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May 01, 2008

Diebenkorn, Dubrow

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A couple of art shows I visited recently were rewarding not just because of the excellent art but because of some unexpected connections.

The first was "Diebenkorn in New Mexico." Are you familiar with Richard Diebenkorn? His reputation goes in and out of fashion, at least here in New York, and I've lost track of what kind of esteem he's currently held in. He was born in 1922 and died in 1993, and spent most of his life in California. He was known for his figurative painting and for his abstracts, and also for the unself-conscious way he moved back and forth between representationalism and abstraction. His figurative pix are easy to read in abstract terms; his abstract pictures seem far more grounded in real-life perception (of landscape especially) than most abstracts are. His "Ocean Park" series, which he began painting in the late '60s, is probably has best-known work.

As far as this show went: Using G.I. Bill money -- the history of the impact of the G.I. Bill on American art really needs to be written -- Diebenkorn studied at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque from 1950 to 1952. He was then in his late 20s. This was a show of drawings and paintings he did during those couple of years. These are images made, in other words, before he became a known quantity.


I loved the show, which I found it refreshing, and pleasingly visual. No conceptual hijinks here, thank god. Thank god too that this wasn't high-period, magesterial, masterly art, purified by vision and tempered by experience -- I wasn't in the mood for any of that. No, in these drawings and paintings there were lots of stray ends, and even bits of undigested corniness. But that was perfectly fine with me: This was a show of the work of a talented young man, and much of the fun of it was enjoying Diebenkorn's youth, his energy, his adventurousness, and his sometimes goofy experiments.

He was having fun himself, blundering eagerly from one idea to the next. Diebenkorn apparently loved the desert -- the Indian glyphs, the dazzling light, the muddy / tawny colors. He also, at this time, loved George Herriman's comic strip "Krazy Kat," and he'd recently studied with another fave of mine, the Bay Area Figurative painter David Park. The images Diebenkorn made in New Mexico are a jumble of all this and more. They aren't theoretical, they aren't just about "the paint." They're doodly, blotchy, sometimes rhapsodic / sometimes silly catch-alls, made from lived experience and visual awareness. This is what's on my mind; this is what's in my eyes.

Personally speaking, what I tend to enjoy most about Diebenkorn is his lightness, his perceptiveness, and his quickness. He often used oil paint (generally a time-and-effort-intensive medium), he sometimes painted on a large scale, and he was certainly influenced by such backache-inducing modernists as Clyfford Still and Willem De Kooning. But Diebenkorn's paintings have a much different feeling than all that might suggest. Even at their biggest, his paintings usually have the kind of fleetness and quickness that we generally associate with ink sketches, or with watercolor, or with Japanese art. They're anything but over-pondered.


Another way of describing the feeling: They're like jottings, notebooks, and sketches. They cross drawing and painting, for one thing. They catch his mind and his eye in motion, moving from one idea and / or association to the next. He found a way of making American images, often on a large scale, that isn't ponderous, that doesn't make statements, that's bombast-free -- that instead catches things on the wing, considers them for a brief bit, then lets them fly off. It's like noodley, informal jazz -- loopy, "free," but always returning to structure and melody.

Strange, then, that Diebenkorn is often dissed by the art-world hardcore as being reserved and gentlemanly -- as too tasteful. The NYTimes' Roberta Smith, for instance, says of the paintings that he's best-known for: "Too many of these later works are tamped down by his studious reserve and exquisite touch; they balance on the cusp of vitality without really getting their feet wet." I can semi-see her point. Anyone who is into heavily-intellectualized art, or who takes art to be a branch of criticism or philosophy, or who values the agonies of creation over the delivery of pleasure, will probably find Diebenkorn a lightweight. Luckily, the rest of us have his art there to enjoy.

As for me: I find much of his work a huge pleasure to be around. A visit to a Diebenkorn show is for me like a walk outside on an early spring day: Robert Altman at his breeziest-yet-bitingness, Chris Marker at his sweetest.

In fact, although the Diebenkorn show I saw has now closed, I urge those who have an aversion to abstract art to try typing "Richard Diebenkorn" into Google Images. See how you respond. He's sophisticated, yet easy and accessible too: both atmospheric and sensual. (Diebenkorn adored Matisse, Bonnard, and Vuillard.) If anyone should say that much of his art is like a nice New Yorker cover -- well, I wouldn't disagree. I also wouldn't take that as a putdown. Some New Yorker covers are real beauties, after all. And Diebenkorn's paintings and drawings when seen live have additional dimensions. They aren't just big versions of onscreen reproductions.

If you do find his abstracts agreeable ... Well, it might be that you don't really dislike abstraction per se. (If you think that you do dislike abstraction per se, then what do you make of Islamic art, or of Persian carpets, certainly two of the world's richer art traditions?) It may be instead that what you dislike is officially-sanctioned modernist abstract art. Diebenkorn's a very pleasing alternative to the official thing. As Diebenkorn once said, ā€œIā€™m really a traditional painter, not avant-garde at all. I wanted to follow a tradition and extend it.ā€

The other art show I enjoyed was a small group of paintings by John Dubrow. Although he's certainly his own man, Dubrow works in a semi-similar way: cool, walking-the-edges- of-representation-and-abstraction, pleasure-oriented.

Though Dubrow's work is always representational, it's also very simplified -- but not in any programmatic or geometry-obsessed way. He isn't trying to get at essences. Instead, he works intuitively. He's trying to deal with how light and form strike his optic nerves.

Dubrow seems to like seeing how much he can do with patches of color. Notice the total absence of outlines, and the near-total absence of modeling. Notice also how nearly everything in the image is a color and a shape in its own right.


