Richard Diebenkorn, Whitney Museum of American Art (1970s)



 Throughout his career, as revealed by the recent exhibition of his paintings at the Whitney Museum, Richard Diebenkorn has been in step with the fashionable artistic tendencies of the moment.


 From his early fling with Picassoesque-Surrealist gesture and a decorative Abstract-Expressionism, through his overly-generalized, almost illustrational figures in the late 50's and early 60's, to his austerely cubist, non-objective Ocean Park series in the late 60's into the 70's, Diebenkorn has painted the right pictures at the right times. While he has shown himself to be a capable designer and an acceptable but not exceptional colorist, he has not attained that level of creative intensity that enables an artist to create a pungent, penetrating, enduring vision of the world.


 Striving for the symbolic and poetic, Diebenkorn's early figures are vague and generalized when they need a sharply specific, closely observed, acuteness of execution to attain the universality he desires. A suburban landscape or two, plus "Corner of the Studio -- Sink" have a poetry, a pressure of mood, which is undermined, however, by the failure to push the forms to a pitch of substance and intensity. Diebenkorn stopped painting on these works before they had time to develop and be resolved.


 The Ocean Park series is an arid place of the human spirit, where essentially rectilinear shapes are enhanced by strategically placed lines, strategically angled. There is a capable austerity of two-dimensional design (let us say again that Diebenkorn is a good designer) and a slick paint surface that cannot mitigate the basic sterility of the conception.


 It is impossible to rank with the significant artists of this or any generation a painter whose most passionate preoccupation is determining the proper placement of a small triangle of burnt pink or an equally small trapezoid of acid green. From such ideals are carpets, shower curtains and wallpaper made.


 Time, the truest critic, mincing the passions and misconceptions of any given era, will probably rank Richard Diebenkorn with the Victorian painters of affected pose, precious conception and artificial composition, also on exhibit in the Whitney's excellent show, "Turn-of-the-Century America: Paintings, Graphics, Photographs" (through October 2nd).


Copyright by Don Gray


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