At Large  September 30, 2021  Barbara A. MacAdam

Diebenkorn Shone in the Phillips Collection’s "Seeing Differently”

© Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

Richard Diebenkorn, Studio Floor – Camelia, 1962. Oil on canvas. 26 3/8 x 21 3/4 in. (67 x 55.2 cm).

A wonderfully anachronistic image, the stunning gem Studio Floor—Camelia is an embodiment of what is and isn’t Richard Diebenkorn.

Painted in 1962 when Diebenkorn and his San Francisco cohort were actively taking a stand against East Coast Abstract Expressionism, this exceptional, slightly out of character, still-life painting was tucked away downstairs at the pop-up Berggruen Gallery in East Hampton. (The pop-up gallery runs through September.) Curiously unclassifiable within the Diebenkorn repertoire, the image in the painting is an enticing oblique window into the artist’s work because it gently mocks our expectations and makes us see him differently.

© Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #23, 1969, oil and charcoal on canvas.

While Diebenkorn is best known for his signature Ocean Park paintings—watery pale blue skies at play with horizontal geometric patterning that suggest landscapes in the sky—he is also noted for his more conventional figures and work that lives in the mode of the Bay Area Figurative painters, including David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Wayne Thiebaud.

But this particular still life is a declarative work, unlike most of Diebenkorn’s other figurative pictures. In its flatness, Studio Floor—Camelia is reminiscent of Japanese prints and drawings—and of mapping. Diebenkorn, who worked as a cartographer in 1945 alongside Walt Disney animators, would fly over miles of flattened landscapes.

“One thing [that] I know has influenced me a lot,” Diebenkorn was often quoted as saying, "is looking at [the] landscape from the air. ... Of course, the earth's skin itself had 'presence'—I mean it was all like a flat design—and everything was usually in the form of an irregular grid."

© Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1981, gouache and crayon on joined paper.

In his works, he shaped the atmosphere. And in most of his works, shaded undertones and variants are always in play, revealing themselves gradually so as to suggest a kind of concealment. In this painting, the focus is on the specific object, a red camellia, set upon a checkered floor. A composition that holds our attention even as it befuddles. The use of color in this image is more straightforward and densely applied than is usually seen in his paintings. The sexy defiant flower in the image is more suggestive, not least as the subject of Alexandre Dumas’ novel Camille, which was named after the bloom that proclaims a courtesan’s unavailability when she is menstruating. Through Diebenkorn’s painting, we are, in one way or another, drawn into a seductive, mysterious situation and a compelling moodiness.

As in a Chardin image, the camellia painting has a concentrated visceral quality—a seemingly simple picture, but ultimately a very enigmatic one that leads us to question where to begin to assess it.

© Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1965, watercolor, ink, and graphite on paper.

We might start by perceiving this painting as an aerial view of still life: Homing in on the checkered floor from above, while perpendicular to it is a strict horizontal pattern that could be read as wainscotting—or as a touch of landscape or horizon. Diebenkorn takes the outside inside and renders it strange and intimate, showing a sense of geometry inherent in all. The grid of the floor tiles lends a hint of perspective, although not a sense of place, and the pale stain at the lower right provides a distracting amorphous configuration, like a Gorelesque spill from an Abstract Expressionist composition.

Discoveries like this open the mind to viewing an artist’s output from an unpredictable vantage point, revealing new paths to understanding the works, initiating a recontextualization, and allowing us to reappraise an artist’s entire oeuvre as well as our changing responses to it.

© Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

Richard Diebenkorn, Beach, 1957, oil on canvas.

The overarching link throughout Diebenkorn’s expansive output is landscape. It is also striking in his figure studies and in these, as in the landscapes, a triangular shape emerging from the bottom provocatively penetrates the picture plane.

Clearly, it is difficult to stop free-associating, as an exploration of Diebenkorn’s still life inevitably conjures the realms of Cézanne’s shifting perspectives, of Hans Hofmann’s push-pull color patches, and even Philip Guston’s abstracted landscapes as interiors. We are left with our own richly evocative landscapes of the mind.

The Centennial Exhibition at The Phillips Collection, which began in March and continued through September 12, had curated works for Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century. Diebenkorn was represented in this exhibition with his painting Interior with View of the Ocean (1957), oil on canvas, 49 1/2 x 57 7/8 in. (125.7 x 147 cm), The Phillips Collection, © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

About the Author

Barbara A. MacAdam

Barbara A. MacAdam is a New York-based freelance editor and writer, who worked at ARTnews for many years as well as for Art and Auction, New York Magazine, Review Magazine, and Latin American Literature and Arts. She currently reviews regularly for The Brooklyn Rail.

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