May 01, 2008
Michael Blowhard writes:
Dear Blowhards --
A couple of art shows I
visited recently were rewarding not just because of the excellent art but
because of some unexpected connections.
The first was "Diebenkorn
As far as this show went:
Using G.I. Bill money -- the history of the impact of the G.I. Bill on American
art really needs to be written -- Diebenkorn studied at the
I loved the show, which I
found it refreshing, and pleasingly visual. No conceptual hijinks here, thank
god. Thank god too that this wasn't high-period, magesterial, masterly art,
purified by vision and tempered by experience -- I wasn't in the mood for any of
that. No, in these drawings and paintings there were lots of stray ends, and
even bits of undigested corniness. But that was perfectly fine with me: This was
a show of the work of a talented young man, and much of the fun of it was
enjoying Diebenkorn's youth, his energy, his adventurousness, and his sometimes
He was having fun himself,
blundering eagerly from one idea to the next. Diebenkorn apparently loved the
desert -- the Indian glyphs, the dazzling light, the muddy / tawny colors. He
also, at this time, loved George Herriman's comic strip "Krazy Kat,"
and he'd recently studied with another fave of mine, the Bay Area Figurative
Park. The images Diebenkorn made in
Personally speaking, what
I tend to enjoy most about Diebenkorn is his lightness, his perceptiveness, and
his quickness. He often used oil paint (generally a time-and-effort-intensive
medium), he sometimes painted on a large scale, and he was certainly influenced
by such backache-inducing modernists as Clyfford Still and Willem De Kooning.
But Diebenkorn's paintings have a much different feeling than all that might
suggest. Even at their biggest, his paintings usually have the kind of fleetness
and quickness that we generally associate with ink sketches, or with watercolor,
or with Japanese art. They're anything but over-pondered.
Another way of describing
the feeling: They're like jottings, notebooks, and sketches. They cross drawing
and painting, for one thing. They catch his mind and his eye in motion, moving
from one idea and / or association to the next. He found a way of making
American images, often on a large scale, that isn't ponderous, that doesn't make
statements, that's bombast-free -- that instead catches things on the wing,
considers them for a brief bit, then lets them fly off. It's like noodley,
informal jazz -- loopy, "free," but always returning to structure and
Strange, then, that
Diebenkorn is often dissed by the art-world hardcore as being reserved and
gentlemanly -- as too tasteful. The NYTimes' Roberta Smith, for instance, says
of the paintings that he's best-known for: "Too many of these later works
are tamped down by his studious reserve and exquisite touch; they balance on the
cusp of vitality without really getting their feet wet." I can semi-see her
point. Anyone who is into heavily-intellectualized art, or who takes art to be a
branch of criticism or philosophy, or who values the agonies of creation over
the delivery of pleasure, will probably find Diebenkorn a lightweight. Luckily,
the rest of us have his art there to enjoy.
As for me: I find much of
his work a huge pleasure to be around. A visit to a Diebenkorn show is for me
like a walk outside on an early spring day: Robert Altman at his breeziest-yet-bitingness,
Chris Marker at his sweetest.
In fact, although the
Diebenkorn show I saw has now closed, I urge those who have an aversion to
abstract art to try typing "Richard Diebenkorn" into Google Images.
See how you respond. He's sophisticated, yet easy and accessible too: both
atmospheric and sensual. (Diebenkorn adored Matisse, Bonnard,
and Vuillard.) If
anyone should say that much of his art is like a nice New Yorker cover -- well,
I wouldn't disagree. I also wouldn't take that as a putdown. Some New Yorker
covers are real beauties, after all. And Diebenkorn's paintings and drawings
when seen live have additional dimensions. They aren't just big versions of
If you do find his
abstracts agreeable ... Well, it might be that you don't really dislike
abstraction per se. (If you think that you do dislike abstraction per se, then
what do you make of Islamic art, or of Persian carpets, certainly two of the
world's richer art traditions?) It may be instead that what you dislike is
officially-sanctioned modernist abstract art. Diebenkorn's a very pleasing
alternative to the official thing. As Diebenkorn once said, “I’m really a
traditional painter, not avant-garde at all. I wanted to follow a tradition and
The other art show I
enjoyed was a small group of paintings by John Dubrow. Although he's certainly
his own man, Dubrow works in a semi-similar way: cool, walking-the-edges-
Though Dubrow's work is
always representational, it's also very simplified -- but not in any
programmatic or geometry-obsessed way. He isn't trying to get at essences.
