Letter to an Italian friend
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
March 17-May 29 2017
Richard Diebenkorn: Chabot Valley, 1955
19-1/2 x 18-3/4 inches
We took a old friend with us. The exhibition was crowded, but a combination of the timed entry and the fact that many viewers were wearing their headphones helped mitigate the crowd. First of all we jumped the line — someone recognized me for the long-retired art critic I am, said “You’ve paid your dues,” smiled, and waved us past the waiting line into the galleries. There, of course, many viewers waited in front of this painting or that while listening the their headphones, so I followed my usual practice of finding a painting being neglected at the moment and standing directly in front of it, viewing it as long as I wanted, leaning on my cane.
One of the key paintings was Chabot Valley, a small landscape from 1955. I’d been advised to pay particular attention to it, and thought I knew it: but of course I didn’t, as it’s still in the Diebenkorn family; I was confusing it with another painting, not in the show, which I see with my mind’s eye but don’t readily find among the various sources at hand. I am almost certain I had seen the painting before, though, hanging in Diebenkorn’s house outside Healdsburg, when I had a conversation with him in, I think, 1992. (RD died of emphysema in Berkeley in March 1993.)
I lingered, in the SFMOMA show, in front of Chabot Valley, an extraordinary painting for the success of its complexity and truthfulness in such a small scale — you can see why he would have kept it nearby for the rest of his life, as a sort of touchstone, a painting against which to check work under way. I think it’s likely the success of Chabot Valley developed of its own accord, and this is how: the external reality of the landscape he was painting, including of course its sky, and the example of the paintings by others (not exclusively Matisse by any means), and the painting itself as it developed from his palette and brushstrokes, all simply converged, partly from his conscious decisions, partly from the habits of hand and eye that he’d developed in studio work (including many hours of figure drawing and many others of printmaking), partly by consciously taking advantage of “accidents” presenting themselves in the course of painting.
Now Diebenkorn was an extraordinarily intelligent and thoughtful man. I spoke to him twice, once when he had a retrospective at SFMOMA in 1972; again in his Healdsburg home twenty years later. On both occasions his intelligence and thoughtfulness were immediately apparent: he spoke slowly, without ums and ahs, and referred to a wide range of reading, including the “reading” of visual work by other artists, contemporary and historical. I think any approach to his work, painting, drawing, or prints, that doesn’t include a similar approach, can begin to extract the richness of meaning that’s in it. I’m not saying this has to be conscious, or that his work is exclusively for similarly developed intelligences, of course even a viewer who’s only interested in painting-over-the-sofa interior decorating can find a lot to enjoy in an Ocean Park painting (not to mention Matisse. But there’s a lot more there, as Diebenkorn was quick to point out himself in interviews and conversation:
“I keep plastering it until it comes around to what I want, in terms of all I know and think about painting now, as well as in terms of the initial observation. One wants to see the artifice of the thing as well as the subject. Reality has to be digested, it has to be transmuted by paint. It has to be given a twist of some kind.”The current SFMOMA show includes a few vitrines housing books and periodicals from Diebenkorn’s personal collection, and you can be pretty sure his studio, like most painters’ studios, had reproductions of paintings pinned up here and there, more touchstones; though I believe certain works were burned into his memory and always cropped up someplace. I didn’t buy the Matisse-Diebenkorn catalogue and wasn’t allowed to photograph the wall labels (which annoyed me) and, given the crowds, my back, and our schedule, wasn’t able readily to take notes, but it’s likely this was a point the curator was making in this show.(RD, quoted in Nordland, attributed to Paul Mills, Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting, Oakland: Oakland Art Museum, 1957, p. 12)
It was probably helpful to me that our friend was with us, and asking intelligent questions from time to time: how should an intelligent and willing but basically untutored and in a sense painterly illiterate person approach these paintings? I talked about edges, the way Diebenkorn often squeezes a composition down into a rectangle slightly smaller than the canvas itself. I talked about palette, the way he finds new uses for colors found in previous paintings. I talked about composition and planes and perspective and vertical-versus-horizontal and recession and all that, without of course going into detail. I talked about the way certain touches reappear from one painting to the next — little flecks of color, little rectangles, little linear shapes (eyeglasses, bra-cups, the club sign from playing cards (heraldry, I remember the wall label had it), schematic faces recalling those of the Russian painter Alexei Jawlensky).
