A few weekends ago we went to see the Richard Diebenkorn (1922 - 1993) exhibition at the Royal Academy. Now, one of the things that immediately struck me about his work was how he began his career as an abstract artist and then went on to explore figuration. This is quite unusual as most painters start with figuration and representational work and then go on to become more abstract, if they do at all. Not only that but his early abstract work is particularly accomplished, which again is not quite what I would have expected.
Overall I thought his best work was done in the early to mid-fifties. Groups of paintings given collective titles such as Albuquerque and Urbana show a deep understanding of his surrounding environmental landscape and a great sensitivity to light and space through colour. He is exceptional with colour, often using a complex palette but always keeping a level of harmony between colour relationships. Where he is more typical is in the size of the pieces. Earlier drawings and paintings are of a size that relates to our human proportions. Later works are much larger and seemed less personal to me. They may have been intended for civic or public spaces. I've noted this similar development with other painters working around this time; their work becoming larger as they move through the decades into the 60s and 70s. Obviously, viewers have to stand away from large work to appreciate the whole thing, whereas in the earlier work there was more intimacy going on. Some works were very small though; these being executed on cigar box lids. People seemed to enjoy getting close to these small paintings, even though they were still very abstract and there was not much detail in them apart from the original design showing through.
Albuquerque No. 4 (1951)
Between the mid 50s and 60s he introduced figuration into his work. I was less impressed with these pieces but admired the way he treated the human form in the same way as any other objects in the overall landscape. In a way I think these pieces are still mainly abstract works.
The larger works I referred to earlier were part of his Ocean Park Series (1967-88). These are more geometric, harder edged and often show linear under painting which often does not correspond to the finished patterns. They seem to reveal the thought processes he was going through rather than over painting and correcting.
I really enjoyed this show. I particularly enjoyed his use of colour and the open air quality of the abstract works. His paintings have a light, warm and summery atmosphere to them, the colours often suggesting temperate environments. In that sense it was a bit like going on holiday.
Still on so check it out.
Richard Diebenkorn in his studio at Main Street and Ashland Avenue in Santa Monica, ca. 1970–71. Photo by Richard Grant.