Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy, London, 14 March – 7 June, 2015
If I’ve read one 5-star review of the RA’s Diebenkorn show by now, I’ve read at least ten, most of them little more than P.R. exercises repeating the same blandishments to the gallery-going public, to recognise and acknowledge a masterly evocation of the lambent light and open spaces of his native Californian west coast. Spoiler alert: this will not be another piece of positive flannel. OK, Diebenkorn was by all accounts a fine fellow and a much-respected artist, and his reputation has grown considerably over the past two decades as he has entered the collective art-school consciousness of recent generations as the straight-up kind of painter’s painter in an age of conceptual art. More and more young abstract and semi-abstract painters have become familiar with the three phases of his work, and it now chimes in with something that has recently happened in abstract painting, whereby it has become the acceptable, non-scary version of modern art in general; safe to feature in sofa catalogues, a safe occupation for the younger amateur painter, decidedly unthreatening; in fact, not too radically abstract. And Diebenkorn is a kind of flagship painter for the confident employment and enjoyment of these ubiquitous modern aesthetic tropes. He now, reputedly, has clout and charisma, where he once seemed a peripheral and minor contributor. He undoubtedly had a degree of talent, and his paintings have the sniff of sincerity and ‘authenticity’; they look superficially like the ‘real deal’. But, as some clever wag pointed out recently, authenticity is a content-free zone. If you think Diebenkorn’s art has anything to do with, say, a continuation of Matisse’s lifelong core project, you’re wrong; if you think Diebenkorn is anything of a colourist, you’re wrong; and if you think Diebenkorn is exciting, you are living a very sheltered life. He raises the mediocre to fantastic levels of significance. More on all this later.
So how’s the show? It’s OK; decently hung, clearly staked out into the three phases in three rooms, so it’s a shoe-in. And on entry, I thought for a minute the opposite of all the above – I thought he had something exciting going on. This mistaken belief was really down to one painting, Berkeley No.57, 1955, which is in the first room, and is the best painting in the show. It’s a difficult work, complex, demanding, having something of a wrestling-match with itself over exactly what it wants to do, perhaps not entirely resolved; and for those reasons and others, rather engaging. There are coloured forms in movement, rolling, turning against one another, receding and advancing, competing with and contradicting Diebenkorn’s predisposition towards drawing. Here, in this one work, that tendency is temporarily suppressed in favour of a more open, painterly-structured spatiality. Unfortunately, Diebenkorn insists upon drawing controlling the organisation of almost all of the other paintings in the show, the application of paint being relegated often to filling in between the lines.
Berkeley No.57. comes at the end of his first phase of abstract work, and surpasses all previous paintings. So what’s going on here? Why, I wondered, when he had just got to a really challenging place with his work, just got to something with a bit more muscle to it than the frankly rather commonplace works that precede it; why, then, does he stop what he’s doing and start on some out-of-the-way figurative thing? Now, I must admit that the only figurative works I’ve seen by Diebenkorn are the ones at this show (having contrived to miss the Whitechapel exhibition some 25 years ago), and I was genuinely looking forward to the prospect. Some of you will know that I have often expressed doubts about the potential of abstract painting and its ability to ever compete with the very best of figurative painting from the past. You might also know that I see no benefit from any kind of return to figuration in painting at the moment. It is in the light of this contradiction in my own mind that I do actually have some empathy with Diebenkorn’s dilemma and his switch away from abstraction for a decade. But, and this is a big ‘but’, I was thrown off sympathising thus by two things: firstly, that Diebenkorn changed tack just when things were getting interesting/challenging in terms of how three-dimensional space in his abstract painting might be tackled anew; and secondly, that the figurative paintings on show here seem to offer no furtherance to, or deliverance from, those issues. Berkeley No.57. is more spatial than any of the figurative paintings, so why not hang in there? In the light of that question, the reasons for the switch begin to look suspect. The figurative paintings are, like most of the abstract work that preceded Berkeley No.57., relentlessly flat, unspatial. They are also, I think, somewhat anecdotal. They tell a story, and they do it with lots of the sort of stuff painters hanker after nowadays – facture, washy brushmarks, pentimenti, painterly quiddity, etc., all wrapped up in a bold and semi-abstract style. What’s not to like? Well, the story they tell is not spatial, it’s illustrative; it’s pre-occupied by two-dimensional compositional decisions. To say that they are spatially ambiguous would in fact be beside the point. They are, like the Ocean Park series yet to come (and how!), based upon drawn shapes, filled in with colour, borderline ‘graphic’. They would look the part as magazine illustrations to a story (this is close to why I call them ‘anecdotal’), where the clumsiness would be acceptably clever, stylistically.
We know Diebenkorn felt himself influenced by Matisse, and just about every review repeats the truism; but I see no link. I happened to have seen a handful of really great Matisses over the past year or so; one or two have come up in Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London recently. In a good Matisse the space has something of a plastic nature all of its own, a fully-felt three-dimensional reality resolved in two, but heightened by that resolution, not compromised. The space is the thing, newly created; a new veracity – and incidentally, not just by means of great colour, but by the nature of Matisse’s painterly architectures too. Whereas in Diebenkorn, the space, far from evincing some Californian plenitude, is squeezed and crushed by the jostling tightly together of over-engineered shape-upon-shape. It’s not so much that Diebenkorn wants to go down the literal route of making painting a ‘thing’; but he seems to want the painted shapes themselves to be ‘things’, and to stay two-dimensional, and stay nailed upon the flat surface of the painting, interlocked in a tightly controlled design. Some will see this as a good thing, but there is no great truth to painting in this for me. And also for me, that is a false reading of Matisse.
Diebenkorn has stated, perhaps overstated, a desire for ‘just-so’ wholeness and balance. There is more than one way in which you can have too much of that. You can have too much at the outset, if, for example, you think that you have a formula by which you will inevitably end up answering your own question – in the case of the Ocean Park series, answering it 145 times. Or you can have too much at the end, when the work puts itself forward as an exercise in content-free aesthetics. Some will say, and have said, these are works of limpid beauty, whole and self-contained, in need of no crude and rough thing such as ‘content’. Well, maybe; but that way lies a lifeless conventionality, an imposed and academic completeness; a concept, a conceit. In order to maintain his precious balance, Diebenkorn will water down his colour to pastel shades, then pick up hues in smaller, more intense highlights, and then even these get watered down; and all within the bounds of orthogonal divisions, echo upon echo, rectangle echoing rectangle, all repeating the shape of the canvas; all feasible, all do-able, no problem; no content. This is, in fact, just another manifestation of minimalism.
And this shallow aesthetic is currently running through a great deal of contemporary abstract painting, becoming more and more widespread. There are lots of abstract painters around at the moment who love this stuff, and who are milking it, and bit by bit, unambitiously hollowing out abstract painting until it is borderline meaningless. Paint as paint, canvas as canvas; do a little ‘free’ design, suggest a bit of this or that, mute the colours, don’t frighten the neighbours. Hint at a ‘subject’ just a little; paint ‘cages’ of triangles; suggest that it could be a bit ‘landscapey’; show lots of layers, wipe some of them off; change your mind; fiddle about; whatever…
I digress… The best of the Ocean Park series in this show is No.43, because up the right-hand side are strong, active colour-forms that start to make something spatial happen in relation to the modulated off-white open centre of the work… Oh god, something’s happening! Can’t have that, let’s balance it all off with some more uprights up the other side, and let’s make those beige. Well, if Diebenkorn’s your master, it’s the bland leading the bland.