Elegantly balanced in the 20th century Richard Diebenkorn found an equilibrium between abstraction and representation, European and American influences.

July 05, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

It may seem that painter Richard Diebenkorn spent his life swimming against the tide.

He lived on the West Coast rather than in New York, the capital of the art world. He began his career as an abstract expressionist in the late 1940s, but in 1955, when abstraction was still in the ascendancy, he abruptly shifted to representation. A decade later, when abstract art was in decline, he turned to a form of landscape-based abstraction distinctly outside the mainstream of fashion, and pursued it the rest of his life.

But Diebenkorn swam neither with nor against any tide. He followed the current of his own vision, and in doing so became, rather than an outcast, one of the quintessential artists of his time.

Few if any artists have balanced abstraction and representation, those two competing strains of 20th-century art, so completely and elegantly as Diebenkorn (1922-1993). And although he was American, he possessed a largely European sensibility.

Those qualities come to the fore in the superb retrospective now at Washington's Phillips Collection. At 156 works, it's the most complete survey ever, and it brings him a degree of recognition never achieved in his lifetime.

Diebenkorn was born in Portland, Ore., and raised and educated in California, where, except for a few brief periods, he lived the rest of his life.

As a result, although he was known and respected by many in the East Coast art establishment, he never enjoyed the degree of visibility of its best-known artists. This show, however, should earn him a ranking as one of the leading American artists of the century.

Place was all-important for him, and landscape resides by implication in all his abstract work. Whether it's the early "Albuquerque No. 4" (1951) or the late "Ocean Park No. 116" (1979), land and sky and sunlight, architecture and even air are ever present, suggested by light, color and composition.

Many works in the "Ocean Park" series (1967-1985), the abstractions for which he is best- known, contain another level of representational suggestion. Diebenkorn reworked his paintings and left some of the earlier stages visible, so they have a layered quality.

Their surfaces resemble a semitransparent curtain through which the viewer catches glimpses of the landscape Diebenkorn has abstracted, a world that would appear if the curtain were drawn aside.

On the other side of the coin, in Diebenkorn's mid-period representational works, abstraction plays a major part. Take away the girl from "Girl Looking at Landscape" (1957), and the rest of the picture is an abstraction. Geometric shapes form the building blocks of "Cityscape I" (1963), much as they do of the "Ocean Park" series.

The yellow background of "Seated Figure With Hat" (1967) is an abstract painting composed of gestural brush strokes. Moreover, the painting's composition is an almost exact reversal of James McNeill Whistler's "Arrangement in Black and Gray: The Artist's Mother" (1871), which, as Whistler's title implies, is a proto-abstraction.

Then there is the balance of American and European influences. Diebenkorn's major paintings are American in their largeness of scale and specifically Western American in their sense of the landscape's spaciousness. But his small-scale still-life paintings and drawings, such as "Knife in a Glass" and "Knife and Tomato II" (both 1963), possess a European intimacy and a reverence for the object reminiscent of Cezanne.

Diebenkorn's principal influence was Henri Matisse, the greatest French artist of the 20th century. As art historian Jane Livingston points out in her excellent catalog essay, Diebenkorn's visible reworkings recall Matisse's, and Diebenkorn even borrowed a Matisse motif from time to time. The flowered wall covering of "Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad" (1965) directly recalls the background of one of the Hermitage Museum's great Matisses, "Coffee Pot, Carafe, and Fruit Dish" (1909).

There are deeper resonances, too. The "Ocean Park" series owes much to the Matisse of the 1910s, his most abstract decade, when his imagery was at its sparest and his palette at its coolest. The muted green, gray, yellow, white and blue of a Diebenkorn work such as "Ocean Park No. 54" (1972) looks very much like the colors of Matisse's "The Piano Lesson" (1916), and the Matisse is largely made up of geometric shapes that anticipate Diebenkorn.

Diebenkorn's art also possesses a kind of Matissean, and

European, reserve. While Diebenkorn and New York painter Mark Rothko share the influence of Matisse, Rothko reflects the warm, sensuous, Mediterranean Matisse. Diebenkorn reflects his dignity and restraint.

Again like Matisse, Diebenkorn never sacrificed the quality of beauty. Some of the "Ocean Park" paintings may be spare, especially later ones such as the last of the series, "Ocean Park No. 133" (1985). But in their subdued colors and their exquisitely balanced asymmetries there is both a quiet beauty and what Livingston aptly calls "a higher, ordered calm."

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