Instead, he works intuitively. He's trying to deal with how light and form
strike his optic nerves.
Dubrow seems to like
seeing how much he can do with patches of color. Notice the total absence of
outlines, and the near-total absence of modeling. Notice also how nearly
everything in the image is a color and a shape in its own right.
The picture is a bunch of
interlocking color patches, basically. You could think of it as a mosaic, or a
stained-glass window. The areas of shadow aren't just dimmed-down empty bits.
They're presences in their own right; the dimmer colors are as strong as the
brighter colors; and the shapes of the negative spaces are as interesting as the
hands, the head, the books. (This doesn't come across very well in this
reproduction, darn it.)
Hey, one trick artists who
like this kind of thing use is to reverse the usual way of indicating
"background" and "foreground." The usual thing is to put the
paint representing "what's in back" down first, and the paint
representing "what's in front" on top of that. Dubrow, like some other
painters I enjoy (including Diebenkorn), often reverses that procedure, putting
the paint representing what's behind on top of the paint representing what's in
front. Take a look at this picture, for instance:
Look at the green lawn
above the figure in the foreground. The green has been put down on top of the
paint indicating the figure. The result is an interesting perceptual switcheroo.
What's pushing and what's pulling? What's in front, and what's in back? It's a
trick that's fun in itself, but that also helps you register the painting both
both as a picture-of-something and as an
arrangement-of-colored-pigments-on-a-canvas. It's a trick that can seem to bring
completeness to the visual field.
There was a time in
early-modernist art history when a preference for thinking of a painting as an
arrangement of colors was considered a radical, progressive, and exciting thing.
So it's fun to take note
of the fact that, these days, making paintings in this way is considered not
just conservative but reactionary. Take a fast look at Mario Naves' review
of a recent Dubrow show, for example. Naves spends the first half of his review
trying to excuse the fact that he has enjoyed a show of "conservative"
art. Do Dubrow's paintings strike you as "conservative art"? They
strike me mainly as very pleasing art.
Dubrow is more of a
builder of images than Diebenkorn was. Though Diebenkorn adored Edward Hopper,
it's maybe easier to see a connection between Hopper and Dubrow. And Dubrow's
paintings stay still, like structures, where Diebenkorn's invite movement and
Yet there are some obvious
connections between them too. It ain't
What it is, is
approachable, atmospheric, and informal. Diebenkorn and Dubrow share an aversion
to grand gestures, big ideas, and chic themes. In fact, Dubrow's paintings might
just as easily as Diebenkorn's be dismissed by the unappreciative as mere New
Yorker covers. (Once again, I'd say, "Sure! And that's a problem?")
Both painters make work that's rewarding for those who like perception,
observation, and playing with the edges of abstraction, impressionism, and
In the most literal sense,
what the art of Diebenkorn and Dubrow share is
What is it about
here and here I blogged about the
much-underrecognized artist Ken Kewley, whose lovely paintings might plausibly
be categorized in the same part of the museum as Diebenkorn's and Dubrow's.
(Probably not a coincidence that Kewley is handled by the
same small gallery that handles Dubrow.) Ken Kewley's
website is here. Back here I rhapsodized a bit
about the Bay Area Figurative Movement, an episode in American art that I really
Here's a good Kenneth
Baker review of "Diebenkorn in
Mallarkey's review of Dubrow's show is a good one.
Here's John Dubrow's website,
which offers a very well-done selection of images.