In 1991 there was a major retrospective of Richard Diebenkorn’s work at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. It is one of my biggest regrets that I made only one visit, and I was resigned to the fact that such an opportunity would be unlikely to arise again. I was astonished therefore to find that a show dedicated to his Ocean Park paintings was to be staged at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC, in 2012.
But what drew me to the work of this Californian painter in the first place? The English landscape took on an enormous significance for me as I was growing up in Northamptonshire. Following overgrown pathways, disused railway lines and meandering roads, the beckoning horizon represented a sense of longing, to enter an unknown, always beyond, yet rooted in this place, ‘the county of squires and spires’, iron-ore and the poems of John Clare. It was the seventies, a romantic idealism was on the rise again, and painting was one of the few preoccupations that made sense. So I would cycle over the airfields at Grafton Underwood where Flying Fortresses once took off, to work in the woodlands, and attend art classes in the evening under our local hero, David Imms, a painter who was immersed in the changing cycles of nature and human presence in the landscape. There were many twists and turns, but one way or another the painting stuck and looking back I can see the significance of the place, and the way David Imms would attempt to capture the time of day or year through such directness and economy of means, which would become important later on in my discovery of Diebenkorn.
In the first year of my degree course at Leicester I was exploring abstraction in a highly intuitive way influenced by Alan Davie, Graham Sutherland and Peter Lanyon, and there was usually a highly charged, and emotive suggestion of landscape. I then put myself under a tutor (Alan Welsford) renowned for his ruthless honesty, who suggested that I should develop ‘other muscles’. What ensued was an exploration of modes of working that were less concerned with expression and more about ‘how to proceed’. I ended up spending a great deal of time reading essays on Minimalism and Conceptualism, and writing a thesis about the use of the grid in the work of Mondrian, Barnett Newman and Agnes Martin. I remember dipping into an essay on Diebenkorn, but his significance wasn’t apparent to me at the time. I became interested in the place of idea, development, and methodology in art practice. Particularly significant was the discovery of Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, on the development of consciousness and Gyorgy Kepes’ collection of essays on architecture, cellular biology and sculpture called Structure in Art and Science. In the studio I remember the experience of an intense awareness in the act of drawing a line, making measurements, or constructing a grid, whether on canvas or in a timber floor relief. The grid for me was a process of pacing and marking out an extension in space and time, akin to the act of walking in the landscape – an exploration of self and place.
In the years after Leicester I veered between restraint and lyricism in my work, with neither feeling wholly satisfactory. At the same time I was getting more involved in the ideas of G.I.Gurdjieff and the possibility of developing a higher critical faculty from which different modes of experience could be more clearly observed. It was at this point that I came across Gerald Nordland’s book on Diebenkorn and visited the Whitechapel retrospective. A door was opened and it dawned on me that here was an approach to painting that was both measured and free – on the one hand the geometric structure was alive, dynamic, felt, and on the other the freedom of brushwork and colour was intensified through containment. These paintings were rigorous in their abstraction and presence, while expressing a sublime feeling for landscape. They seemed to epitomise for me, painting in its purest sense, to the extent that they brought about a significant step forward in my own work. The geometry was important, and in the first paintings I would rule out a grid as a starting point, but this was something to work from or against. The key seemed to be in the extent to which one could dissolve or rework statements, placing more emphasis on the process of search rather than accepting something as final too soon.
In some sense edging away from Diebenkorn was as difficult as understanding his significance. My MA at Wimbledon helped with this to some degree. In recent years I have explored non-rectangular formats, a greater range of media and processes, and invited more playful activity in the pursuit of ‘surprise’. So there was a certain risk involved in spending five days re-engaging with the Ocean Park series at the Corcoran.
