Monday the 30th is the final day of the de Young’s museum’s Diebenkorn in Berkeley retrospective. In the past I have not much cared for abstract expressionism. The color field work just seems labored and pious. Figurative work like William de Kooning overblown to the point of painful, and without much emotional connection. Jackson Pollack or Sam Francis is fun to look at but not worth too much contemplation (though the latter has a retrospective in Sacramento next year which I’ll probably go to.)
Something about Seawall 1957 – the featured painting on the sides of many buses in San Francisco caught me – this was recognizably the California coast – I’d guess the view from the Great Highway in San Francisco – but beautifully abstract, and expressionist. OK I’m in.
All paintings probably suffer a bit in reproduction but for Diebenkorn it particularly hurts. Maybe that’s the case with any artist whose work’s value is in technique over theme. The richness of color and (uneven) layers of paint make apprehending one of his works in person a 3D experience a greater necessity. Like abstraction expressionist fore-bearers in impressionism, the paintings appear different from different distances. (Seeing a beautiful Caravaggio or Hudson River School is basically isotropic for me.)
The hour of the day I went – when the exhibit opened at 9:30 – made contemplation from different distances possible. While heavily populated was not the madhouse it probably was later in the day or the way any Picasso exhibit is nearly not worth attending given the crowds. I think this is going to be my new s.o.p. when seeing something on a weekend (traffic was easier too.)
I’m not converted on the color field types of paintings. I enjoyed his more than most, but I defy all but the most elite of abstract scholars to be able to identify the author or name of work out of context.
I began to be moved when the paintings turning to being an engagement with, and response to Edward Hopper in the late 50s. This was touched on in some of the side commentary and from glancing at the exhibition catalog (unbought for the reason above: the art reproduction didn’t do any justice to the original.)
The more figurative work has several recurring themes. 1) The women are nearly always seated with their legs crossed at the knee. The paintings with legs ostentatiously wide open seem more so because of the contrast to the standard mode. Is there a grander social commentary here? 2) Diebenkorn likes Coffee. There are other commonplace objects in the repertoire, but coffee is the star. Does the appeal come from the sensuousness of the smell of coffee? The shape? Do abstract expressionists like to wrestle with geometric shapes? 3) When people are shown they’re nearly always alone. At least in the exhibition there were only two paintings that had two people in them: Man and Woman Seated, 1958 and Man and Woman in Large Room 1957.
Because I have never organized my pictures from galleries that do let you take pictures I am not sure but feel confident that my favorite picture of the show either was inspired by or inspired a whole sub-genre of California Impressionist painting and it’s escaping me now the names of the examples. That is the Cityscape Series:
Berkeley’s population had not changed much in the decade plus of Diebenkorn’s residence but the East Bay had boomed. This sense of the shadow of development jumping across some zoning line with the houses to follow conveys what was happening next door to him; it’s not a particularly destructive man versus nature scene, just clearly recording history as it is. The name “Cityscape” is puckish enough for a scene of mostly cultivated fields.
Diebenkorn would move on to Los Angeles of all places shortly, though returned to the Bay Area at the end of his life in the eighties (he died in 1993.) His most famous works, the Ocean Park series would be created there. They were a full throated return to abstraction and away from figuration. I find them less interesting than the “late bay area” period. I am also curious to see his New Mexico works in person.
A note about art fashion — or just the power of PR. One member of the Ocean Park Series was on display as well, Ocean Park 116 (1979):
It was in the regular modern gallery, with nary a soul hovering around it.
A final post-script. The show had two pieces of video footage giving more background about Richard Diebenkorn. One of them was an at least three minute piece from CBS Sunday Morning. That a morning news show could have such a piece is a wallop of a reminder how much things have changed.
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