Richard Diebenkorn – A Closer Look

I’ve finally got up close and personal with Diebenkorn thanks to the Royal Academy’s exhibition and I found him an absolute delight.  I was confused about the conflicting reviews that the exhibition and the artist was getting and puzzled by the concern about his shift between abstraction and figuration. Having now seen some 50 of his works my knowledge and understanding of the man and reactions to him has become a little clearer.

That the shift between abstraction and figuration brings discomfort to some is peculiar to me as I see only enrichment from exploring the full continuum of painterly expression. There is, of course, the erroneous desire to categorise and pigeon-hole in order to facilitate context and consistency. There is also the hierarchical argument of artistic worth which places pictorial text, populated by a system of representational symbols, above an aesthetic phenomenon arising from an object.  It feels very natural that Diebenkorn, playing as he was with chaos, control and being present for and with unconscious and non-verbal feelings, should confront and contain the unconscious emotional material arising in stages and by degrees.

His strength for me is the way that his paintings convey a very real feeling of sensation, a meditative capturing of moments and moods in the language of colour.  I couldn’t help but want to mix all the paintings in the three sharply demarcated rooms together – this would have surely highlighted the deeply pertinent and all pervasive continuity and consistency of his work, the fusion between abstraction and figuration.  It would also have forgrounded the inscapeness and reoccurring themes.

Lets take a look for a moment at some of the important biographical details:

restrictive parental expectations but with a supportive grandmother

a method of painting which is almost violent with an attack on the canvas

hIs daughters’ statement that all his works were done from memory

the stated importance of the Nature of Creative Activity by Victor Lowenfeld, a look at the psychology of artists, with an identification with the “haptic” artist

his recognition and fight against the hostility towards a restriction of artistic styles yet a realisation that the submerging of the figurative within the abstract had great power.

A fascinating and delightful exhibition which, along with his notes to himself on beginning a painting, has much to bring to the conversation about painting today.


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