CLEAR sunlight, strong evidence of the time of day and place, and a challenging organization of the picture plane typically distinguish Richard Diebenkorn's work from that of other modern abstract painters. C'ezanne, Matisse, Mir'o, and Mondrian, all influence him, yet his art is original and striking. In his most characteristic work to date, creative tension is frozen in a calm that just barely vibrates with energy.
Diebenkorn has been popular, and yet always just ahead - forging and tempering the art world's cutting edge. In 1956, he helped to lead the movement from abstraction to more representational work. And his 1967 move back to abstraction early anticipated changes coming to the art world in general. A retrospective (1946-88) of Diebenkorn's drawings, to open March 9 at the Los Angeles Museum of Art, shows how Diebenkorn has affected style trends since 1946 and that he's now on the verge of a new phase. His drawings are fully worked-out, experimental pictures, not considered paintings primarily because of their exploratory nature and use of the more temporary medium of paper.
In New York, the Museum of Modern Art recently presented this exhibition, revealing Diebenkorn's highly disciplined and self-critical approach. His carefully ordered personal life is reflected in his work - its controlled spontaneity and continuity. Rather than simply reacting to trends, Diebenkorn finds his inspiration in reevaluating his own ideas - never completely leaving the old when the new is upon him.
The first part of the exhibition focuses on the early abstract period from 1946 to '55. As in ``Untitled (Berkeley)'' (1954), lines loop and drive across the paper, bounding areas and creating depth.
Reflecting his mastery after 1956, the rest of the exhibition covers Diebenkorn's representational period from 1956 to '66, and the later abstract period (at Ocean Park, Santa Monica, Calif.), from 1967 to the present.
In ``Untitled (Ocean Park)'' (1981), he uses one of his recurring icons, a ``spade'' shape, in a familiar Diebenkorn environment - a tuned, balanced plane of color.
Often, after he ignores for a time an image used in earlier work, it suddenly reappears in one of his drawings. A line that seems to occur simply by chance more likely derives from a flash of intuition bred in the disciplined reinterpretation of earlier techniques and sources.
Irrespective of period, Diebenkorn uses slightly glossy white paper. The slightly shiny surface allows him to refine lines after he makes them.
When he was working in Urbana, Ill. (a decidedly unfriendly climate for a Californian), Diebenkorn said that he turned inward for inspiration - inward both mentally and in terms of his windowless studio space. The landscape bounded by the walls of his studio was quite unlike the expansive hills and fields and light of California landscapes.
Work done in this period - sometimes similar to ``Untitled (Berkeley)'' - is intense and introspective, betraying an inferno-like generation and consumption of energy in Diebenkorn's conception of his art.
Diebenkorn's recent move from Ocean Park, a neighborhood in Santa Monica, to Healdsburg, in Northern California, may herald an important shift in focus, as did his other moves.
The exhibition opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on March 9 and runs through May 7. It will be shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art between June 22 and Aug. 27, and at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., Sept. 30-Dec. 3.