What does an artist (or any human being) do after realising he has been channeling his creativity to fulfil someone else’s expectations? In an art world where the difference between fashion and art is blurrier than ever, this is not a minor question. Richard Diebenkorn’s retrospective at the Royal Academy of Art in London shows the work of an artist that avoids fakeness . With painting he walks that cornice that separates presentation from representation; abstraction from figuration; and cartographic description from naturalism.
In spite of a pedestrianly clinical catalogue, the show is outstanding. In that volume, Steven Nash sets the tone by focussing, as if this truly mattered, on Diebenkorn’s European influences which happen to range from Henri Matisse to Carl Friedrich. Diebenkorn is, however, a Californian Abstract Expressionist in a country that doesn’t take the West Coast as a serious place for human beings to ever reach true artistic level.
In Burlington House, his paintings are hung according to the three major periods stated by Sarah Bancroft in her catalogue’s essay. This provides some context for the locations in which he produced his most important work, as he vacillated between abstract pursuits, figurative explorations and then back to abstraction over more than four decades. Even though the regions in which Diebenkorn worked -their climate, light and space and sense of place- had a perennial impact on his sensibility and artwork, his paintings transcend the context of their production and it is there where, from a strictly curatorial perspective, the Royal Academy misses the point.
His Albuquerque and Urbana paintings (1950-1953) are all about the desintegration of the figure both as still life and landscape. The show opens with ‘Desintegrating Pig’ (1950) where we can see how abstraction is not a purely intellectual pursuit but also a naturalistic one. Maybe this is the reason why in ‘Albuquerque 4’ (1951) he places a Cross of Malta so as to juxtapose the realm of the symbolic as both icon and sign. From that moment onwards the use of red, lavender and all hues of terracota are so obviously linked to the Californian desert that the Royal Academy’s insisting on this point comes across as redundant. There is on aspect that I found particularly American about this series and is the conflation of landscape painting and abstraction.
If Arshile Gorky and Williem De Kooning reached abstraction through the collapse of still life and figures, Diebenkorn seems to do so taking the landscape as a starting point. Having said this, this artist explores the way the land is visually represented at a time when the US was not only expanding westward but also upwards, towards the moon. It should be born in mind that Diebenkorn is painting on the threshold of a cartographic revolution that will end half a century alter with Google Earth. Thus, it does not come as a surprise to know that during the Second World War, Diebenkorn actually worked as a cartographer which is evident in the Urbana series. There, we can also see how pigments are deployed so as to convey duration for the fresh paint is left to drip to sometimes create a trail. His paintings are messy, inexact and most of all, utterly human. It is as if Diebenkorn explored the limits of cartographic and photographic representation from the point of view of human experience.
In his Berkeley series (1953-66) he goes further in this direction only to find himself against a wall. It is then when takes an apparent 180 degrees turn and embraces figuration. There was no external exegesis for such a bold move, and certainly no commercial pressure; indeed, quite the opposite may have been true. In times when abstract expressionism became the canon, he turns to a painterly figuration that is reminiscent of Henri Metisse.
This new direction was a veritable sea-change within his work and the variety of work he produced after the transition grew to include large figure and still life paintings, landscapes and cityscapes and small still life paintings (that Wayne Thibaud might have used to get inspiration). It is from this time that we have one of his masterpieces called ‘Seawall’ (1957) where painting is used as tectonic chunks that transform colour into pure matter. From the point of view of his iconography, he tends to depict isolated objects and self-absorbed sitters conveying a sense of melancholic inwardness. It is this beautiful sadness that I found particularly appealing. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, Diebenkorn paints his figures without them.
It is in 1967 that Diebenkorn goes back to abstraction and it is in the dialogue that he establishes with Piet Mondrian where this show triumphs allowing us to see his whole journey backwards. Even though it could be said that his latest paintings are abstract and cold, they are all about human error, erasure and correction. According to Diebenkorn life is a learning journey through which we must get in touch with our darker side in order to accept the often underestimated beauty of contentment. J A T