“Some Thoughts on Loving Diebenkorn’s Work” by Matthew Ballou


One of the first artists whose work I fell in love with was Richard Diebenkorn, a master of methodology as artistic project. His art, encapsulated in three distinct multi-year missions, has been a consistent source of inspiration and visual joy for me. I am especially fond of the late works on paper that were experiments adjacent to (and often studies for) his monumental Ocean Park series.

diebenkorn1.jpgTwo that stand out to me in particular are Untitled (Ocean Park), from 1986 (Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, 246), and Untitled (Ocean Park) from 1983). In these works I find evidence of the greatest and most subtle expressions of his apparent overarching mission: that of presenting “tension beneath calm” (Livingston, 46); the notational exploration of spatial and planar devices as embodied in shimmering chromatic fields and a multivalence of linear structures. Often these smaller works take on much different configurations than their larger counterparts, sliding into languid horizontals and somehow more insistent, immediate colors. Extended trapezoidal forms in pale blue and alizarin force themselves out of the picture plane with their sharp linearity, even as they suggest the distilled landscape so well. Here and there on the shifting glades, Diebenkorn’s trademark pentimente asserts itself, his sometimes-clumsy lines rising and falling from the varied surface of the painting.

diebenkorn2.jpgDiebenkorn had an insight into something about the experience of seeing that Mondrian and Matisse also knew; that our perception of space is informed by some sort of precognitive two-dimensional formatting. That is, we have the same basic conception of space as adults that we have as children, in spite of our learned grasp of perspective. Diebenkorn’s work is almost a synthesis of these two disparate viewpoints, cajoled and congealed onto the painted surface, leaving us moving forward and backward, up and down, in and out of the picture plane/space. This reflexive figure/ground relationship is a fundamental aspect of Diebenkorn’s work. To me these works read as many late Monet paintings do: as a bounce between an idea of surface artifice and illusory space. In Monet’s water lilies, the fore of the work (and its lilies) seem to be frontal, lying on the surface, while the background (and its lilies) peels away into a traditional perspectival issuance of space (see Leo Steinberg’s treatment of Monet in Other Criteria, 235-239).

With Diebenkorn, the procedure is not so linear. The fact is that basically any surface location may read in either manner – and that is the joy of his abstraction. This abstraction is more tactile and varied than Mondrian, more deftly realized than Matisse and more surprising than Monet… it is easy to see why Diebenkorn was such a remarkable artist.

His singularity of achievement and personal style remain distinct many years after his death. His work cannot be as easily pigeonholed – nor as easily psychoanalyzed – as that of many of his contemporaries, partly because the derivation of his ideas is marked with a clarity and matter-of-factness. He looked, saw, and reacted. The artist’s painterly reactivity to visual schematics continues to serve as an example of a most proper ratio between intuition and studied action. His tireless activity and singleness of mind is an example to all artists who would tread a path toward true discovery. He is the patron saint of infinite variety within a system, and his dedication was rewarded with a body of work that displays it to the nth degree. If only we all could be so fortunate.