Wednesday, June 24, 2020


I recently completed a second painting of butterflies based on the same childhood memory as the first painting; the visit of a throng of butterflies of all kinds to the backyard of the small rental house on Fondren Street in Dallas around 1962.
This painting is in acrylic, painted on 3 canvas panels, each one 18 inches by 14 inches.  Technically it's a triptych, but I really had Japanese painted screens in mind.
I painted this on my kitchen table.

The rent house on Fondren Street that belonged to Southern Methodist University where I had the butterfly experience about 58 years ago.  The house was demolished sometime in the early 1980s.  The lot remains vacant.  The houses on both sides still stand.

I looked to a number of artists for guidance and inspiration for this painting, but especially to an 18th century Japanese painter Maruyama Okyo.

More Urban Grandeur Around Domino Park

On June 15 I took my trusty digital "Old Schmutzy" down to Domino Park and the Williamsburg Bridge to take some more pictures of the urban grandeur there.

Ms. Liberty in the harbor with the Bayonne docks.  Above is part of the Brooklyn Bridge.  In the foreground is an East River Ferry boat.

The Brooklyn tower of the Williamsburg Bridge.

A beautiful iron work light post on the Brooklyn tower.

Under the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge.

I think this immense stone and concrete structure is part of the cable anchorage of the Bridge. 
It reminds me of something out of Piranesi.

The Williamsburg Bridge from the south

The Bridge from Bedford Avenue and South 6th Street.

I'm starting to see a lot of virus graffiti in the neighborhood.

I think this is a memorial wall on South 6th Street.  The artist is Carl Gabriel.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Richard Diebenkorn

Ocean Park #129, 1984

I post a lot of Richard Diebenkorn's paintings on my Facebook page these days.  I've always loved his work.  But there are some days when things are so awful and terrifying that only the stygian darkness and infernal fires of Rothko's later work will do.  The California sunshine, health, and harmony of Diebenkorn's work seem out of place in a world that is anything but healthy and harmonious now.  But Diebenkorn's work and what it embodies matter even now in the midst of pestilence and upheaval.

The painting above is one of 145 that Diebenkorn made from 1967 to 1988, all with the same title, Ocean Park after a neighborhood in Santa Monica where he kept a studio for many years.  Almost all the Ocean Park paintings begin with the experience of looking out at the sea or a landscape through an open window.  In the end, all the paintings are quite abstract using the structures of a window frame and contrasting colors of indoors and outdoors as a starting point to invent.  A beautiful light filled blue built up in layers of scumbled brushstrokes occupies the bulk of the painting.  That blue began with the blue of sky and ocean and ended up as a luminous blue field.  For most other artists of the day, that would have been enough.  Diebenkorn enhances the blue color and its vast oceanic effect with what began as a window frame.  Instead of brush strokes we have lines drawn with straight edges and drafting triangles.  Red, pink, yellow, tan, warm colors set off the cool blue of the color field.  All of those colors working together puts us in mind of sunshine, sky, and ocean without actually depicting those things.  the geometric structure at the top, and showing just barely on the left edge suggest a frame beyond which the blue could extend infinitely.    The geometric shapes work like a window frame without being such.  While the shapes are carefully drawn out with straight edges, they do not look the least mechanical.  They remain hand work, just as much as the brushstrokes around them.  Diebenkorn leaves his pentimenti, his changes of mind, visible in his paintings.  Two large diagonal lines appear to have been painted out.  Their ghost in the blue field brings that color forward to the surface keeping us from reading any landscape associations too literally.  We participate with Diebenkorn in the process of refining and deciding in order to come to so gratifying a result.  We get a glimpse into the series of decisions and changes of mind that brought forth this painting.  The painting is resolved in the end, but the process of its resolution remains visible and part of the painting's poetry.