On entering the first room I was confronted by Ocean Park No.29, and was immediately struck by its monumentality, which wasn’t just to do with its size; it was more about its architecture and the audacity involved in reaching for such an unequivocal statement [there is a link to No.29, here]. You get the sense of a real workman, a builder, moving these weighty components around, balancing them, fixing them in place. Up close you see how quick and muscular the brushwork is. He doesn’t have time or inclination for any unnecessary tidying up as his eye is on the bigger picture. One of the most noticeable characteristics is the evidence of his process – the way the composition has been vigorously searched for, built up, changed and fine tuned. This is visible through the traces left behind (though this is more evident in other paintings). These reveal the history of the painting’s development, and have a fascination of their own, perhaps because they are reminiscent of the signs of transition we experience in the world around us (we know that Diebenkorn was fascinated by surface variations in the landscape, seen from a raised viewpoint). It was however, the underlying process of change through which he moved toward resolution that interested him most. The marks and traces follow on in the wake of his decisions – the movement of eye and hand. He avoids the temptation to settle for something purely on the basis of the incidental, or the attraction of one part or another – on the contrary, these must serve the statement as a whole. But how exactly do we experience this sense of wholeness?
Ocean Park No.29 seems to be full of ambiguities. The yellow on the left is like a shaft, thrown down to earth, reading as positive against the space of the blue, yet when this yellow is viewed as a light filled space, the blue tends towards a wall-like surface. The central grey beam and the light blue vertical below it read as a post and lintel, supported by the complementary pair of red and green horizontals, yet just how solid are they? The greenish-blue and violet-blue above create a near square, suggesting something very stable and frontal, yet the diagonal can read as an axis or fold about which the blues flip. It looks like a piece that is proposing an idea about unity and balance, but do we actually get a sense of final resolution? Standing in front of it, the eye constantly moves from this to that, and the mind flits from one association to another. The effort to take in the whole image at a glance seems almost to force or reduce it. It is as if what he leads us to, is in fact a carefully proposed question about the nature of things. What happens if one looks at the yellow and blue as (curiously), not being separate? Or, put another way, can one entertain the idea of a continuation across this division, because of, rather than in spite of the separation? One thinks here, not only about the relationship between zones in the landscape, but also the division of cells and tissues in the body, and the transference of forces in architecture. As with the nuances, it is less about how these parts appear as things in themselves (forms) and more about what they do or how they function through relationship. Diebenkorn spoke about the difficulty in overcoming inertia and his hope “that [he] can get things into that relationship where some kind of continuity materialises.”(1) This would seem to connect with ancient systems of thought such as Taoism which propose the existence of an ineffable unifying force that passes through and connects all forms. In this light the composition could be seen as a propitious alignment or configuration of forms that facilitates contemplation of the nature of things – a unity through diversity (or multiplicity), not instead of it. Could it also be said that final resolution is not given in an ‘open work’ such as this (in the sense that Umberto Eco used this term) because this can only take place on some other level, through the experience of the viewer? For all mystical traditions and even from the perspective of advanced scientific thought, this unifying force is elusive, although there is an intimation that the clue may be contained in the experience, paradoxically, of a stillness behind the movement.
In Ocean Park No. 27, whose panels of luminous colour are more overtly separated by a strong framework, there is an architectural quality even more apparent than in Ocean Park No.29 [there is a link to No. 27 here]. Particularly intriguing are the inner structure and variegations of the yellow area, which show the searching necessary within a given component to find a sense of rightness. It is as if he is struggling for something that initially is beyond his grasp or even his comprehension. Paintings like this call to mind Euan Uglow’s paintings of the figure, in the use of prismatic colour and mosaic-like construction. Like Diebenkorn, Uglow has been described by some as over geometric or lacking in emotion, but to my mind there is a higher level of discipline and criticality exhibited by both which makes for a more refined emotion – a true feeling, which isn’t so much about personal expression as objective beauty, in the sense that Agnes Martin spoke of it. Perhaps this could be described as a classical sense of order and construction made all the more beguiling for the fact that it has been hard-won, fashioned out of human hands from the stuff of the earth, with its consequent wilfulness, variability, and rough hewn quality, in the same way that a piece of music for solo violin by Bach communicates not only the musical idea but also the materiality and tolerance of the human touch in relation to hair, strings, and wood, or the way a Gothic Cathedral configures light, space and proportion for the glory of God, out of stone, the tools of the mason, and more than a small dose of trial and error.
