Richard Diebenkorn: A First Hand Recollection By British Artist Colin Smith

You will almost certainly recognise the names – Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlingetti, Burroughs, Corso, but there is a fair chance you won’t know these – Park, Bishoff, Weeks, Diebenkorn, McGraw, Wonner, Theopolis and Joan Brown. It could be argued that these names should rank in cultural significance alongside the others.

Diebenkorn like Hopper was well known to the US domestic market and his work was collected mainly in the US, and to this day, despite a radical reassessment of his stature, to my knowledge you  can’t find any major examples of his work in Europe. My interest and curiosity grew but it was not until the early 1980’s when I had the chance to live in the USA as  Harkness  Research Fellow at Yale, that I became more aware of attitudes prevalent amongst the reputation makers regarding the perceived stature of Artists who did not, for whatever reason, live in New York City where I became based. As we know, since the end of World War Two, New York had worked hard to become the cultural Mecca of the western world. It had achieved that status with the help of circumstances both economical and political. Despite the fact that the USA was given a vast injection of talent by the Artists and Intellectuals escaping from Hitler, there was an impetus building for the idea of establishing a new and uniquely American Art.  Many pundits and Practitioners claimed to be giving birth to a new art not dependent on Europe or the old order at all. Ideas from the (ironically European) Freud and Jung encouraged them to believe they were tapping the true source of the id. An unfortunate and pernicious side effect of this was that anything which did not originate in New York, even from elsewhere in the USA was considered provincial.

Diebenkorn having held various posts and fellowships in Universities, spent a short time in New York, where the Critic Clement Greenberg had said to him to be taken seriously he must take his ‘New York Knocks’ and settle down there. Already making a solid reputation for himself nationally as a very accomplished second generation Abstract Expressionist, he had much to lose by turning his back.  However he, hating being told what to do, soon left, returning to his roots in the Bay Area of California. His early very accomplished abstractions notably the Berkeley, Albuquerque and Urbana series, despite the appearance of being abstract were indeed, as he explained to me, inspired by flying above the desert and looking down at the landscape. “You must remember too that planes flew a lot lower in those days”. It can be appreciated in these works that there is a definite illusion of space between the viewer and the planes depicted, and any hints of renderings of volume exist within a very limited space above or below the main ‘plane’ or ‘Ground’. This is reflects the reality spatially, and indeed metaphorically. It was perhaps with hindsight not such a surprise then that he felt he had used up his inner references and wanted again to respond to something ‘out there’.

My first exposure to the work of Richard Diebenkorn  came via the limited reproduction of a few works which I encountered as a Student in London during the 1970’s. I was well aware of the reaction against the constraints of Late Modernism which had occurred in New York led by Johns, Rivers, Rauschenberg and others, but I detected something different there. On the mention of his name my Tutors at the Royal College commented ‘Oh him he’s no good he can’t decide if he’s Figurative or Abstract’. The British version of Late Modernism was in full flood and such was the Dogma.

I did not get to meet him until almost a decade later, when living once again back in London , I was invited by Majorie Altorpe- Guyton Editor of the now defunct ‘Artscribe’ magazine to visit him in his northern California studio to carry out an interview. Despite being very ill by this time he still exuded a quick wit and as reflected in his work, a huge generosity of spirit. I liked him enormously and we met a couple more times in London before his premature death in 1992. A deeply fair-minded man he was anxious not to be seen as part of what he called the ‘Greenberg knocking’ that had been prevalent, yet he had undoubtedly been part of the reaction against Abstraction. He mentioned to me in his Studio that despite having apparently worked exclusively on the abstract ‘Ocean Park’ paintings since 1967, he still entertained doubts as to the lasting significance of Abstraction. He then showed me a figurative drawing he had made within the last month. Unfortunately the swing in ideas by the Bay area group as early as 1950 in the case of David Park, was to be seen by the East Coast as just that, a reactionary rejection of the new, a retrenchment, a step backwards. Dore Ashton used the phrase ‘loss of nerve’. Yet these artists were far from being cultural Luddites, their knowledge and integration of the formal and expressive freedoms which came with abstraction were profound, and were readily integrated into their processes. The main issues which cemented their opposition were the solipsism, self-referentiality, and egocentricity, not to mention the quasi mysticism which went along with Abstraction. Their adoption though of the standard tropes of figuration, Landscape , Still Life etc. as opposed to the savvy content aware tendency which become known as Pop Art, probably added to this perception.

