MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Diebenkorn in Berkeley

(Richard Diebenkorn, “Seawall,” 1957. Oil on canvas. 20 x 26 inches. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Phyllis G. Diebenkorn, 1995.96. © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.)

Currently on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco is a must-see retrospective: Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years (1953-1966) (through September 29). This exhibit of more than 130 paintings and drawings curated by Timothy Burgard is a revelation on many levels.

There are insights to be gained here not just into the narrative of this major artist’s evolution but about the seductions of abstract and figurative painting relative to each other, about the influence of a particular landscape, its aura and light, on those aesthetic choices, and — most intriguingly for me — about an artist’s capacity for self-critique and unexpected leaps.

As you work your way through the context of Diebenkorn’s experiments with light and texture, the sudden reemergence of the human form is haunting, even astounding, upending comfortable notions of the historically inevitable “progress” of 20th-century painting in a way that has relevance for the similar tug-of-war between serialism and tonality among composers of this period.

Diebenkorn-figure on porch

(Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), Figure on a Porch, 1959 Oil on canvas 57 x 62 in. (144.8 x 157.5 cm) Oakland Museum of California, gift of the Anonymous Donor Program of the American Federation of the Arts, A60.35.5 © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.)

Even the abstract paintings from the early years in Berkeley reveal an ambiguous attitude toward the “real world.” They are, as the excellent catalogue by Timothy Anglin Burgard, Steven A. Nash, and Emma Acker aptly describes it, “not completely nonobjective, or lacking in references to imagery, real or imagined.”

In Richard Diebenkorn’s own words:

All paintings start out of a mood, out of a relationship with things or people, out of a complete visual impression. To call this expression abstract seems to me often to confuse the issue. Abstract means literally to draw from or separate. In this sense, every artist is abstract … a realistic or nonobjective approach makes no difference. The result is what counts.”

Filed under: art exhibition, art history, visual art

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