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On RICHARD DIEBENKORN : The Challenging Art of Reinvention

April 01, 1993|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Richard Diebenkorn wasn't the first important modernist painter to develop in California, but he was the first of the breed to gain an enduring national reputation for his art. His death from respiratory failure Tuesday, just three weeks shy of his 71st birthday, marks a turning point.

The abundant series of often large, airy abstractions called the "Ocean Park" paintings, which Diebenkorn began shortly after his 1966 move from San Francisco to the Santa Monica neighborhood that gave the series its name, was to seal his critical reputation. In them, aqueous veils of brushy and often limpid color are hung on a linear scaffold of drawing.

The combination simultaneously evokes both the man-made infrastructure of a suburban landscape and the physical construction of wooden stretcher bars, canvas and color, from which a painting is assembled.

There's an understandable tendency to divide Diebenkorn's work into discrete periods: figurative juvenilia; the breakthrough to Abstract Expressionist pictures of the "Berkeley" and "Albuquerque" series in the late 1940s and early 1950s; the paintings of often solitary figures seated in interiors or posed before expansive landscapes, from the mid-1950s to 1966; then, the second "return," this time back to abstraction, in the Ocean Park paintings.

Yet, these neat divisions can be misleading. A sense of duality, in which recognizable imagery and total abstraction both play a part, was a constant throughout his mature career. The designation of abstract or figurative is more a matter of shifting emphasis, from one body of work to the next.

The emphasis is certainly guided by an internal pictorial logic, for Diebenkorn was nothing if not a painter whose canvases accrued from a slow, deliberate accumulation of painterly marks and compositional decisions, of fussed-over erasures and changes of heart. Among much else, each painting tells a narrative of its own making.

The emphasis was also guided by larger questions, although not in the way that some have supposed. In both his figurative work of the 1950s and his abstract work from 1966 on, Diebenkorn painted against the grain of contemporary art. When Abstract Expressionism ruled the art-world roost, he suddenly switched to straightforward depictions of people and landscapes. When Pop art brought figurative images back into painting with full force, he switched over to abstraction.

There can be little doubt that Diebenkorn's contrariness was sharply calculated--but not for careerist aims. After all, in the 1950s, what West Coast artist could claim more than regional celebrity? Any gifted painter with those ambitions pacing at the forefront of his mind would have long since decamped for New York. (Diebenkorn did live there briefly, but pretty much hated it.)

It's true that dumping abstract painting during a heady moment of abstraction in order to be a figurative painter, and then becoming an abstract painter again during a ferocious moment of Pop imagery, would guarantee some notice. It keyed right into the mythology of "the independent Westerner" that the East Coast Establishment had nourished. Still, there's no indication that, even if it could be accomplished, such market-savvy maneuvering was Diebenkorn's aim.

Instead, the artist's seemingly dramatic shifts, girded by a firm foundation of aesthetic continuity, were a conscious means for shaking off complacency and self-deception. Clearly, it was among the most important lessons he had learned from his older friend and mentor in San Francisco, painter David Park. Park, too, had been an abstract painter, caught up in the excitement and moral fervor of the Abstract Expressionist quest that had engulfed the old California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where he had taught with Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and others.

In 1949, Park abruptly drove to the city dump and deposited almost all his own abstract paintings. When he returned to his studio, Park suddenly began to paint the figure.

"My God!" Diebenkorn is reported to have exclaimed upon hearing the news. "What's happened to David?"

Thanks to abstract art, American painting was being taken seriously, for the first time ever, as a phenomenon of international significance. Imagine how inspiriting it must have been for any American artist, anywhere. Why give it up?

Because, Park knew, Abstract Expressionism was the New York School. Despite its ties to San Francisco, through the teaching stints of Rothko, Still and others, Abstract Expressionism was an alien art, just like the School of Paris had been. His own painting could never be more than a well-made, regional variation on an imported style. So, Park took what he had learned from working in the Abstract Expressionist manner, and he turned it to radically new purposes.

Within a few years, Diebenkorn did too. I've always been partial to his figurative paintings of the late 1950s, for in them the conflicted effort to find his way yields an unmistakable edginess. The languid imagery of casual figures in sun-filled environments is perversely bracing.

Diebenkorn's startling shifts, including the subsequent abandonment of figuration upon his move to the thoroughly Pop environment of L.A. in 1966, were a periodic wake-up call he smartly placed to himself. For, with determination and skill, the painter forced his own nerve-racking reinvention. It's a lesson worth paying attention to.

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