Ocean Park #43, 1971

While he lived, most critics saw Richard Diebenkorn as an outsider, as an artist far away from the mainstream of the New York School in its multiple avatars and incarnations, an artist who spent most of his working life in California. If he traveled to New York, it was only to visit and not to settle. What is more, Diebenkorn came out of a figurative background.  He belonged to the Bay Area Figurative movement of artists who once painted abstractly and returned to figurative form.  The movement centered around the San Francisco Bay Area art schools such as the San Francisco Art Institute (formerly the California School of Fine Arts) and the California College of the Arts (then known as the California College of Arts and Crafts)  included artists such as David Park, Wayne Thiebaud, and Elmer Bischoff.  Many of them were former students of Clyfford Still, the great Abstract Expressionist based at the San Francisco Art Institute.  Most critics in that day regarded the Bay Area Figurative Movement artists as apostates, artists who abandoned abstract painting for what was then considered discredited representationalism.  Until about 1967, Diebenkorn would go back and forth between figurative and abstract painting, something that critics counted against him (never mind that DeKooning did the same back and forth through much of his life). After 1967, Diebenkorn worked exclusively in abstract form until his death in 1993. Diebenkorn appeared to ignore the various movements and controversies that prevailed in abstract painting into the 1970s. He stuck with a very individual format that while fully abstract, remained rooted in visual experience and memory.

At a time when many believed that History demanded purity and purification in painting (from the late 1950s to the early 1970s), and that purification demanded reductivism, Diebenkorn painted fullness.  Instead of the purgation of any reference to imagery, association, and craft into smooth impersonal stripes of acrylic paint on unprimed canvas, Diebenkorn brought the whole trainload of memory, association, visual experience, and hand work into his paintings.  As in DeKooning's work, abstraction and figurative form were never far from each other.

And now, almost thirty years after his death, both Diebenkorn and his work look a lot less ‘outside’ than they did to audiences and critics in his lifetime. The story of Diebenkorn’s life is that of a fully establishment artist of the day, moving from one academic appointment to the next, an artist extensively published with sterling credentials, and firmly rooted in the historic mainstream of modern art history. He was about as far removed in experience and context from that of later rebel outsiders like David Wojnarowicz, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Martin Wong, or Banksy as you could imagine. Unlike them, Diebenkorn was a happy creature of the establishment circuit of academia, museums, publications, and respectable galleries. Almost thirty years after his death, he now appears to be one of that establishment's very best creations. This once provincial-seeming Californian’s work looks better and better over time while so much other abstract work from the last half of the 20th century takes on the vaguely dusty and yellowed patina of textbook classics. Diebenkorn’s work continues to have the freshness of new discovery both for a still expanding audience and for longtime admirers.  No longer do we expect artists to fit into larger historical narratives.  Diebenkorn whose work never quite fit into the historical narratives of his day produced work that survived the test of time on its own merits.

Palo Alto Circle, 1943

One of Diebenkorn's earliest surviving paintings from when he studied at Stanford University under Daniel Mendelowitz who introduced the young Diebenkorn to Edward Hopper's paintings.  We can see the influence in this striking early work. From the beginning, Diebenkorn was an accomplished representational painter.  What I find remarkable about this painting is not only how it looks back at Hopper's work, but how much it anticipates so much California Photorealism in the 1970s and 80s.  This could almost be a painting by Robert Bechtle.  Diebenkorn combined the lonely compositions of Hopper with the brilliant and sometimes bleak sunlight of California, just as California Photorealists would do again around 30 years later.

Berkeley, #44,  1954

Beginning in 1953 and ending in 1955, Diebenkorn painted his first series of paintings named after a place, Berkeley, California where he returned after completing graduate work in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a teaching stint at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champagne, and after a brief sojourn in New York.
These paintings show the influence of the New York School on Diebenkorn.  He didn't share the interest in Surrealism or Jungian ideas of the collective unconscious that drove many of the Abstract Expressionists in New York.  There is none of that "automatic" symbolism that fills the earlier work of Pollock or Rothko in his work.  Instead, DeKooning remains the dominant influence on these paintings, especially the play between brushed in fields of color and calligraphic strokes made with a sign painter's fitch.

Berkeley #46, 1955

Diebenkorn's Berkeley paintings have none of the aggression of DeKooning's work.  The tone of these paintings is much more subdued.  Diebenkorn's colors and forms begin with the landscape of the Berkeley hills; green trees, tawny areas of grass, the broad blue sky, etc.  These paintings remain firmly rooted in the experience of a particular landscape.  In contrast, the sharp colors in DeKooning's work come from the world of advertising and mass reproduction.

Berkeley #15, 1954

Woman on a Porch, 1958

Around 1956, Diebenkorn began to paint figuratively again, joining the ranks of the Bay Area Figurative Painters.  Almost all of them like Diebenkorn came to figurative painting after painting abstractly.
The experience of the Berkeley series never really left him even though Diebenkorn once again feels the powerful influence of Edward Hopper.