All of these Artist’s works exhibit processes and attitudes, which prefigure the radical change in direction, which Philip Guston took in 1970. This is not in any way to undermine Guston on the contrary I am a great admirer, yet I suspect his ‘defection’ from Abstraction seemed to have more gravity simply due to him being established on the East Coast. One could point to the ‘New Spirit in Painting’ exhibition at the Royal Academy the early 1980’s in part a reaction to the cool Minimalism of the 1970’s, which gave rise to an awful lot of forgettable painting largely due to the lack of any formal qualities. The lesser-known people in California were way ahead of that game on every level. However the loose, unwilling and uncomfortable grouping of the Bay area Artists drifted apart during the early sixties.

 Diebenkorn held his friend David Park in high regard and he showed me several of his works, which he and his wife Phyllis owned. He too had suffered an even more early demise at the age of 50. Further research in the Oakland and Berkeley and San Francisco Museums led to my discovery of many more loosely associated painters. Another important reason that the achievements of these Californian Artists were sidelined and frozen out was their ready acceptance of European influence notably from Matisse and Picasso even in some later cases of De Chirico, Bacon and Giacometti. The Humanist triumvirate of Goya, Velasquez and Rembrandt important too, especially apparently to Clifford Still, but more apparently manifest in the brooding and dark tonalities of the abstract works of Frank Lobdell. Younger artists such as Nathan Olivera and Joan Brown, also held these artists in high regard. What these Artists seemed to be seeking was a kind of exuberant non conformism, a freewheeling generosity of spirit, improvisation, and a wish to take risks. This links them very strongly with the writers and poets of the Beat Generation from roughly the same time and in the same place. There are portraits of Kerouac and Ginsberg by Theophilus Brown. Both the groups shared a deep reverence for contemporary jazz  and indeed many of the Artists were also Musicians.

I regret that having been based in the USA whilst he was still alive I did not get a chance to meet Elmer Bischof. Many of his works which I have only recently become more aware of are outstanding and underrated. He and Park seemed to be the Nucleus which the younger artists including Diebenkorn were affected by. The content of his work is more poetic some may even say narrative than the others.

Wayne Thiebaud is an interesting case in this context. More well known and influential in Europe than the others. I met him in his Studio about three years ago, conducting an interview for Turps Banana magazine.

His fame was founded on the East Coast and came slightly later during the mid to late 60’s. His content here is the key as it fit much more readily into Pop Art parameters. His  Cakes, Gumball Machines and celebration of everyday culture fit well, yet his origins in the painterly figurative tendency of the West Coast are clear. He was a friend of Diebenkorn and one can see a clear homage in the composition of his later landscapes to the design of many of the Ocean Park series. He told me that he would prefer not to be seen as a Pop Artist and I am sure he empathises with and would prefer to be seen alongside  these other Artists .

Too much emphasis can be placed on the appreciation of Art from a purely contextual viewpoint. Historical significance should not just rest on whatever boundries or taboos were being challenged or stretched, as is the norm at present. We are lucky in that sense as that particular context for these Artists is passed and no one cares so much about that anymore. The reputations of the Critics, Commentators and Theorists have been made and outmoded. The vicissitudes of that Fashion no longer apply. What we are left with are the objects, the Paintings themselves. I think their makers would encourage me to encourage you, to try just to look, look and feel the life enhancing generosity which these works radiate.

Words: Colin Smith  Photos: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2015

Colin Smith is a British Artist who has work in the permanent collections of several museums including the Tate. His paintings are also in important private collections around the world. Colin is a well respected writer on Art and has been a Harkness fellow to Yale University. He is currently an Associate Editor of Turps Banana Painting Magazine. He lives and works in London and southern Spain.

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