Observation & Artifice:  Important Diebenkorn Exhibition In Palm Springs Highlights Artist’s Importance In Canon Of 20th Century Art

“Attempt what is not certain.”  So goes Richard Diebenkorn’s instruction to himself on starting a painting, as posted in his studio in the Berkeley hills of Northern California in the early 1950s.  The achievement of his own directive accounts for Diebenkorn’s success as an important pillar of abstract art and abstract expressionism and 20th century American art.  This is evident in the current exhibition entitled RICHARD DIEBENKORN: The Berkeley Years,  1953-1966” running at the Palm Springs Art Museum from October 26, 2013 to February 16, 2014.

With respect to the post-WWII art movement titled “Abstract Expressionism” —  often identified as the first important art movement to fully germinate in American soil (particularly with the participation of European expats driven out of Europe with the two great wars) — it is undisputed that West Coast Abstract Expressionists have not fared as well as their East Coast counterparts.  This may be due to three recombinant factors.

First, there is the fact that the movement’s fire first sparked in the East, with firecrackers like Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman.  Second, the initial wave of European ex-pats landed in the East via the Port of New York, with the likes of Hans Hoffman, Archile Gorky,  and Willem de Kooning.  [Only later would European ex-pats migrate to the sunny coast of California, drawn by ca$h-rich Hollywood cinema.]  Third, there is the effective vocalization of the movement’s East Coast advocates like Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, and Leo Steinberg.  These art historians and critics were all based on the East Coast and writing for East-Coast-based publications.  As a result, this East-Coast focus (and shall we say bias) has not been kind — nor justified — to their West-Coast cousins.

East Coast reviews of the Diebenkorn exhibition, initially at San Francisco’s de Young Museum and currently at the Palm Springs Art Museum, serve as concrete evidence of this very sad fact.  Specifically, East Coast critics claim that the current show (touching down in only two West Coast venues) further limits Diebenkorn’s importance and influence to his California roots and thereby serving to negate his American, if not international, reputation.  I strongly disagree.

While just slightly less than those shown at the de Young, the works in Palm Springs are ravishing.  All of the more than 100 works are masterworks.  And the new focus on Diebenkorn’s Berkeley output is necessary, timely, and important from an art historical perspective.  The exhibition is the very first presentation to study — fully and in-depth — Diebenkorn’s fertile development during these 13 years, examining his dramatic shift from abstraction to the representational.

Many works in the exposition have rarely – and some never before —  been seen in public.  What a stroke of genius, and luck with so many willing private owners participating, for the exhibition’s curators.  Credit belongs to Timothy Anglin Burgard and Emma Acker, curators of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Steven Nash, Executive Director of the Palm Springs Art Museum.  In addition to the Palm Springs tenure until February 16, 2014, with no additional venues planned, these curators’ hard work is evident with the accompanying exhibition catalogue published by Yale University Press.  It, too, is ravishingly beautiful and scholarly, warranting a longer shelf-live and influence for Diebenkorn’s body of work during these Berkeley years.

From this reviewer’s point of view, the examination on Diebenkorn’s transitional equivocation between “pure abstraction” and “figuration” (real or abstract) is sure to serve an art historical cross-correction.  In a nutshell, the exhibition serves to highlight Diebenkorn’s influence on art produced in the “West Coast” in general (including North and South American and Asian Coasts), and California in particular, during the mid-point of the last century.

As the artist himself stated:  “Abstract means literally to draw from or separate.  In this sense every art [sic] is abstract. . . . a realistic or non-objective approach makes no difference.  The result is what counts.”  In this regard, the artist continued:  “I began to feel that what I was really up to in painting what I enjoyed almost exclusively, was altering – changing what was before me – by way of subtraction or juxtaposition or superimposition of different ideas.”  As a result, Diebenkorn created works with both gesture and stillness, motion and meditation, and prophetically, his works would serve to help germinate the popular figurative styles of the budding pop artists of the 1960s and 1970s in both the East and West Coasts.

The topography and layout of the Palm Springs Art Museum itself, combined with such an effective “theatrical production and presentation,” effectively serve to tell a most-engaging narrative about change, choice, equivocation, and the slippery slide between pure abstraction and figuration.    On the one hand, there is observation and a “pure” depiction of what one “sees.”  On the one hand, there is the artifice of the imagined and the made-up.  An “abstraction” of what is “real,” if you wish, leading ultimately to the final point of Diebenkorn’s most satisfying output – everything in art is an abstraction.