This trial and error is demonstrated particularly well in Ocean Park No.38, where draft statements of both the V shape and the diagonal levering device (raising up the yellow) can be seen as ghost images, giving a strange suggestion of animated movement. The workings of such a painting are much more complex than most geometric abstraction in which the kind of line, surface or structure used is much more restricted. What paintings such as this helped me to understand is that one can employ the same multitude of techniques as those used by the figure painter or landscape painter, to push and cajole, bodge even, to make something very difficult and unlikely work. It is akin to putting up a make-shift shelter or getting the marooned Apollo 13 back to earth, using whatever is at hand – you test things to the limits and you have to be inventive. So such a painting needs tweaks, wedges, ties and so on, like the small red triangle which perhaps stops the V from slipping off the yellow, while giving a lateral movement to the blue, which might otherwise recede and float off, or the white margin on the lower left edge needing to ‘come in a bit’. Such things are most clearly known through the act of painting itself – physical engagement in partnership with critical observation.
Another aspect of this painting that interests me is that despite its airy expansiveness (akin to an outer landscape), its containment within the limits of the rectangle suggests an enclosed inner world – a place ‘mirroring the self’, where an orientation takes place, predominantly between higher and lower realms. I see this as similar to the way that narratives of a spiritual or alchemical nature are played out in some of the earliest cosmological diagrams from Rajasthan, or in Icon painting, Persian miniatures and early Italian painting, with their representations of the drama between heaven and earth, the divine and the human. It is my feeling that paintings that operate on a purely formal, abstract level, are impoverished where wider connotations pertinent to the whole human being are denied. To draw a vertical line can be to draw attention quite naturally to one’s own verticality in relationship to the ground. Thinned out brushwork may remind one of one’s own breath, and a colour may suggest the nature of spirit or earth. Together, such things can constitute processes of transformation that have extraordinary emotional and spiritual significance for the artist who is sufficiently receptive. In front of this painting it takes time before the power of that V shape, in connection with everything else, is fully assimilated and felt; then things appear that one hadn’t noticed, like the L shaped motif formed by the blue, the pink triangle and the green rhombus which can be read as superimposed over the V and pointing in the opposite direction, upward. This is an example of what Robert Hughes called ‘slow art’, and such work has I think the power to transcend the times in which it is produced and connect with the art of any period that similarly aspires to revelation.
Ocean Park No.54 veers toward something more atmospheric. With its washed out feel, it appeals perhaps to my Northern European sensibility. The more time I spent with this painting the more it appeared to exude the melancholy of things passing, akin to a landscape in which a more worldly drama has taken place – an invasion, one of Turner’s storms at sea, or perhaps simply the passing of another day in the relentless onslaught of time. It calls to mind the elegiac music of Vaughan Williams or Arvo Part. The divisions are much lighter, in total contrast to say No.27, more like the seams of a loose and threadbare fabric. Subtle, neutral tones flood most of the canvas, washing across divisions or submerging them. Towards the top right of the painting there is some suggestion of things withstanding, holding together in a more solid way. Top left, thin bands of yellow and green suggest hope – a return of some kind, of light and life. It is astonishing, the degree to which this piece evokes such associations while operating resolutely within the terms of abstraction. It could be said that there is an unashamed romantic quality to this work, a feeling for the sublime, which is nevertheless grounded by that classical detachment by which things are seen and measured.
Standing in front of these paintings one is reminded of the importance of their specificity, and of their presence, or rather that of the painter, in so far as one can respond to this through one’s own presence. The Corcoran is like a classical basilica, well suited to these paintings. Ocean Park No. 43 appeared looking down from the first room through three doorways, where it was hung dead centre, like an altar piece. The painting seemed itself to suggest, in its tripartite structure, a doorway, or window. It seems to evoke the joy of early morning, a milky light pervading an external view. This suggestion of a distant landscape appears almost dissolved, as in Monet’s paintings of morning on the Seine, or is it the known world that is being parted to reveal a world that is to some degree unknown, transcendent? Such paintings captivate me more even than Rothko’s, perhaps because Diebenkorn opens a door to you as the observer. One is included in the journey, in a deeply human process, which is anchored in this reality, and never lost sight of as another world is hinted at.
Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series is on at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC until 23 September.
1. Tom McGuire, Richard Diebenkorn, Video, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and TVTV, 1997.