Monday, 26 August 2013

De Young Museum, feat. Richard Diebenkorn

Safety Pin sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen
I was disappointed on a recent visit to San Francisco to discover that SF MOMA was closed, but this turned out to be A Good Thing as we went to the wonderful de Young Museum instead. As you might guess from the pictures, this is a new building - it opened in 2005 - which replaced the earthquake-damaged 1920s version. The palm trees have survived, adding a quirky touch to a building that might, if left to its own devices, seem a little grim on a foggy day.

An exhibition of work by Richard Diebenkorn is the main attraction at the moment, but I loved the whole experience of visiting. The crack in the pavement (see below) leading into the museum might seem like cause for alarm, but it turns out not to be real crack but a work of art, by Andy Goldsworthy, reminding us of the previous museum's fate.

Now and again you see a piece of site-specific art and wonder what a) the artist and b) the person who commissioned it could possibly have been thinking, but this is brilliant - witty, apposite and unnerving. Like the building itself it is exactly as it should be.

This is not quite the case with the Diebenkorn show, which could have done with being whittled down a bit. I stared and stared at the numerous early abstract paintings without enjoying the experience that much. To my mind they show an artist who loved landscape trying to be an Abstract-Expressionist; they do serve as a fascinating prequel to the main story of his career, but are they interesting in their own right?

Berkeley #44, 1955 (Private collection © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)
Some of the large figurative paintings might have been left in storage, but the smaller studies - the still life pieces in particular - show a great artistic mind moving towards its goal. Diebenkorn was a master of the straight line and the flat plane, while his use of colour was often breathtaking, and there are marvellous examples in the exhibition of colour being used in surprising, imaginative ways.

Seawall, 1957 (Fine Arts Museums of SF © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)
Best of all, I think, are the paintings that show him beginning to apply his disciplined approach to real landscapes, to the shorelines and beaches and fields and roads of California. In 'Seawall', above, he has focused on a stretch of coastline and honed it to its bare lines and planes, while still leaving it recognisable. To my mind this is an advance from the looser Berkeley series, and I think he saw it as such too.

Cityscape, Landscape 1 (SF MOMA © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)
Painted six years later, 'Cityscape, Landscape 1' takes this approach a step further, so that the lower right of the picture is almost an abstract composition. Yet a distinct and powerful sense of place is retained, and one has a sense of the road plunging downhill into the shadows.

Interior with Doorway, 1962 (Pennsylvania Acad. of Fine Arts © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)
It was fascinating to go from room to room, watching Diebenkorn's vision emerge as he gradually cut extraneous matter from his work. The departure of the human figure was a great relief, as the work on display exhibited little feeling for this kind of painting. Here and there a curvilinear surface pattern found its way successfully into a composition, but I still found this distracting. If I'd never seen a fully-fledged Diebenkorn I might have felt differently, but it was a relief to go upstairs to the main gallery and gaze at the exquisitely composed, mysterious, emotionally charged painting (below) that might have been included in the exhibition proper as a kind of post-script. Yes, this story has a happy ending!

Ocean Park No. 16, 1968  (Fine Arts Museums of SF © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation)
But back to the building, and its lovely cafe and sculpture garden. It felt like a motorway service area for space travellers, on a tropical island. Cool.

FFI: 'Richard Diebenkorn: the Berkeley Years' runs until 22 Sept at the de Young Museum, San Francisco.

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