The Richard Diebenkorn Exhibition at The Royal Academy, London
14th March – 7th June
Richard Diebenkorn is an elusive American modernist whose current retrospective at the Royal Academy has been declared to be a “blast of fresh air” by the Telegraph. Last exhibited in London at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1991, the time has finally come for his work to be revisited and reconsidered by a new generation of art lovers. Moving fluidly between abstract expressionism, abstraction and figuration, we are swept up in the oeuvre of an artist who embodied the stylistic progression of twentieth-century American art. Divided into three sections according to the architectural space of the Sackler Wing, we can comprehend the divisions in his work as well as visible confluences between the differing styles. Strolling between them felt rather instinctive, as we sensed the subtlety of the stylistic development of his work. Like the Beat Generation poets or post-war photographers, he pushes boundaries and evokes a nostalgia for the untainted American landscapes of the twentieth century. Like many of his contemporaries there is an underlying sentimentality to his paintings as he captures the places he worked in a blend of engaging colour palettes and clever manipulations of light.
The curator Edith Devaney was privileged to have the opportunity to gain further insight into Diebenkorn, through an interview with his widow Phyllis. Orientating her curatorial direction, Phyllis walked Devaney through Diebenkorn's methods, the feng shui of his studio and of course his character. Each painting was more vivacious than the next across the spectrum of compositional techniques, which inhabited the exhibition space. Although he will never compete with Ed Ruscha, David Hockney or Mark Rothko, his depictions of California’s laid-back, sun-drenched landscapes are undeniably beautiful, both as desirable elements of interior design and sentimental works of art.
Like so many American Modernists, his work is all about space and emptiness. However, trying to identify with his thought processes was like wandering through a labyrinth as we tried to understand the meaning of his contortions and his response to the landscapes around him. There are some organic shapes in his illustrations of desert and water, but predominantly his pieces are more geometrical. Unlike the perfect strokes and lines of Piet Mondrian or Mark Rothko’s emotional colour blocks, Diebenkorn adopts a more naturalistic approach with the odd splodge or stain. Although I appreciate the value of his oeuvre as an important communicator of the fundamental properties of American Modernism, paintings like Cityscape 1, 1963 are distinctly unappealing with their lack of perspective and distorted geometry.
Following unexpected success in the 1940s Diebenkorn moved to Berkeley, California where he conceived works like Berkeley 5, 1953, in which the colour pirouettes across the canvas. He captured the vibrancy of the golden state, like only a native could. A friend of the revered artist David Hockney - whose work was such a success at the Royal Academy only a few years ago - we can see the correlation between their colour palettes, both reflecting the radiance of the California sunshine. Despite never quite filling the footsteps of revered Abstract Expressionists like Rothko or de Kooning in reputation, his youth did not hinder him as he developed their work, creating a recognisable style. His deep understanding of the contours and colour pallettes of his local terrain was reminiscent of the solitude of the New Mexico modernists John Marin, Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe who painted their spiritual homes and captured the complexity of indigenous Indian culture.
Though initially, many people do not immediately warm to his compositions, it is difficult to argue with the beautiful abstractions in his Ocean Park series, which illustrate the subtle greys, blues and tainted rose's of Santa Monica as if viewed through the panels of a window. Given my own love of figurative compositions, I found his nudes to be his most intriguing pieces. Although he is no Egon Schiele or Henri Matisse, there is a certain romance to pieces like Seated Woman 44, 1966 or the more provocative Standing Nude, 1966, which embody his foray into charcoal and illustrate a real sense of intimacy within his work. Diebenkorn is not by any means a master of American modernism, but his exhibition is unique in its entwining of Abstract Expressionism, Figuration and Abstraction. I would highly recommend popping into the Royal Academy to open your mind to the timeline of post-war American art, which he so effortlessly offers us. Diebenkorn's very presence in the Sackler Wing is symptomatic of the diversity of the artists exhibiting at the Royal Academy throughout 2015 - watch this space.
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com