Saturday, August 23, 2008

Diebenkorn in New Mexico

This exhibition, at the Phillips Collection in D.C., concentrates on a formative period of Richard Diebenkorn's art: the three years, from 1950-52, he spent in Albuquerque as a student at the University of New Mexico. The exhibition is prefaced by figurative and abstract compositions of a more mature period, exhibited in the museum's lobby. Particularly interesting to me was the juxtaposition of his Interior with View of the Ocean and Matisse's Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, which Diebenkorn saw at the Phillips:

Interior with View of the Ocean, 1957

Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, 1916

Both paintings are interested in the interplay of interior and exterior spaces, in planes forming themselves into a corner, in the analogy between windows and paintings, in exposing and thinking about one's working process. The differences are striking too. Matisse is dedicated to the study of the human figure and its ground, whereas Diebenkorn decomposes the scene into its constituent triangles and rectangles, in a manner reminscent of Cezanne and his followers. Matisse is domestic and local: his window looks out into Paris and the Seine. Diebenkorn, on the other hand, looks out to the ocean and an unidentifable stretch of tarmac. Matisse's fabrics and decorative motifs lend warmth and wit to his painting, as opposed to the cold blue dominating Diebenkorn's painting. Even the yellow sunlight feels more clarifying than warm.

The other big figurative painting in the lobby is Diebenkorn's Girl with Plant.

Girl with Plant, 1960

The museum note relates this painting to Edward Hopper, with his solitary urban figures, but this work reminds me more of another Matisse, though I don't know if Diebenkorn has seen it: The Piano Lesson in MoMA.

The Piano Lesson. Issy-les-Moulineaux, late summer 1916.

Diebenkorn's painting flips over the Matisse. We see the back of the girl, instead of the front of the boy; the supervising adult is now, perhaps, the viewer. The window opening out to a lawn in Matisse becomes in Diebenkorn a door leading into a bedroom, the curlicues of the window grille straightening into blue lines on the wall. Matisse's somber grey and pink is changed into Diebenkorn's lemon yellow and electric blue. Most intriguingly, the piano is now a plant, the resented discipline of art is transformed into the dangerous life of nature.

I like the Albuquerque abstracts very much too, and found a lot to think over. The earliest ones are brightly colored and lively in their disposition of shapes, especially circles. Painted in his second year in New Mexico, Miller 22, in its use of animal and landscape forms, is grand, sensuous, and humorous:

Miller 22, 1951

A more exuberantly joyous painting is Albuquerque No. 4 (1951):

My favorite of the exhibition is more sober-toned. Albuquerque No. 7 (1951) sandwiches between its black and brown a pinkish-green translucent jewel:

The painting possesses, paradoxically, the force of compression, the width of land, and the height of mountains.


Lai Meng said...

I really like the way you compared and contrasted Diebenkorn's and Matisse's art pieces - the window views, the use of colours, the expression of human form. You've an eye for details, and a mind for analysis and depth.

Jee Leong Koh said...

I'm glad you enjoyed that post.