MY FIRST and longest meeting with Richard and Phyllis Diebenkorn was in the summer of 1991 when I visited them at their house in one of the wine valleys near Healdsburg, in northern California. I had admired his work since first seeing it almost 20 years ago. He became for me an artist, like Philip Guston, who showed ways of re-complicating and thus revitalising what seemed to have become stale, over-reductive and formulaic in much of late Modernist painting. This long before the cultural historians had created new labels such as Post-modernism to tidy it all up.
The tall, gentlemanly, slightly stooped figure with a professorial air soon loosened up to reveal a guarded but developed sense of mischief and an occasional explosive guffaw which at times made me anxious for his already weakened health.
After a spell in the Marines, Diebenkorn, a native Californian, achieved a degree of eminence during the mid-1950s as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist having learned much earlier from Hopper and later from De Kooning. Yet he resisted the lure of New York, spending time in Albuquerque and Urbana, returning late in the Fifties to San Francisco.
His friendship with the artists David Park and Elmer Bischoff and their subsequent rejection of what they felt had become 'East Coast' abstract orthodoxy became notorious and many mistakenly took it as a rejection of 'modern' art. The return to subject matter in the late Fifties however was very much informed by the lessons of abstraction. The rich luminosity of colour and fluid handling of paint always hung on a strong sense of structure and design. It was no great surprise to find his deep reverence for Cezanne. Many of the images from this period have an almost Hopper- like poignance. Figure on a Porch, from the Oakland Museum collection, remains one of my favourite paintings.
In 1967 Diebenkorn confounded everyone yet again by returning to abstraction shortly after moving from San Francisco, where he had achieved high standing, to Los Angeles which at that time had no credibility in the art world. It was there that he started the series of works for which he is now best known, the 'Ocean Park' paintings, named after the district near the Pacific where he had his studio (later, strangely, to become Arnold Schwarzenegger's private gym). These geometric, glowing, sensuous yet formal paintings evoke the light and architecture of the area, yet it was a source of annoyance to him that this aspect was over-emphasised; the paintings are numbered, only titled as a series, reinforcing his wish that they be judged only in terms of painting. They were constantly revived and adjusted, with his mistakes and revisions incorporated into the work, revealing how it evolved.
Diebenkorn's earlier heavy use of impasto had by now moderated into often transparent veils of brushed paint, the dominance of the 'big gesture' brush-mark giving way to the control of line and edge, more Italian in feel than the earlier red-hot Dutch impulse from De Kooning. These paintings were also inspired by the Matisse paintings of around 1914, notably the Piano Lesson. Diebenkorn's visit to the Hermitage Museum in what was then Leningrad during the late Sixties clearly fuelled this.
In 1987 the Diebenkorns moved north to Healdsburg mainly because of ill-health. He felt the city was 'using him up'. From that time his work was limited to work on paper, usually in mixed media. These works, although much smaller than his often 8ft-high canvases, are a pinnacle of painterly achievement.
Diebenkorn's mastery was by now unequivocal. His achievements, virtually unseen in Europe, were at last revealed in the retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, in October 1991, which later travelled to Spain, Germany and venues in the US. He stands as an example of independent, maverick spirit. Richard Diebenkorn was never a careerist, strategist or seeker of the limelight, and the 'main chance' for him always lay at the other end of the paint- brush. His stubborn resistance to curatorial acceptability, conceptual neatness and fashionability took guts and strength of character. Like Milton Avery's, Diebenkorn's work will outlast many whose work had more contemporary acclaim. His work is spread evenly across the principal collections in the US. Regrettably, no main institutions in Europe saw fit to acquire much of his work.
'Historical development is really a hindsight thing,' Diebenkorn wrote, 'I think they're really interesting intellectual games, but the critic who steps into the breach and selects somebody who is the logical next step, well it's really ludicrous, because the next step might be some kind of crazy throwback into left field, which then in hindsight becomes the perfect next step.'
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content