The picture is a bunch of interlocking color patches, basically. You could think of it as a mosaic, or a stained-glass window. The areas of shadow aren't just dimmed-down empty bits. They're presences in their own right; the dimmer colors are as strong as the brighter colors; and the shapes of the negative spaces are as interesting as the hands, the head, the books. (This doesn't come across very well in this reproduction, darn it.)

Hey, one trick artists who like this kind of thing use is to reverse the usual way of indicating "background" and "foreground." The usual thing is to put the paint representing "what's in back" down first, and the paint representing "what's in front" on top of that. Dubrow, like some other painters I enjoy (including Diebenkorn), often reverses that procedure, putting the paint representing what's behind on top of the paint representing what's in front. Take a look at this picture, for instance:


Look at the green lawn above the figure in the foreground. The green has been put down on top of the paint indicating the figure. The result is an interesting perceptual switcheroo. What's pushing and what's pulling? What's in front, and what's in back? It's a trick that's fun in itself, but that also helps you register the painting both both as a picture-of-something and as an arrangement-of-colored-pigments-on-a-canvas. It's a trick that can seem to bring completeness to the visual field.

There was a time in early-modernist art history when a preference for thinking of a painting as an arrangement of colors was considered a radical, progressive, and exciting thing. The Bloomsbury art critic Roger Fry is famous for his discussions of painting in these terms.

So it's fun to take note of the fact that, these days, making paintings in this way is considered not just conservative but reactionary. Take a fast look at Mario Naves' review of a recent Dubrow show, for example. Naves spends the first half of his review trying to excuse the fact that he has enjoyed a show of "conservative" art. Do Dubrow's paintings strike you as "conservative art"? They strike me mainly as very pleasing art.

Dubrow is more of a builder of images than Diebenkorn was. Though Diebenkorn adored Edward Hopper, it's maybe easier to see a connection between Hopper and Dubrow. And Dubrow's paintings stay still, like structures, where Diebenkorn's invite movement and take flight.

Yet there are some obvious connections between them too. It ain't New York art in the usual sense, for one thing. Many New York artists are (rather bizarrely, to my mind) obsessed with making "tough" art; the result is often art that's ready for intellectual battle but that doesn't deliver much else. It also ain't academic, it ain't pretentious, and it ain't monumental.

What it is, is approachable, atmospheric, and informal. Diebenkorn and Dubrow share an aversion to grand gestures, big ideas, and chic themes. In fact, Dubrow's paintings might just as easily as Diebenkorn's be dismissed by the unappreciative as mere New Yorker covers. (Once again, I'd say, "Sure! And that's a problem?") Both painters make work that's rewarding for those who like perception, observation, and playing with the edges of abstraction, impressionism, and representation.

In the most literal sense, what the art of Diebenkorn and Dubrow share is San Francisco. Diebenkorn grew up in San Francisco, attended Stanford, Berkeley, and the California School of Fine Arts. Dubrow got both his BFA and MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute.

What is it about San Francisco, eh? Forget all the annoyingnesses for a sec. Cafes ... Bookstores ... Wine ... The California-Victorian buildings ... Food ... The hills ... Art ... The Bay ... Music ... That amazing chilly-warm blue / white light ... Cameraderie ... Food ... The easy acceptance of unconventionality ... And did I mention food?

San Francisco: It's the Left Bank by the Pacific, basically. Looking at Diebenkorn's paintings and spending time with Dubrow's, it seems to me that what the mind enjoys is a vacation in Bohemia -- Bohemia experienced as bliss.

Back here and here I blogged about the much-underrecognized artist Ken Kewley, whose lovely paintings might plausibly be categorized in the same part of the museum as Diebenkorn's and Dubrow's. (Probably not a coincidence that Kewley is handled by the same small gallery that handles Dubrow.) Ken Kewley's website is here. Back here I rhapsodized a bit about the Bay Area Figurative Movement, an episode in American art that I really adore.

Here's a good Kenneth Baker review of "Diebenkorn in New Mexico." The show originated at the Harwood Museum of Art. Here's the book that accompanied the show. Here's the Richard Diebenkorn website.

Maureen Mallarkey's review of Dubrow's show is a good one. Here's John Dubrow's website, which offers a very well-done selection of images.

San Francisco's Hackett-Freedman Gallery shows art by a lot of artists that people who like Diebenkorn and Dubrow might enjoy getting to know. I'm a big fan of Jess, of Elmer Bischoff, of Wayne Thiebaud, and of Paul Wonner.



posted by Michael at May 1, 2008


The style of the pics, particularly the one of the man, looks surprisingly the same as a photograph that has been processed through a "posterization" filter in Photoshop.

San Francisco can be a lot of fun. For that matter, so can Woodstock. When the locals of either place keep it to loony individualism and goofy artsy-farsy stuff, not to mention all manner of fornication and self-indulgence, I'm with them. I learned to cook, and to appreciate beautiful produce and seafood in SF. And, I learned a lot about wine and its affect on pretty girls. I especially liked goofy arts grads from Berkeley marinated in Pinot Noir.

Where it all goes wrong is when the SF and Woodstock loonies think that they have actual, practical political and economic lessons to teach the world. Loony Utopia, and angry radicalism, do nothing for me at all.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on May 2, 2008 11:18 AM

ST -- I remember when I first played with some of those Photoshop filters and plug-ins. "Omigod, what are painters going to do now?" was one of my reactions. Couldn't agree more about the boho world. So long as they stick to silliness, food, sex, lifestyle, creativity -- gotta love 'em. They help make the world a livelier and more entertaining place. But taking their politics and/or life-advice seriously? No thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 2, 2008 2:13 PM

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