Richard Diebenkorn

L.A. Trip, Part One

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #79

Some people have a bucket list of places to see and things to do before they die. I have a list of artists I want to see, not just one painting, but a decent retrospective, and I’m ready to travel to do this. I’ve gone to Palm Springs to see Wayne Thiebaud, and I went to Seattle to see the Leipzig painters. This month I crossed another artist off my list when I went to Los Angeles.

Richard Diebenkorn is an artist I’ve admired for a long time. I admire the way he moves between abstraction and representation, his subtle use of colour and most of all I admire his Ocean Park series. Plus, he was mentioned on Gilmour Girls, which used to be the peak of pop cultural acclaim around here.  I kept reading about planned Diebenkorn shows, but when this show finally materialized, I booked our flights to California.

The cheery woman at the front desk of our L.A. motel remarked that she had never heard of the Orange County Art Museum, and certainly the directions she gave us resulted in endless circles in an unpromising office park. When we finally found the museum, it was well-hidden in a business complex, but thanks to a Target-sponsored family day, admission was free and the place was packed. Can I say how happy it makes me to see a museum full of people of all ages enjoying good art? Can I also say how much I’m looking forward to Target finally coming to Canada, not only for the shopping, but since they seem to be big supporters of the arts?

On to the show, which features Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings, as well as the prints and works on paper of the same period.  Diebenkorn’s studio was in nearby Santa Monica, and he was inspired by the intense light of Southern California. The Ocean Park paintings are huge at 8 or 9 feet tall, seeing them in books gives you no idea. And you can see the layers of paint, where Diebenkorn considered and then obliterated what went before, as contemplation was a big part of his process. He uses oil paint in a very flat, thinned way, creating opacity rather than the shiny impasto I usually associate with the medium. And his judicious use of bright colour with neutrals was beautiful.

Diebenkorn smoked cigars and used the box tops as another painting surface.

I was particularly fascinated by some tiny paintings done on cigar box lids, which were mainly personal gifts. He managed to make the composition of a 5” x 5” painting as perfect as something 20 times larger. I’m vowing to spend more time sweating out my compositions in the future. Seeing great art is simultaneously discouraging and inspiring, but I have yet to see a great artist who didn’t work his/her butt off to create, regardless of circumstances. If you can’t get to the show, here is video of the show when it was in Texas. 

So who’s next on the bucket list? There’s a Mark Rothko show in Portland I’ll be seeing next month. And I’d love to see Gerhardt Richter, Peter Doig, and Beatriz Milhazes, and I keep adding artists to my list. Does anyone know a good way to see what shows are coming up and where they’ll be? Because I’m very willing to travel to see art, and enjoying new cities are just a wonderful side effect.

I brake for art

If there was a bumper sticker about braking for art exhibitions, I might be tempted to put it on my little red Mazda. I love travel and I love visiting new art museums and galleries. Anticipation is half the fun, so I pour over the art show listings in the local, national and international press.

In the next year, I have a couple of art trips planned already. On the home front I would like to see the private museum of Bob Rennie, which is opening in Vancouver this year. Apparently, it is by invitation only, but I'm sure if I keep my ears open some well-connected friend will be going and I can tag along. His collection tends towards the conceptual, but I am interested in seeing art that has been selected and curated by the tastes of one person.

I usually see at least one show in the States, and this year it will be Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, 1967 to 1988. This show will be on at the Orange County Museum of Art beginning in April 2010 and running until early September. Apparently it's so far in the future it hasn't even made it to the museum's website yet. I love the structure of the Ocean Park paintings, and his delicate use of colour within that repeated composition. I am also intrigued by the way that Diebenkorn has rotated between representational and abstract works during his career, like another artist I admire: Gerhard Richter.

A study of art and art history can result in derivative paintings without conscious intention. One painting I did drew several comparisons to Richard Diebenkorn, and although it was unconscious on my part, there was a definite similarity. Sometimes, as I work to resolve a painting, whatever seems right may actually be something familiar. To avoid this, I use a tearing process I cannot control that creates a random quality in the work. Still for the visual mind to be completely new is difficult in our image-filled age.

Well here is Richard Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park 54"...

... and here's my painting entitled "Lines Revealed". What do you think?

But what is also interesting is that Diebenkorn was initially inspired by the composition of Matisse's "Open Window, Coulliore" to create the Ocean Park series in the first place. Clearly Diebenkorn has evolved the composition to something quite different, both by hard work (there are over 140 paintings in the Ocean Park series) and by experimentation with colour and abstraction. In the hands of a great painter, inspiration plus hard work equals masterpieces. I am greatly looking forward to seeing the paintings in person.