"IN 1967, THE AMERICAN PAINTER Richard Diebenkorn turned away from his widely admired figural style fluid, awkward, loosely evocative ofBonnard but less florid and more athletic-to return, to be sure with some marked differences, to the abstractionist imperatives he had just as abruptly put aside a dozen years before. His career thus falls naturally into three phases-or two phases of abstraction with a prolonged figurationist interlude-but this bland periodization fails to do justice to the unfolding narrative of his artistic discoveries. His figures were after all but regimentations of the same urgent and sweeping gestures that were the mark of his driving first abstractionist manner, and were set into pictorial spaces that did not exist in painting before Abstract Expressionismreinvented space. And the post-1967 abstractions have seemed to many sufficiently referential so that it is a critical commonplace to see them as suffused with a special California light, and as dense with coastal allusions to sky, ocean, seaside and sun, tawny hills, bleached architecture, sharp shadows and angular illuminations, green expanses and glimpsed distant blues, and possibly haunted by the erasure of human presences. Nor does the chronicle "abstraction-figuration-abstraction" adequately acknowledge the extreme determination, the aesthetic courage it had to have required first to shift from abstraction to "the image" at a time when such a change was perceived within the art world as something momentous, like a conversion or a betrayal or a heretical declaration, and then, at a time when one's great reputation was based upon the marvelous posing of figures in landscapes or interiors that looked like abstractions anyway, when pure abstraction was no longer the True Faith but only one of the ways to do things in an art world gone slack and pluralistic, to return to abstraction as one's own truth. Both changes are evidence of a certain dogged integrity, and were perhaps among the benefits of growing a career in California, away from the style wars and the critical fire storms of New York, with its fevered obsessions with where one fits, with who is in and which is out and what is new, fading, dated and dead.
"In a sense, nothing has been new with Diebenkorn since 1967, when he exhibited the first paintings in what was to lengthen into an extraordinary series. These are the Ocean Park paintings-large canvases, each bearing the same title, Ocean Park, but individuated with a number that indicates, presumably, the order of its completion. The series had reached number 140 by late last year, which allows a rough calculation of Diebenkorn's annual output, though he has concurrently produced a number of works-on-paper, titled Untitled but recognizably answering to the same impulses that give rise to the Ocean Park paintings. Ocean Park itself is a community near Santa Monica, where Diebenkorn traces a daily path between home and studio, but whether or not these works make the topical references to local landscape with which they are credited, they clearly are something more than abstractions with recurrent compositional motifs, cadences, pastel tonalities, scumbled fields and tapelike forms, and stunning juxtapositions of color swept on with masterful brushwork. Each of them, for example, displays the submerged record of its own realization, and so distinctive are the pentimenti in Diebenkom's art that each painting carries within itself the visible history of the artist's search. The nearest parallel, perhaps, would be the great drawings of Rembrandt, in which certain crowded lines converge on the sought-after contour so that the drawing and its draw-ing are one, process and fulfillment inseparable. It is possible to imagine a writer, misguided by the recent privileging of l'ecriture who publishes a work that exhibits the labor of writing it, with all the first lines, the crossed-out sentences, whited-out lines with fragments of letters showing through and scribbled insertions between the lines and up the margins. Whatever such a text started out to be about, it would in the end have to be about its own processes, self-exemplificatory. In my view, Diebenkom's paintings are less about the bright skies and long horizons of Ocean Park than about the act of painting, as if the works had become more and more their own subjects and the external references stand at best as indications of what the painting is not about- Ceci nest pas un paysage! In this sense, and despite his notorious employment of mechanical straightedges, Diebenkorn has not moved greatly beyond the premises of Abstract Expressionism, which always insisted that the painting was the paint-ing, its final subject and only reference. On the other hand, nothing could more vividly illuminate the difference between painting and writing as arts than the extreme power and beauty, the elegance and excitement of the Ocean Park paintings, and the tiresomeness of the piece of writing I just imagined, with which no one, unless perhaps a member of Yale's Department of English, could have the slightest patience.
"It is instructive to compare Diebenkorn as an artist with his somewhat older fellow Californian (and Stanford alumnus) Robert Motherwell, who has also produced an extraordinary series: the most recent Spanish Elegy I have seen is number 132, completed in 1983. "Diebenkorn," Motherwell recently told me, "is what I would have become if I had had his talent but remained in California instead of moving to New York." The Spanish Elegies and the Ocean Park paintings are at the pinnacle of contemporary painting, but the differences in their inspiration and spiritual provenance are profound. Motherwell wrote about the Spanish Elegies that they are "for the most part, public statements. [They] reflect the internationalist in me, interested in the historical forces of the twentieth century, with strong feelings about the conflicting forces in it." By contrast, Motherwell says of his collages that they are "intimate and private." Now, I do not believe, of any of Diebenkorn's works, that the category of privacy or intimacy especially applies. They are as public as scientific experiments, open investigations into the resolution of pictorial tensions or conquests of painterly difficulties. But neither are they "public statements" which could be construed as dealing with any issues other than the issues of painting. It was as if even the somewhat blank figures of Diebenkorn's middle period were ill at ease in their paintings, and distractions from Diebenkorn's deepest preoccupations. "Spain" denotes a land of suffering and poetic violence and political agony, and "Elegy" carries the literary weight of tragedy and disciplined lamentation. It would be inconsistent for works so titled to reflect back merely upon their own processes, and in truth one cannot see Spanish Elegy 132 without feeling oneself in the presence of some human revelation as deep as painting allows.
"As a term, "Ocean Park" belongs to the hopeful vocabulary of the real estate developer, and designates an archetypal suburban locus in Southern California-Ocean Park. No. 133 could be an address. But in any case Ocean Park is but the site, perhaps distantly the occasion for a work that makes and needs no references. And the miracle is that works so circumscribed in subject, substance, meaning and feeling should be so overwhelming when viewed as altogether to obliterate their circumstances and limits. The miracle is that the country mouse/ city mouse difference between these two masters should finally count for so little in terms of their comparable achievements. There is finally a fierce beauty in Diebenkom's work that marks a limit in our critical competence to explain it.
"Aside from the two decisions that articulate his corpus, Diebenkorn's life is really more a career than a biography, like that of a successful academic. It is an exemplary life, but not an outwardly interesting one: the story of schools attended, positions held, group shows, traveling retrospectives, prizes won and a growing, finally a global recognition. It is an exemplary life because of its absolute commitment, as if the decisions to remain in California and to stay within a single and evidently deeply fulfilling marriage were so many ways of keeping distraction at bay. In this sense, I suppose, the life and the work are of a piece, for the art, too, is a systematic and sustained effort to expunge from itself whatever is other than itself. Even the numerated laconic titles bear out what we might think of, in Sartrian terms, as the original choice that defined the project. The work is tentative and confident at once, as if the doubts which the individual works preserve and display were required in order that they should be overcome in the dazzling works to which they lead. There is a marvelous moment in a recent profile of Diebenkorn by Dan Hofstadter in The New Yorker which brings out both sides. Diebenkorn was expressing to an intimate his doubts about being up to the task of painting. The intimate said, "O.K., Dick. How many people in the world do you think paint as well as you do?" Hofstadter tells us that Diebenkorn thought for a long time, and then he just laughed. Unremitting doubt as to one's adequacy to the task one knows no one is better suited for than oneself: those are the coordinates of his personality and in an odd way the content of his work."
- From "Encounters & Reflections: Art in the Historical Present", by Arthur Danto