On RICHARD DIEBENKORN : The Artist's Quest for the Impossible


Maybe life really is as gentle as an old Hollywood family comedy. If it is, Richard Diebenkorn, who died Tuesday, is currently sitting on a celestial cloud reading laudatory obituaries to his life and art. He adjusts his glasses, pulls his nose and runs his hand through his dark hair.

"This is lovely and well-meant," he'd think, "but so complimentary to me that, personally, I'm a bit embarrassed. All this business about my life is redundant, really. I tried to live in such a way as to not call attention to my person. I just hope I don't become some sort of personality. I hope people will just look at the work and dwell upon it."

All he ever wanted was for people to pay as careful attention to the work as he himself did in making it. He liked to invite a few trusted people to the studio before he sent finished paintings off to his gallery. He'd bring the canvases out one at a time and leave them long enough to be thoroughly soaked up. Some of his friends found this a bit arduous but they'd always come when invited.

Diebenkorn was the furthest thing from an ideological painter. He stood for the notion that art is to be slowly and repeatedly contemplated. To him a painting was a layering of thoughts and visual impressions piling up history and sensations--an open-ended experience where the viewer adds his own notions to those of the artist.


There is, as luck would have it, a retrospective of his works on paper at USC's Fisher Gallery just now. It pretty well surveys his career with its slow and thoughtful shifts from scenes of everyday California life to variations on heraldic playing card symbols and abstract ruminations on his surroundings from the Ocean Park series. The artist will smile down on anyone who goes and takes a good long look.


There are small versions of the abstractions as rich as the big ones. History wafted through Diebenkorn's mind as he painted them. "What do you suppose would have happened," we can imagine Diebenkorn thinking, "if Piet Mondrian had come to Santa Monica and tried to paint one of his grids?"

There is a bit of a serious joke here.

"Would not their flatness and right angles have become enveloped in the atmosphere of the air? Of course. And that would then soften the hardness of the lines and tone down the colors so that the purity of intellectual exercise in abstraction would become sensual like a Matisse, that great master of life's joy? Certainly, or at least perhaps. None of this is fixed.

"Once all that happens one cannot any longer dwell in the realm of pure abstraction. One is back in the land of landscape. Perhaps landscape as I viewed it in my days as a marine map maker looking at aerial views. Those always reminded me of Cubism where the flat and the spatial are held together in such marvelous tension. Painting is a bit of a miracle if you think about it. Especially color.

"For me art just won't hold still in any category. Abstraction and realism are forever interpenetrating one another like shuffled playing cards. Take a peek at these etchings from the days when I made the 'Girl on a Terrace' paintings. I like striped garments such as that skirt because they tell us so much about the way we see. If you make them uniform the space stays flat. If you make them progressively narrower the space turns. Make an oval and it wobbles in space. Put some marks on it like eyes, nose and mouth and the whole changes to a kind of terrain with a personality.

"Well, yes, I confess, I am trying to teach something in this work. I hope it never gets too professorial. I hope it delights you but I can't quite tell you what it is in words. You have to come to that yourself."

The answer is in any one work or all of them taken together. It was probably embodied in a look Diebenkorn recently gave to me in a recent conversation when I told him I had long since stopped making art.

"I could draw and design but I just couldn't paint so I gave it up," I told this man whose work I had always admired.

Diebenkorn gave me an incredulous glance and the glance spoke. "Of course you can't paint. Nobody can paint. I can't paint. You just go ahead and do it anyway. It is the marvel of this enterprise that you set out to do something utterly impossible. You must forget about time, money, fame, loved ones and all the rest and just stand there putting it on and scraping it off until you achieve the impossible. That's how it works."

That's Diebenkorn's lesson. If we can all learn to have his integrity and do our version of the impossible he will sit on his cloud smiling and we will eventually join him there.

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