Sunday, October 16, 2011

Attempt What Is Not Certain

Richard Dienbenkorn: The Ocean Park Series is perhaps the finest art exhibition catalog that I've ever read.  The book begins with three very insightful essays on Diebenkorn's life and work but the beautifully reproduced and encyclopedic plates of his paintings, prints, and works on paper steal the show.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #79, 1975.  source
Diebenkorn claimed never to be consciously painting windows, architecture, landscapes, or the wonderful oceanic Californian light that suffused his Ocean Park studio.  He, almost like us, discovered these parallels after the fact or at least toward the end of his work on a painting.  Regardless of the source or inspiration, Diebenkorn has produced a group of paintings that are unique in their palette, their balance of color and form, and their depth and weight.

On 27 Sep 2011, Diebenkorn's daughter, Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant, lectured at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. She, like her father, feared being trapped by the formality and permanence of words and didn't want to try to address Diebenkorn's work from a critical or historical perspective and instead spoke from the viewpoint of a daughter.

Gretchen said her father had a real "sense of place" in that his paintings truly reflected his environment. Consistent with the character of his paintings, he had a special way of seeing variations of color.  He appreciated "well-made useful objects."  Gretchen said that he liked "things with a history" which I think correlates with his paintings, not from the sense that they're historical, but rather they have a depth in which layers of work and visible work-overs reveal the process of creation.

In his studio, normally dominated by diffuse northern light, he was an "aggressive, active painter." At first I found this insight surprising because Diebenkorn's palette and forms are so breezy, for lack of a better term. But upon closely inspecting the plates in the book, instead of uniform washes of color the brushwork is quite clear.

Despite being a relatively quiet person (he hated talking on the phone), Diebenkorn was apparently opinionated with a strong sense of right and wrong and was not a fan of compromise.  This too was reflected in his painting.  Gretchen told the story of a painting that hung in the family house for years because Diebenkorn didn't like something about it.  Finally, on a Christmas eve, he pulled it off the wall, pasted a new section of canvas over a relatively small region, painted over it, and declared the piece complete.  All while everyone waited so the Christmas eve meal could begin. Exactly what he was trying to achieve, no one else knew.

Diebenkorn despised labels and categorization as it pertained to his work.  He strove to always develop a new vocabulary for his work.  Gretchen used phrases like "intimate spaces," "order" and "calming" to describe his work, a lot of which utilized the Golden Section in its layout. She specifically denied any "angst" in his content. I would agree wholeheartedly with those labels.

Diebenkorn never expected to be recognized and was overwhelmed by his critical success.  He especially didn't value any of his periods over any others (he had previously done abstraction and figuration).

Artists that Dienbenkorn loved include Cezanne, Munch, Matisse, and de Kooning.  He listened to Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and lots of classical quartets but not while working which he most often did alone or rarely in the company of his dog.

By way of self mockery, I will admit that I have not yet toured Diebenkorn's same-named exhibit at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth but I promise (to myself more than others) to do so by the end of November. If only to be able to find the time.

I'll close with a link to Diebenkorn's "Notes to myself on beginning a painting."

Robert Ryman, untitled, 1965. source
On a related note, I had the pleasure of enjoying another of The Modern's lectures on 11 Oct 2011, this one by TCU's Francis Colpitt on problems and optimism for abstract painting in the age of postmodernism.

Critics would have you believe that abstraction is dead.  They say abstraction is the emblem of modernism and therefore has no place in postmodernism.  Because abstraction is so closely related to painting and because painting is considered dead, abstraction must be dead too.

When one thinks of modernism one thinks of balance, harmony, gravity, unity, the elimination of the unnecessary, and a faith in progress.  On the other hand postmodernism brings forth the lack of balance and gravity, an informalism, irresolution, and a rejection of advancement.

Abstraction can be considered a pictorial language that is the purest form of painting. As for the death of painting, it has been declared multiple times including 1939 (photography), 1950 (Pollock, who was said to have taken painting as far as it could go), 1960 (Judd, whose installations were said to be the death of sculpture which was the death of painting), and 1975.  Obviously people are still painting so the art form isn't literally dead.

So what is meant by the death of painting?  It's the loss of painting's mythical status as the epitome of artistic expression.  And a lot of postmodernism since the 1980s has been about getting beyond myths. When one thinks of art today you're perhaps more likely to think of mixed media, computer graphics, installations, performance art, or sculpture.  Until about the 1960s-1970s painting was virtually synonymous with art.

Dr. Colpitt characterized postmodernists as having lost faith in transcendence, as rejecting the sublime, and as having lost belief in self-expression.  For example, the brush stroke, the gestural mark in painting is rejected.  The example she provided was crying in front of a Rothko.  Rothko himself is quoted as saying that people who are that moved by viewing his paintings are sharing the experience he had while making them.  On the other hand, postmodernists would be incredulous that such a reaction would even be possible.

Fortunately, Dr. Colpitt sees an optmistic future for abstract painting in the postmodern age.  She defined abstraction as the "atomization of the core of experience," "the language of the 21st century" and an "allusion to the non-demonstrable."

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