It is true that, like wine, certain artists don’t travel. Richard Diebenkorn, subject of the spring exhibition in the Royal Academy’s Sackler Wing, is a case in point: an American painter who is revered in his native land, but of whom few will have heard over here. Will the RA show change that, and — more crucially — does it deserve to? Up to a point.
Diebenkorn (1922–93) was no Mark Rothko or Willem de Kooning. He was a second-generation abstract expressionist, almost two decades younger than those two, and a lower-voltage talent to boot. But he created some memorably beautiful pictures, most of the best of them situated in the elusive territory between pure abstraction and landscape painting.
Diebenkorn’s first mature works, dating from the early 1950s, have a slightly familiar look to a British eye. It is hard, in the first room of the show, not to find the words ‘St Ives’ popping into mind. Diebenkorn was a contemporary of British painters such as Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron, and he was doing something similar to the St Ives School: blending abstraction with a feeling for local terrain (in Diebenkorn’s case, initially, that of New Mexico rather than West Penwith).
In the mid-50s Diebenkorn returned to his native California and, shortly afterwards, switched to painting identifiable people and places. Even so, the results continue to demonstrate the arbitrariness of the distinction between representational and non-representational art.
Paintings such as ‘Cityscape #1’ (1963) have suggestions of an actual scene — a road, some shadows, a definite horizon — but the geometric layout and the mood are much the same as in his later, ostensibly abstract pictures. Some of these have female figures in them, slightly eerie ones, their eyes shaded and expressions hard to read.
He also produced Matisse-like nudes and a few still lifes — one a nicely angular study of a pair of scissors — but his heart didn’t really seem to be in either genre. Unconsciously Diebenkorn was working his way back towards a more original variety of abstraction.
During his final decades he was based in southern California, which is in US terms — for painting, rather than movies — a bit provincial. Nonetheless, there were some marvellous artists on the West Coast in the 1960s and 70s. Among these were Ed Ruscha — who once published a photo essay depicting 34 LA parking lots — and James Turrell, who makes art out of nothing but light and coloured air.
Diebenkorn had something in common with both. He made paintings filled with light and space, which also had a certain down-to-earth grittiness. For more than 20 years, from 1966 to ’86, he worked in Ocean Park, a district of southern Santa Monica abutting Venice Beach. This is a sort of Californian Brighton, a seaside town, slightly Bohemian and definitely relaxed.
There Diebenkorn produced pictures that are simultaneously abstract and filled with a sense of place. Their shapes, insofar as they depicted anything, may have been derived from the rectangles and diagonals of his studio window. But they are saturated with the colours and light of the Pacific coast: milky blues, the light green Americans call aqua, soft greys and tans, sand.
In structure the Ocean Park pictures consist of a grid of straight lines, mitigated by the occasional diagonal, yet somehow they imply space and emptiness: the sea and the sky. One of Diebenkorn’s sources of inspiration, he admitted, was flying above the western landscape. The paintings suggest a chessboard of streets and fields, meeting the water and the desert, without exactly depicting one.
They are not neatly perfect in the manner of a Mondrian, but slightly stained and soiled, with dribbles of pigment and messy ghosts of overpainted lines and shapes. And this, too, evokes the slightly ramshackle mood of a beach resort where the salt spray and the wind nibble at everything. The Ocean Park paintings are cool yet rich and melancholy — or any rate lonely in feeling. In short, they are — together with Hockney’s pools and Ruscha’s paintings and photographic books — among the best visual evocations of Los Angeles there are.
The Ocean Park pictures look splendid in the Sackler Wing, even if, like so much abstract painting, they are repetitions of a single idea. But you don’t yearn to see a larger exhibition of Diebenkorn than this medium-sized selection at the RA. His art does survive the journey from the West Coast to the Thames, but a little goes a long way and only the best years are really worth savouring.