Interior with a Book, 1959

This painting was my introduction to Diebenkorn's work back when I was an art student.  The painting belongs to the Nelson/Atkins Museum in Kansas City, MO across the street from my old alma mater, the Kansas City Art Institute.
I learned some of my first lessons in luminosity from this work.  That stretch of brilliant sunlight on bright green grass intrigued me no end.  The lessons didn't really take because I failed to realize at the time that the stretch of sunlit green grass gets its glow from being embedded in a canvas dominated by dark blues and grays.

View of the Ocean with a Palm Tree, 1958

While these paintings have the very spare no-nonsense discipline of Hopper's work, they are much more lushly colored and painted.  Through Hopper's monumental alienation comes the rich bravura of Matisse's work, especially how color and brushwork shape the over-all form of the painting.

Horizon, 1959

The view out a window, a subject that appears in a lot of Matisse's paintings, began to preoccupy Diebenkorn.  Not only the contrast between interior and exterior lighting, but how the window frame shapes our view of the open distance beyond, how that point of transition between inside and outside affects our experience of both.  In Diebenkorn's paintings from this period, we always experience the outside from a comfortable vantage point inside.  He uses a device found in a lot of Matisse's work to make us feel comfortable and at home; a cup of coffee or an open book left close at hand for us.

Cityscape I, 1963

A famous masterpiece from this period where Diebenkorn beautifully integrates an abstract sense of form with what is in many respects a very straightforward and even literal rendering of a street somewhere in the east Bay Area.  Especially notable are the large sharp shapes of the shadows cast by the brilliant sunlight.

California Golden Poppies, 1963

Large Still Life, 1966

A still life of the studio table with books, papers, a paper cup, and a small ink bottle in the foreground; the casual disarray we would find in most artist's studios.  Diebenkorn gives this random corner of his studio the concentration, order, and grandeur of a painting by Matisse at his most classical.  What appears to be a wallpaper pattern in the background of bright red, yellows\, and orange embedded in a matrix of gray-blue is very much a salute to Matisse.

Elmer Bischoff, The Orange Sweater, 1955

This painting by Bischoff reminds us how very much Diebenkorn belonged with the Bay Area Figurative Painters.

In 1967, he left the Bay Area and the Figurative Painters and moved south to Santa Monica, to the Ocean Park neighborhood to begin a whole new chapter in his life and work.

Ocean Park, Santa Monica

In 1967, Diebenkorn began the long series of paintings he called "Ocean Park."  Today, the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica is a mid-level affluent neighborhood of expensive ocean front homes and not-quite-so-expensive homes and businesses inland.  It was a very different neighborhood in 1967 when Diebenkorn moved there.  It was the "edge of the edge" of Los Angeles County, a remote down and out place with cheap rents that attracted a lot of artists and free spirits.
Diebenkorn's first studio there was on Ashland Avenue.  In 1975 he built his own studio at 2448 Main Street where he worked until 1988.  He painted all 145 paintings from the Ocean Park series in Ocean Park.

Richard Diebenkorn in his Ocean Park studio on Ashland Avenue, 1970

Diebenkorn's 2448 Main Street studio today in a photo from Google Maps.  The studio building is gray two story structure behind the laurel tree  on the left.  Supposedly there is a very small bronze plaque on the building identifying it as his studio from 1975 to 1988.

The Ocean Park paintings come not only out of a change of location, but from encounters with two paintings of open windows.

Henri Matisse, Window at Collioure, 1914

Matisse came as close as he ever did to reductive abstraction in this painting of an open window.  That Matisse completely painted out the view through the window with black paint particularly struct Diebenkorn.  A view of the Mediterranean lies concealed beneath black paint forcing our attention to the very edges of the canvas.

Pierre Bonnard, The Open Window, 1921

Diebenkorn saw this painting by Bonnard in the Phillips Collection during a visit to Washington DC.   Instead of reductive abstraction, Bonnard fills his painting with incidental details.  However, Bonnard is always careful to control what we see in his paintings and in what order.  The first thing we see is the view out the window in the bright sunlight with high contrasts of light and dark in the trees.  Only later do we see in the lower right corner the cat trying to get the attention of a woman napping in a chair.  Bonnard never painted anything quite as abstract as Matisse's window.  His paintings remain firmly rooted in visual experience.  However, the window frame, the glass panes, the raised shade, the angled sunlight, all form a kind of structure upon which the real drama of the painting plays out, the encounter between the warm colors of the indoors with the cool bright colors of the outdoors.  The image becomes an organizing structure upon which colors and light and dark play out.
These are all lessons that inform the Ocean Park paintings.