I’m fascinated that apparently I do all this quickly and subconsciously when I look at a painting, and it took the conversation with our friend to bring all this out. And on the way home, me sleeping in the back seat, I woke up and said, a propos of nothing, I hate doing that. What, our friend asked. Talking about painting like that: it’s all so glib. I know that’s how you feel, she said. (She was instrumental in getting me onto our local newspaper as a music critic, for a couple of seasons, after I’d left the Oakland Tribune.) Then we both fell silent. I think she disagrees, that she knows the value of journalistic criticism: but to me it’s public one-sided opinionizing too ready to lapse into a kind of authoritarianism.
Richard Diebenkorn: Ocean Park No. 54, 1972
100 x 81 inches
Thank you thank you for saying that, he said, that’s what I’ve been trying to say, it’s really that simple. (It isn’t, of course, it’s just that Diebenkorn is a better painter for me, for my purposes. And what are my purposes? To understand better how, using my eyes, I understand reality.) We had a little conversation and agreed that the Ocean Park series is simply magnificent. Each of the paintings, almost all of them, has in it all the things you want: landscape, figure, abstraction, light, perspective, color, edge, content, reference. Each of them has looked at Chabot Valley and thought about all the issues that early little painting raises (and resolves, you have to concede, on its own terms), and internalizes all those issues and resolves them anew, and leaves the painter’s eye out of the equation; they are completely ego-transcendent.
And then I was tired, and we left, and went to Zuni for hamburgers, and home.
Then this morning I looked into Gerald Nordland’s book (Richard Diebenkorn: Rizzoli, 1989) and thought about things and decided to write to you. I know you’ve looked into this catalog a lot, more than I have recently I’m sure. I was surprised to find I’d pencilled notes into it, probably when I was thinking of that interview in 1992. A magazine publisher had set up the interview, working through Diebenkorn’s gallery as I recall, overcoming my reluctance to do it. Finally I agreed to talk to Diebenkorn about why neither he nor I wanted to do an interview, to be published in his magazine. I went out to Diebenkorn’s Healdsburg house. He was not strong. I don’t recall whether he had breathing apparatus; I don’t think so. We had a nice conversation, one of those with long silences in which each was thinking of other things, probably Matisse, Chekhov, west coast jazz, the Bay Area school, and so on, each of us knowing what the other found valuable and enriching, and each of us knowing there was neither reason nor point in discussing these things, they were a matter of common knowledge and agreement.
It may be (and perhaps it must be) that Matisse's was similarly rich and thoughtful a mentality; I don’t know. Clearly he was more intellectual than was Picasso, but by “intellectual” let’s admit we’re meaning “articulate, verbal”: as I said to our friend, painters like Diebenkorn “read” paintings the way others — she and I, I said — read novels. And the greats — Matisse, Picasso, Diebenkorn — teach us, I think, to read “reality” that way, and landscape, and skies, and arrangements of things on tables, and the figure.
In the last analysis I don’t think it was a magnificent show; the curator’s point was made but it is God knows an easy point to make; many of the Matisses (by no means all!) were second-rate paintings for him, and the Diebenkorns were mostly first-rate. We saw a marvelous show in Fort Worth, years ago, pairing Matisse and Picasso, showing their mutual inspiration — no, not inspiration; more like homages to one another, as in Oh: you can do that? Look what I can do with it! It may be, as my Companion suggests, that that exhibition has grown in my memory of it, and that this one will grow similarly. In any case Diebenkorn is a creative force to be grateful for, a transcendent expression of his century, a painter who knew both intuitively and through careful thought and observation the things I was trying to write the other day about space, measure, and markings.