Richard Diebenkorn, From the Model, 117 pages, edited by Chester Arnold and Bart Schneider, and Abstractions on Paper, 123 pages, edited by Schneider. Kelly’s Cove Press, $20.
Reviewed by Jonah Raskin
Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) achieved success as an artist in his own lifetime, but 20 years after his death, a big Diebenkorn moment has finally arrived with two major exhibits of his work and two new, lavishly produced books published by Kelly’s Cove Press that highlight his diverse styles and showcase his irreverent philosophy of art. Novelist, poet and publisher Bart Schneider edited both books with help from the acclaimed painter Chester Arnold, who’s known for his wry sense of humor and grim landscapes of environmental disaster. The quality of the color reproductions is excellent, though the size of the books — 6 inches by 8 inches —don’t do justice to the size of Diebenkorn’s canvases, some as large as 121 inches by 93 inches. Still, there are pleasures in holding these two small, elegant books in the palms of one’s hands and viewing work that has never been previously published or exhibited.
Abstractions on Paper includes two-dozen works that Diebenkorn did in Ocean Park, California, from 1967 to 1988, when he taught much of that time at UCLA. The lavish colors and the sharp lines are spectacular. Abstractions on Paper also offers work that Diebenkorn created in Albuquerque, Urbana, Berkeley and Alexander Valley, California, where he died in 1993. Like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, his literary contemporaries, Diebenkorn made art almost any place and at almost any time, albeit with less bravado than the self-dramatizing Beats.
“Diebenkorn was an artist of quiet generosity and enormous creative energy, both visible at every level of his work,” Chester Arnold writes in an inviting introduction to From the Model that is both personal and historical. Arnold adds, “The charged artistic environment of the Bay Area in the 1940s and 1950s, combined in a creative nexus that stood in opposition to the prevailing Abstract Expressionist winds from the East.” A cultural throwback and a pioneer as well, Diebenkorn looked anew at familiar California landscapes. The most abstract of his paintings often suggest colorful cityscapes and urban forms. The human touch isn’t ever far removed, even when it’s only hinted; his canvases feel more peaceful and less frenetic than Jackson Pollack’s.
The front cover of From the Model offers an ink and gouache sketch of a seated woman, arms folded, eyes looking straight ahead. Inside there are three stark portraits of women, followed by two-dozen intriguing nudes most of them either ink or charcoal on paper, many of them strikingly original — not an easy feat. Erotic, sensual, and perhaps pornographic by the standards of 1955 and 1956, when many of them were completed, they seem now like tributes to the grace of the female form, though they might be deemed obscene today in communities that still outlaw nudes and nudity.
In the color portraits of women fully dressed, which follow the nudes, Diebenkorn pays homage to Henri Matisse, the modern French painter, friend and rival of Picasso who covered his canvases with the brightest of Mediterranean colors. In the 1960s, Diebenkorn studied Matisse’s work, first in Moscow and later in Los Angeles. The influence of Matisse shows up in the “Ocean Park” series that helped to revolutionize American landscape painting and that still captivate the eye.
Publication of Abstractions on Paper and From the Model coincides with “Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966,” an exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco from June 22 through September 29, 2013, which has its own sumptuous catalog. Another exhibition, “The Intimate Diebenkorn: Works on Paper, 1949-1992,” opens at the College of Marin on September 28 and runs through November 14, 2013. And Bart Schneider will be in conversation with Chester Arnold and Peter Selz on July 10 at University Press Books in Berkeley.
The books and the exhibits offer a rare opportunity to reexamine the creative life and the experimental work of a California artist who showed that there were many ways to be an innovative abstract expressionist, and that one could live and work far from New York and still make breathtakingly beautiful paintings that invigorate forms and feelings.
Jonah Raskin’s “Homage to Raymond Chandler” was published in the Winter 2013 issue of Boom.
Photographs courtesy of the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. “Untitled,” 1978, Cut-and-pasted paper, manufactured colored paper, printed paper, gouache, and graphite on paper, 13 1/4 x 9 1/4 in. (33.7 x 23.5 cm), Estate no. 1604.