The Ocean Park paintings are entirely abstract, but he would sometimes return to the original experience that inspired these paintings; looking out a window.

Window, 1967

One of his last and finest representational works before embarking on the Ocean Park paintings. The very abstracted way that he paints the buildings, the room, and the furniture as part of a larger structure of the painting belongs already to the Ocean Park paintings.

Ocean Park #1, 1967

Here is the very first painting in the series.  From here would commence a remarkable sequence of 145 paintings ending in 1988 when he left Ocean Park.  Almost all of these paintings are on similar size and format canvases.  He mostly sticks to a very basic composition of a broad field of color with smaller geometric structures on the edges.  Within that basic formula, Diebenkorn creates an amazing range of variations.  I look at these and my first thoughts are back to the basic formula of stacked rectangles of color in Rothko's mature work.  But Diebenkorn invents and varies within and upon his chosen format more than Rothko did his.  DeKooning also comes to mind, riffing continuously in all of his mature paintings like a great jazz musician with a tune.  I think of Diebenkorn's Ocean Park paintings less as jazz riffs and more as variations on a theme along the lines of something like Bach's Goldberg Variations.  Each painting is fully realized, something much more final than a riff.

Ocean Park #17, 1968

Ocean Park 24, 1968

The Studio Window, drawing, 1969

A small drawing that returns to the original source, a view out the Ashland Avenue studio window.

Ocean Park #32, 1970

Studio Window, Ocean Park, 1970

Another painting out the studio window to return to the source.

Ocean Park #38, 1971

Ocean Park #40, 1971

Ocean Park #79, 1975

Ocean Park #65, 1973

Ocean Park #70, 1974

Ocean Park #78, 1975

Ocean Park #83, 1975

Ocean Park #90, 1976

Ocean Park #27, 1979

Ocean Park #116, 1979

Ocean Park #105, 1979

The range of variety within a determined format remains amazing and inexhaustible in the Ocean Park paintings.  Each painting represents so many careful decisions to find just the right set of colors -- that perfect spot of red and where to put it -- to set off a field of green or blue color and cause it to spin off a host of associations in the mind from vegetation to the sea.

Tragedy remains absent from these paintings.  These paintings are not Rothko's very romantic struggle between life and death played out in light and color.  Diebenkorn's paintings are about paradise -- an earthly paradise, not a heavenly one.  These paintings are about a hard won fulfillment, where everything works together, every part -- even the smallest -- playing its necessary role.  Nothing is extraneous or superficial.  Everything belongs together.  
The ancient Classical aesthetic located this sense of completeness in the human body.  The painting, the statue, the temple felt whole and complete in the same way we feel our bodies to be whole and complete.  Every part plays its necessary role whether it is a torso or a toe.  The loss of an arm or a finger would amount to the same thing, mutilation.  The Classical aesthetic's focus upon the human figure appeals to our sense of feeling well and healthy.  
Diebenkorn takes this same sense of wholeness and health and locates it in the experience of landscape, and in painting itself.  Matisse's later work would be unthinkable without the Mediterranean; its blue expanse and the brilliant sunlight of its shores.  So too Diebenkorn's Ocean Park paintings belong to the light filled experience of a California suburban neighborhood by the Pacific.  They are the experience of bright blue skies, brilliant sunshine, the expanse of the ocean, lush greenery, flowers, sand, rocks, pavement, glass, and concrete.  The tempered climate of California re-imagined in colors and shapes as a paradise on canvas.  California imagined as the paradise of health and fulfillment if not in fact, then in art.

In 1988, Diebenkorn left Santa Monica and settled in the wine country of Sonoma County in Healdsburg.  His health began to suffer from heart disease and emphysema.  He was no longer able to make large paintings.  He began making small paintings and collages such as these below.  Despite his poor health, that sense of the harmony of color and form never left him.  The small scale allowed him to improvise and even be humorous in ways that the size and ambition of larger paintings made difficult.

Green, 1986

Soda Rock I, 1987

Diebenkorn was one of those artists who painted not the world that we have, but the world that we want.  He did so without falsifying or resorting to any anodyne aesthetic sedative.  His paintings remind us that the question of what kind of world we want to live in is just as important as understanding the world we live in now.  Morality and law are very much about the world we want, as well as the world we find.  Diebenkorn's paintings suggest to us a way of imagining a world of harmony and fulfillment that we all want.

Richard Diebenkorn in his studio in Berkeley, 1963