I finally made it to the Richard Diebenkorn exhibit at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco this weekend. It’s a wonderful exhibit, well worth a few hours to explore and absorb.
Prior to this weekend, all I knew about Richard Diebenkorn was that he was an American abstract painter who died in the 90’s. This exhibit focuses on a particularly prolific period of his work, 1953 – 1966, when he lived in Berkeley, CA.
The exhibit’s 130 paintings feature the Bay Area in a wonderfully expressive and arresting way. During this time, Diebenkorn was wrestling with the abstract versus figurative traditions, and this exhibit is curated to shine a light on that struggle. For instance, the exhibit showcases companion paintings, side by side, of the same subject painted in different ways. Like this painting pair – a friend’s property in Santa Clara – one painted realistically, the other as an abstraction but both with the same colors and values.
The curators added helpful text, quotes, and explanations throughout the exhibit. This was one of my favorites, Diebenkorn’s notes to himself on approaching a blank canvas: attempt what is not certain (certainty may or my not come later); the pretty, initial position, which falls short of completeness, is not to be valued, except as a stimulus for further moves; DO search, but in order to find other than what is searched for; use and respond to the initial fresh qualities, but consider them absolutely expendable; don’t “discover” a subject – of any kind; somehow don’t be bored, but if you must, use it in action, use its destructive potential; mistakes can’t be erased, but they move you from your present position; keep thinking about Pollyanna; tolerate chaos; and be careful only in a perverse way.
One of the themes of his work was that he was trying not to realize a preconceived idea with his paintings but, instead, attempting to discover some unrealized conception through the process of creating the painting.
As a corollary to the exhibit, the museum has a wonderful collection of photographs, “The Errand of the Eye” (after an Emily Dickinson poem) by Rose Mandel. She was a contemporary of Diebenkorn’s and, in 1956, took a series of photos of him at work in his studio as he painted. The photos were the illustration in a famous Life magazine spread, featuring his work and telling his story. That magazine article apparently helped to seal his legacy and Mandel’s photos made a critical contribution as she managed to document his interesting process of creating abstract art. In addition to the photos of Diebenkorn, the Mandel exhibit includes a rich collection of her nature photos (she worked with Ansel Adams) where one structure (a blade of grass, a thorn on a rose, a wisp of a leaf) was in focus and the rest was out of focus. Very intriguing and unusual. Why have I never heard of Rose Mandel (she doesn’t even have a wikipedia entry!)? No doubt, as a woman in the 1940’s era, she just wasn’t taken seriously as an artist even though, when you look at her work, it’s of great merit.
The two exhibits, together, make for a rich and worthwhile afternoon.