Hail, Richard Diebenkorn! So Heroic, So Underrated

Few painters of his generation in America are more highly esteemed today-esteemed, that is, as painters -than the late Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993). Yet visitors to the Diebenkorn retrospective that Jane Livingston has now organized at the Whitney Museum of American Art will quickly discover much that is new to them. Few of us have seen as many examples of the artist’s Abstract Expressionist paintings from the 1950’s as Ms. Livingston has brought together in this show. There are also some rarely seen landscapes, figure paintings and still lifes, shown in the company of Diebenkorn’s best-known representational paintings. And if only for its stunning selection of paintings and drawings from the artist’s Ocean Park series-surely Diebenkorn’s crowning achievement-this exhibition would be a capital event. So there is a lot to look at in this retrospective, at least for that surviving remnant of the art public that still takes a serious and knowledgeable interest in the fine art of painting and in the kind of drawing that sustains it.

There is also a lot of art history packed into this exhibition. I don’t mean the history of reputations and publicity and shocks to the solar plexus, but the history in which we can trace an artist’s thinking as he attempts to comprehend both the artistic past and the art of his own contemporaries for whatever may be usable in extending the range of his creative endeavors. Every artist carries in his head-which is to say, his imagination-certain touchstones of quality and achievement that are felt to have a direct bearing on his own developing vision of what at any given moment may be possible in art, and Diebenkorn wasn’t shy about acknowledging and acting upon such models. He clearly considered himself to be part of a tradition-a modernist tradition, in his case-that he hoped to advance at something like the same level of quality that he admired in the masters he favored.

He thus set a very high standard for himself, and for many of his contemporaries as well-a standard that invites us, too, to see his work in relation to the tradition he aspired to uphold. In large part, it was an American standard, and in an even larger part, perhaps, it was a School of Paris standard. But this conjunction of American experience and Parisian modernism is itself the tradition that has so often produced the best American modernist art in this century.

It is for this reason that on the basis of this retrospective alone one could almost write a comprehensive chronicle of the esthetic relationships that have tethered the fate of American modernist painting in the last half of the 20th century to the precedents and standards of modernist painting in Paris in the early decades of the century. In what other American pictorial oeuvre do we find the ideas of such diverse talents as Edward Hopper and Willem de Kooning, Piet Mondrian and Henri Matisse, so deeply pondered, so openly acknowledged, yet so delicately assimilated and so triumphantly transcended?

At the same time, there is something else in Diebenkorn’s art that is important for us to take account of-its west coast, Californian character, which gives to even his most abstract paintings the look and feel of something pastoral. This is true even of Diebenkorn’s California cityscapes, in which the man-made urban environment dissolves into a pastoral patchwork of California light and shadow. In this exhibition, the Californian accent announces itself straightaway in the Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 1950’s. De Kooning is clearly a central influence in these paintings, and there are hints of Franz Kline and even Mark Rothko. Yet the light in these paintings is not the light of the New York School, and in these paintings, too, the forms are more suggestive of pastoral pleasures than of urban anxieties.

This may be one of the reasons why it took a while for Diebenkorn’s painting to be accepted by critical opinion in New York. In his Abstract Expressionist period, he didn’t seem “tough” enough to meet the New York-or perhaps I should say, the 10th Street-macho standard. And then when he started painting figures in the California landscape, the partisans of the New York School hastened to nail him as a provincial, after all. It was all a part of conventional art-world wisdom of the period. (And it wasn’t only to Californian figurative painting that it proved to be prejudicial; Fairfield Porter’s paintings of Maine and Long Island were treated with the same condescension.) Forty years later, many of those overrated 10th Street reputations are forgotten, and Diebenkorn has emerged as an underrated master.

There are certain moments in this retrospective in which we are given such a clear glimpse of the artist rethinking the very basis of his art that they have the quality of high drama. One of these moments comes in the group of small painterly still-life pictures from the early 1960’s that occupy an entire wall of the exhibition. Suddenly we are transported back in time to Manet, or some memory of Manet, in paintings that seem to sever all connection with the abstractions and even the landscapes and figure paintings that occupy adjacent galleries. One is reminded of the way Matisse often shifted his ground backward, so to speak, before undertaking his next radical departure.

But it is in the paintings that register Diebenkorn’s most fateful encounter with Matisse’s art that the most dramatic moment in this exhibition occurs. When Diebenkorn finally got to see the Matisses in the Hermitage collection in Leningrad (as it was then called) in the 1960’s, it was clearly the most decisive moment of his career. From that moment, everything shifts onto a higher plateau of painterly aspiration. You see it first in such pictures as Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad (1965), which should really have been called Recollections of Seeing the Matisses in Leningrad , and the magisterial Large Still Life of 1966. Yet the greatest artistic consequence of that encounter with Matisse in Leningrad was the heroic Ocean Park series, which Diebenkorn commenced to create shortly thereafter.

Going through this extraordinary retrospective, what came to mind more than once was that remarkable passage in the text that Matisse wrote for Jazz in which he warned that an artist should never become a prisoner of his own style, a prisoner of his own reputation, or a prisoner of his own success. Then he recalls that the Goncourt brothers wrote of certain Japanese artists that they even changed their names in the course of their careers in order to pursue new departures. “I like that,” Matisse wrote, “they wished to safeguard their freedom.”

Few artists of our time have made more of that kind of “freedom” than Richard Diebenkorn-which is why this retrospective is such an absorbing event. It needs to be remembered, however, that you do have to bring a certain interest in the art of painting to fathom what, in Diebenkorn’s case, that kind of freedom made possible.

The exhibition remains at the Whitney Museum through Jan. 11, and will then travel to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Phillips Collection in Washington and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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