I’m nervous walking into the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition. The American painter is famous (rather, art-famous). This means I’ll give his work time, perhaps too much (wait long enough and anything: fried eggs, a urinal, Tracy’s bed, starts to seem deep and meaningful). Diebenkorn is also too recent; only dead for 21 years, his work might just be kicking around because history hasn’t had time to get rid of it. Time generally purges the crap, but the excrement of the present is always among us- the contemporary is always the worst period.
Also, Diebenkorn’s work isn’t realistic, or meant to be. This makes judging it hard. Realistic art is easier to critique, five fingers right, six fingers wrong etc., whereas you can’t go up to a Rothko and ask ‘why orange?’ When Abstraction cut painting’s umbilical cord to nature, it also cut the (tenuous) tether connecting critics and objectivity. Art judgements have never been totally objective, but with modernism people gave up even trying. Public confusion over how to judge modernist art lead to the critic-tycoon type in 1950; a popular art critic would buy the works of a lesser-known artist, promote said artist, then sell the works for a profit. This brings us back to the fame-point; is Richard Diebenkorn famous for the market’s sake? I walk into the exhibition awash with waves of neurosis, disillusioned with the gallery-world. Then I see the art.
The paintings don’t look great, or at least not Sistine-ceiling-so-great-it-ends-up-woefully-distorted-on-mugs-for-tourists-great. One painting, called ‘black pig’, looks as much like a pig as any black square with feet would. There is a series called ‘Albuquerque’; I grew up there, and am not convinced. On one wall is an orangeish painting, with a collection of shapes in the middle. It looks really good, which is peculiar, as it doesn’t look quite like anything. Each part of the painting is unattractive, but together it just works. Several other paintings share this ‘just works’ quality, most of them in fact. The paintings feel totally convincing- I believe in the world they depict. ‘Abstract’ seems a misnomer. It’s like a room of lucky strikes, the one in a thousand work of accidental brilliance that each amateur hopes to produce. Only, there’s a room of these.
I walk into the second room, and god the relief. A wall of drawings- good drawings, with that special looking-like-the-things-they-are-meant-to-look-like quality. ‘Artist’s gaze’ is the kind of (usually) empty art jargon I hear a lot. Only, here it seems applicable: you can see in the work the process behind it, a drawing re-examined, redefined, with such concentration that you imagine looking through the artist’s own eyes. Intense observation underlies everything in the room. This doesn’t mean the work looks photorealistic.
Instead, Diebenkorn has studied his subject so well that he can leave almost everything out besides the few key details that make it what it is. Scissors made metal by a few touches of white, a knife with a three-mark ebony handle. Through the exclusion of detail, Diebenkorn pushes his work up to the line between figurative and abstract. And once we’ve arrived there, we realise there isn’t a line at all, there aren’t even two different camps. His ‘abstract’ paintings are only coloured shapes, yet they look like fields, mountains, and (dubious) pigs. Similarly, his scissors could be just an X on the canvas and his ocean landscape, an abstraction. This is a simple point, but the most important of modernism: everything is just paint on canvas.
The last room. Go and see it. I will lend you my museum pass. London is close, and Collections will soon be over.It is the best room I’ve been in. The paintings are huge. They are Californian days, warm sunsets, totally welcoming but not the least bit naff. (This tells you nothing about what they look like; so think ‘coloured squares’ and suspend judgement till you see for yourself). Diebenkorn has genius. The paintings shout ‘I am heaven’ and ‘I am some shapes’ simultaneously. They are so well-observed, but nowhere can you see a mark that ties the pictures to something specific. This is great, and it’s great because it’s great, but also because Diebenkorn’s being great means that the art world does something alright, the market can be trusted and everything is going to be just fine.