Upon entering the exhibition, the viewer is introduced both to the artist and the narrative by way of a number of blown-up photographs by Rose Mandel.  Two black and white and one color photographs show Diebenkorn at work in his studio during these Berkeley years.  The two black and white photos both show and imply the artist in physical action, so typical of the concrete and brute gesture at the core of abstract expressionism.  In one, there is a blurry Diebenkorn furiously at work on his canvas.  In the other, we see that the artist has turned his canvas upside down, further evidence of the athletic nature of these expressionist artists.  However, it is the color photo that is particularly illustrative.  Not only does it show us the young and less-familiar Diebenkorn (most photos of the artist illustrated in art historical publications show the mature, older artist, and photos rarely surface of his years in Berkeley), it also shows us two work-in-progress paintings in Diebenkorn’s Berkeley studio.  One is pure abstraction and gesture.  There is no discernible object and shows a Diebenkorn working in total abstract expressionist mode.  Beside it is an obviously representational work, depicting a couple, each looking at opposite directions (the finished work is included in the exhibition).  Are they in conversation or simply existing in isolation in each other’s company?   This idea will typify the mood elicited by Diebenkorn’s representational works.  With these more representational paintings, one gets a clear sense that Diebenkorn is a direct progeny of Edward Hopper in evoking isolation and introspection in these paintings showing single or dual figures in interior or exterior spaces.

At its core, the main exhibition space lays out the story effectively.  Specifically, the main room bisects the exhibition into two equal halves between Diebenkorn’s initial pure abstractions and his eventual migration to more figurative representational work.  In this one space alone, combined with Mendel’s color photo discussed above, the curators’ exhibition premise is effectively and clearly set up:  the tension between abstraction and figuration in American mid-century.

Rounding out the exhibition spaces, an adjacent room shows  the influence of Matisse and Bonnard to Diebenkorn’s figuration.  Tentative figures are set against decorative backgrounds of lush shapes and colors.  [Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1965; Untitled (Yellow Collage), 1966.]  In the exhibition’s back room are set out Diebenkorn’s output in recognizable still lives and landscapes.  These paintings and works on paper, big and small, illustrate table-top dramas both intimate and public.  In these works, the influence of Manet and Cezanne serve to anchor Diebenkorn to his forefathers of modern art.  [Untitled, 1955; Scissors and Lemon, 1959; Pliers and Match, 1961; Still Life with Letter, 1961.]

Both tension/separation and combination/union are at work in Diebenkorn’s Berkeley output.  The natural world and the imagined invention of the creative are both present and at play.  The Berkeley works highlight the inner conversation, or more accurately argument, between observation and representation on the one hand and spontaneous invention and innovation on the other.  The unique aspect of this combination in the instant exhibition, however, is the union of the two within the very same painting.  Vigorous abstract brushstrokes are combined with natural linear tracing.  [Berkeley #3, 1953; Berkeley #22, 1954; Seawall, 1957.]   A flattened naturalistic composition is intensified with thick, vigorous, rough and artificial brushstrokes, combining both a sense of aerial spaciousness within tight perspectives.  [Man and Woman Seated, 1958; View from the Porch, 1959; Figure on a Porch, 1959.]

This tension, this dichotomy, is succinctly evident in Diebenkorn’s output between these 13 seminal years.  In these works, figures come and go, appearing and disappearing.  Fully realized, shall we say “realistic” facial expressions are erased and reworked, eliminating the recognizable specific in favor of the general abstraction.  Yet, the under layer remains in pentimento.  [Interior With Doorway, 1962; the charcoal and gouache drawings, etc.]  Traces of something else remains.  Nothing is certain.  But then again, isn’t that the point?

Diebenkorn’s output,  particularly these “transitional works,” serve to highlight the tension experienced by artists during the post-war period.  It would be best expressed in the fertile environment of America in general, and the American West Coast in particular, given California’s unique and shimmering light, its culture of openness, and its lush landscape.  Like Diebenkorn’s sunshine muse, a Palm Springs visit to views these works, live and in person, is sure to recharge one’s soul.  Make the effort.  It’s worth it.  “RICHARD DIEBENKORN: The Berkeley Years 1953 – 1966”run through February 16, 2014.  For more information, see

Armin’s Grade: A

Art Review by Armin Callo, Contributing Editor