) to Diebenkorn’s paintings. It is a not adventitious historical rhyme, as Diebenkorn would have been the first to admit. Yet to claim that he did little more than finesse (and fret over) Matisse for almost thirty years is to mistake a profound engagement with tradition for accomplished hackwork. With their pensive harmonies and stoic elegance, the Ocean Park paintings divulge their antecedents without reiterating them. Indeed, the influence of Edward Hopper, with his stark light and plainspoken geometry, is present in these abstractions to a greater degree than formerly acknowledged. Something of Hopper’s astringent melancholy survives in these blocky compositions. Diebenkorn knew that the hurdle of tradition is not to recapitulate history, but to make tradition speak in a form that is as individual as it is contemporary. He also knew when it needed prodding. By transmuting his forebears into something personal and fresh, Diebenkorn claimed his status as an unapologetic modernist.
The Ocean Park paintings, commanding and unpretentious, constitute the main part of Diebenkorn’s legacy. That they were created in a culture so often antithetical to their deliberate rhythms says much about his mastery. (It also says much about the possibilities of painting.) This retrospective makes for a refreshing jolt of sanity—and, it should be added, beauty—in an art world given to excess and faddishness. Even the miniature version of the show in the lobby gallery is a tonic; the paintings on cigar box lids—off the cuff and on the money—are worth the price of admission alone.
© 1998 Mario Naves
Originally published in the January 1998 issue of The New Criterion.