Diebenkorn isn't a good candidate for a full biography as his bourgeois and stable personal life leaves little to gossip about but his mid-career paintings stand ready to reveal a great deal about his fascinating inner life. "The Berkeley Years" contains both masterpieces and quirky unresolved works: viewed in concert they offer revelations into the artist's thought processes and predilections. This exhibition is especially precious in the sense that it displays tensions and doubts that were later increasingly veiled behind a screen of privacy in the emotionally opaque Ocean Park series.
I had planned to wait to see the show until it came to Palm Springs but fortunately my friend Mitchell Johnson convinced me that I need to get on a plane and see it sooner. Mitchell, a painter who has looked very acutely at modern and contemporary painting, sent me an e-mail a few weeks ago telling me the show had affected him deeply. The chance to walk through the show with Mitchell proved irresistible and I booked my flight.
Making the figures "work" in their painted surroundings was always a positive problem and many of his solutions are brilliant and original. Sometimes Diebenkorn's formalist instincts overwhelmed his feelings about the figure and the resulting paintings could be a bit chilly: during his lifetime Diebenkorn was often annoyed by what critics had to say about a perceived emotional distance between the artist and his human subjects. In truth, even some of his most beautiful figures emanate at least a hint of isolation. I find Mitchell Johnson's take on this dynamic compelling:
The really great figures are so accessible and compelling in their composition, but they are also tragic. You feel the shapes surrounding the figures harnessing them into the composition but also pressing on them like weights of realization. They have an existential quality that separates them more and more clearly as time goes by from Diebenkorn's contemporaries.Mitchell also feels strongly that Diebenkorn's sense of doubt was an essential quality: "I think this is the greatest message of his work: that on some level, the world doesn't deliver itself to you, it doesn't preexist. You make sense of it, you make your world."
As Mitchell and I were preparing to leave the exhibition we stood in the final room and looked through a wide doorway into the well lit gift shop crammed with shrink-wrapped catalogs and Diebenkorniana. To the left of the doorway was a lovely but fussy painting of the artist's wife: "Seated Figure with a Hat." To the right of the door was a brave but awkward figure of a standing female nude: "Nude on Blue Ground." The two paintings seemed to say the same thing: Diebenkorn had taken the figure towards two dead ends. In a perfect world "The Berkeley Years" would lead into last year's OCMA retrospective of the Ocean Park series and not the gift shop.
Picasso once said that "the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." In his final "Ocean Park" paintings Diebenkorn certainly did more to hide his sources: or it might be better to say that he absorbed and sublimated them. Behind the veils and scumbles of their surfaces are vestigial traces of the influences, problems and subjects that he grappled with during his years of living in Berkeley.
Like other successful painters Diebenkorn has inspired too many epigones: lesser Diebenkorns who have learned from his surfaces and subjects but not from his intellectual scrupulousness. I hope that serious painters who see "The Berkeley Years" will realize that what they need to borrow from Diebenkorn is the studiousness and patience with which he chose and learned from his peers and predecessors. They also need to pay close attention to the fact that at a certain point he subsumed his sources and became Richard Diebenkorn: an utterly unique figure. "Be yourself," Oscar Wilde advised, "everyone else is taken."
I honestly think that "Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966" is the best single show I have ever seen about an artist's career development. Diebenkorn was never part of the leading edge of American art but by thinking through a wide range of influences and ideas he ultimately out-distanced many of his showier peers. In an era when too many American artists began to believe the lofty praise that came their way Richard Diebenkorn managed to stay humble and curious. He had enough doubts about himself -- and about his art -- to be truly great.
Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966
The de Young Museum
Golden Gate Park
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco, CA 94118
Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30 am-5:15 pm
Friday (March 29-November 29, 2013) 9:30 am-8:45 pm
Tuesday-Friday: $20 adults; $17 seniors; $16 college students with ID; $10 youths 6-17.