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Pump Up the Volumes: Hefty Diebenkorn Catalogue Raisonné Sheds New Light on Luminous Paintings

Richard Diebenkorn, Seated Figure with Hat, 1967. ©2016 THE RICHARD DIEBENKORN FOUNDATION/NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, D.C.

Richard Diebenkorn, Seated Figure with Hat, 1967.

©2017 THE RICHARD DIEBENKORN FOUNDATION/NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, D.C.

Catalogues raisonnés are many things to many people. As robust tomes that attempt to faithfully reproduce every known work of art by the painters and sculptors who serve as their subjects—say, Paul Cézanne, Jacob Epstein, or even Dan Flavin—they function as reference books featuring lots of pictures, detailed chronologies, an occasional interview, and scholarly texts. Collectors like to buy art illustrated in these hefty volumes because it practically guarantees their authenticity. Dealers use them to track down works in estates and private collections that they can buy or sell. Curators, critics, and art historians refer to them to discern the arc of an artist’s career.

When I reviewed the exhibition “Matisse/Diebenkorn” for ARTnews during its run at the Baltimore Museum of Art (it is currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), I found helpful the overstuffed, unwieldy, four-volume Richard Diebenkorn catalogue raisonné published this past autumn by Yale University Press. The show is wonderful, but there’s a temptation to overstate how much Henri Matisse inspired Diebenkorn. Poring over the catalogue raisonné, you can see the superb job the curators did in selecting paintings and drawings to make their case about the French Modernist’s influence on the Californian’s career—you also discover that this aspect of his career is just one among many.

The catalogue raisonné. ©2016 THE RICHARD DIEBENKORN FOUNDATION

The catalogue raisonné.

©2017 THE RICHARD DIEBENKORN FOUNDATION

It took a long time to put together Richard Diebenkorn’s catalogue raisonné. In a preface, Richard M. Grant, the executive director of the late artist’s foundation as well as his son-in-law, writes that the project spanned more than 20 years. Speaking by telephone from his office in Berkeley, California, Grant told me that no one “had any idea how many works there are.” It turned out that Diebenkorn was a pack rat. Grant and his colleagues found drawings in the bottoms of drawers, in basements and garages. Just when they thought they had assembled everything, another stash of works on paper would turn up.

In the end, they managed to index thousands of drawings—and nearly 700 paintings. Volume One features scholarly essays (more on those below), a thorough chronology, an exhibition list, and a bibliography, including citations for places where readers can find interviews and artist’s statements. Volume Two opens with dozens of examples of juvenilia: Sketches from the 1930s, when Diebenkorn was in his teens, are of medieval knights locked in battle and Wild West cowboys in shoot-outs. By the mid-nineteen-forties, Diebenkorn’s ink drawings show him trying to master a provincial type of Cubism then in vogue. But he didn’t fully succumb. Instead, the fledgling artist next turned his attention to expressionistic abstractions, which he developed further in his first mature paintings.

Most people view Diebenkorn’s career as a three-acter. After a period as an abstractionist, he became a representational artist. During his last decades—he died in March 1993—he again made abstract paintings and works on paper. The catalogue raisonné makes it clear that these acts comprised quite a few shorter scenes. Volume Three is peppered with hundreds of sheets featuring nude models Diebenkorn sketched during the now fabled life drawing sessions he attended with his colleagues David Park and Elmer Bischoff. The sheer volume of this material, much less the peer pressure, surely contributed to his upending his promising career as an abstractionist. You can see how he brought to his paintings of still lifes, figures, and landscapes lessons he learned during his years making nonrepresentational paintings, one of the qualities that set his finest efforts apart from those of his friends and colleagues. (In general, Diebenkorn’s shift away from abstraction needs to be better understood. His middle period years, when he and his wife were based in San Francisco and Berkeley, tend to be treated as an isolated example of someone who renounced making abstract art to concentrate on representational. Commentators on both coasts should know better. After all, both Al Leslie and Harry Jackson, two wonderful abstractionists who were making art in New York, did much the same thing. Clearly, there were larger forces at work.)

Volume Four shows Diebenkorn, having moved to Santa Monica, returning to abstraction with paintings that are both more reserved and seductive. The works on paper became a bonanza of materials—charcoal, ink, crayon, pastel, acrylic, and pasted paper. As for his famous “Ocean Park” paintings, it’s finally possible to observe how the middle-aged artist proceeded as he expanded this riveting series.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #79, 1975. ©2016 THE RICHARD DIEBENKORN FOUNDATION/PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #79, 1975.

©2017 THE RICHARD DIEBENKORN FOUNDATION/PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART

In the past, I’ve most enjoyed looking at the pictures in catalogues raisonnés. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to read the essays. Alas, the ones in Diebenkorn’s are a mixed bag. The first two, by Gerald Nordland and Steven Nash, respectively, evince nothing by way of revelatory scholarship, so it comes as little surprise that, according to Grant, they were completed years ago and languished in a file while the search for Diebenkorn works dragged on.

Nordland handles two topics sloppily. The first has to do with Cézanne. Between his undergraduate years at Stanford and his service in the Marine Corps, Diebenkorn studied painting at UC Berkeley with Erle Loran, the author of Cézanne’s Composition: Analysis of His Form with Diagrams and Photographs of His Motifs. (One of these diagrams exists as a Pop art painting by Roy Lichtenstein.) Nordland writes, “Loran’s teaching brought [Diebenkorn] a step closer to understanding Cézanne.” I don’t think the Cézanne he studied with Loran is the same artist I studied years later at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University with William S. Rubin. Not all classes on Cézanne are the same.

Then there’s the matter of Edward Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. When he was in high school, Nordland writes, “Diebenkorn found this work striking and persuasive.” So did an artist as different from Diebenkorn as the English sculptor Cornelia Parker, who was inspired by the same painting to construct Transitional Object (PsychoBarn)—which she called “an incongruous object”—on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last summer. I’d like to know what in particular it was about Hopper’s painting that Diebenkorn found “striking and persuasive.”

Former Museum of Modern Art Chief Curator John Elderfield’s text on the “Ocean Park” series, however, is an instant classic. If it were a tweet, his text would be accompanied by hashtags such as #Diebenkorn, #twentiethcenturyabstraction, and #moderndaylandscapepainting. Elderfield starts out by observing how Diebenkorn “at once honors old things and makes old things new.” In Elderfield’s reading, Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” paintings display his commitment to both abstraction and the experience of landscape. “The paintings speak clearly of landscape—indeed, of western desert landscape—in their dusty, sandy coloration, their flat open vistas, and the way they are articulated by drawn track and patches of cursive incident,” he writes. He characterizes certain “Ocean Park” paintings as “at once ethereal and weathered,” and suggests that they contain paintings within paintings.

Catalogues raisonnés have become costly luxuries—Diebenkorn’s retails for $378 on amazon.com. So, if you need to, find a library that has a copy. Enjoy the pictures, relish Elderfield’s text, and, if you’re in the neighborhood, go to SFMOMA and see some of these works in person.

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