A splendid exhibition of Bay Area figurative and abstract-expressionist artist Richard Diebenkorn’s paintings and drawings on display at San Francisco’s de Young Museum proves 13 is a most fortunate number.
From 1953 to 1966, a 13-year expanse, the pioneering artist forged a permanent, prominent position in art history from his Berkeley vantage point. He also defied pigeon-holing. Maneuvering dexterously, his mercurial expansion of traditional figurative, landscape and abstract styles both defined and shattered expectations.
Diebenkorn’s agility during his Berkeley years allowed him to escape the narrow circles of art historians and the 1950s New York art establishment. Adhering to no formal school of thought — other than that of the natural world — the works he created in the East Bay shifted from abstract to representational, then back to abstract.
In 1957, a LIFE magazine headline assigned Diebenkorn their young “discovered” painter status as a landscape artist. At his Hillcrest Road studio in Berkeley, he painted figures and still lifes in brush-stroking defiance. During his career, Berkeley was undergoing an evolutionary period and it became his visual habitat.
In an impressive accompanying exhibit catalogue, curators Timothy Burgard, Steven Nash and Emma Acker untangle the resulting knot. Their essays weave interconnected patterns where other experts have seen division or contradiction. From their perspective, Matisse, Cézanne, Rothko, de Kooning and a long list of Diebenkorn’s heroes informed his journey and were indicative of the artist’s urge to push thought boundaries.
Ten “notes to myself on beginning a painting,” printed on a wall at the exhibit’s entry, introduce the mind of the artist to gallery visitors. “Attempt what is not certain,” “Tolerate chaos,” and “Be careful only in a perverse way,” they read. Large-scale photographs by Rose Mandel, whose superb body of work is on view in a nearby gallery, add an intimate, personal touch. One shows the artist’s homemade coffee-can brush holders and the way he cocks his head to one side while regarding a canvas, as if puzzled by his own work. The curators made a clear effort to show the full measure of Diebenkorn.
“He didn’t just paint, he did cut-paper works, like Matisse,” Burgard said, standing near “Untitled (Yellow Collage)” during a press preview. Seated, cross-legged, cross-armed, the painting’s cut-paper female figure tells a multiplex of stories. Brilliant yellow skin and a fractured backdrop shout for attention; her face, void of detail and turned aside, suggests contemplation. Her posture is equal parts withdrawal, self-protection and seduction. Brooding black pigment, seeping from the split between her lower legs and the “wall” behind her, lends ominous gravity. At the same time, the work can be considered an abstract of geometric forms: rectangular planes, irregular ovals and the judicious use of diagonals so masterfully applied in his best works.
Surfaces, too, bear witness to the art’s diverse, courageous subterfuge. Paint is stroked or drips in all directions (Diebenkorn, like many artists, turned his canvases every which way to alter vantage and perspective), but mostly, paint sings. Or rather, the surface creates a symphony of texture, tone, rhythm and structure.
Economy in edges plays a big part in achieving cohesiveness without dissonance. Harmony is apparent in works as unlike each other as are “Berkeley #44,” “Seawall” and “Seated Figure with Hat.” Respectively, a block of orange storms into hazardous blacks, blues, and whitened-pinks, drawing the eye to the center; a pallet-knife scratch in a hashmark of green declares itself a road; and a single brush stroke of tan distinguishes a human arm from that of a chair. Throughout, there’s willful chaos, but in Diebenkorn’s hands, it’s perfectly rational.
It’s impossible to write about the paintings without mentioning light. Diebenkorn’s Berkeley paintings investigate the interplay between indoor and outdoor light more obviously than any other period in his life’s work. The 1962 “Interior with Doorway” (notable for its location — his Oakland studio looked out on an intersection now covered by the Ashby BART station) captures the dichotomy between the California midday glare and the cool ghostliness of that same light on a roughened floor and turquoise folding chair.
Contrasting light sources are put to psychological purposes in “Man and Woman in a Large Room,” 1957, in which an employer works, his back turned, while a woman — his assistant? spouse? model? — looks on. Her skirt is striped like a jail cell; her one arm crossed to hold the opposing elbow is a trap. The room is all greenish darkness except for a slim “escape” in the painting’s far right: a slender doorway allows a glimpse of apple-green grass and a beckoning, happy blue sky. The mood is violent, thick, and forcefully suppressed — the possibility for change, although slight, is lofty, expansive.
The exhibit includes a number of fine figurative drawings in black and white and several works never before on public display. Oscillating throughout the exhibit, the Bay Area’s land, sea and sky carve a broad swath for Diebenkorn’s masterful somersaults through color and his 13-year period of artistic metamorphosis.
“Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years” is at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through Sept. 29. You can find tickets and information at the de Young Museum online.
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