Remembering Diebenkorn

RICHARD DIEBENKORN, who died last week, once described his art - painting, collage, drawing, printmaking - as "always swinging back and forth between pared-down simplicity and an attempt to hold on to the incidentals."

In the early part of Diebenkorn's 50-year career, the New York art world couldn't help finding this West Coast painter conventional, peripheral, and somewhat minor. "Exemplary" and "modest" were not entirely flattering adjectives attached to his work by an early critic. But by 1977 his work gained so much respect that another critic called him, without embarrassment, a "world figure." Like Edward Hopper, though, whom he much admired, Diebenkorn is still far better known at home. Overseas, he has been lit tle collected, and exhibitions have been rare.

Perceptively self-analytical, Diebenkorn believed his development had inner logic, moving from still life, to landscape, to the figure, to abstraction. But others sometimes saw it as swinging back and forth: After his first still lifes and interiors, he made abstract works for a period before surprising his peers by painting figuratively again from 1955.

Then, moving in 1967 from San Francisco to Santa Monica, Calif., he switched once more - to the paintings some dub his masterpieces. Known as his "Ocean Park" series, these abstract canvases were light in tone, restrained in color, somewhat geometrical, rather dry of surface, yet quietly, edgily investigating the process of their own making in ways that involve the viewer.

THE Ocean Park paintings never settle for outright abstraction. Diebenkorn absorbed rather than abandoned the incidentals of still life, landscape, and figure, which - though in a submerged state - may still be hinted by some combination of lyrical curves, by a horizon, or by a recognizable (and even humorous) symbol or icon. These incidentals are never allowed to override the pared simplicity, but they help to give it a pulse.

When he painted from a model - frequently his wife of many years - he produced strong images in response to the deliberate challenge he felt figure painting posed. He said that this challenge was because figure painting "can't ever just be painting." The human presence interposes a degree of feeling, and an intruding illusion, which makes the painter swing between painting on its own terms, and painting in response to something outside.

Diebenkorn's figure paintings may well appeal to posterity as no less powerful and original than his Ocean Park works. In them he arrived at something that makes him remarkably different from the French painter to whom he owed much: Henri Matisse. The foreground figure, demanding attention, does so by apparently pressing outward into a space in front of the surface of the painting. So the painting is no longer a window frame through which the viewer looks at a receding (or curtailed) space. In this manne r, Diebenkorn had found his individual way through to a kind of painting more real, more concrete, than simply picturemaking.

Though the Cubists had also worked to escape from the illusory world of picturemaking, Diebenkorn's integrity determined his own solution. It seems more conventional. Perhaps it is. Yet its newness, its discovery, may be what prompted him to move into the abstract and unconventional language of the Ocean Park paintings.

In these, however, there are other echoes. The first impression is of an artist of introspection but strongly in debt to Barnett Newman and Piet Mondrian, and - again - Matisse. But it becomes clear that his own originality lies in his amalgamation of such diverse sources. What Diebenkorn admired and borrowed, he ended up absorbing and making unmistakably his own. He arrived at his own conclusions and uncertainties. His decisiveness seems always spiced with indecision. Perhaps this is why he has also bee n compared to the obstinately hesitant Cezanne.

But his work is nothing like Cezanne's. Or anyone else's. It is only like Diebenkorn's.

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