The de Young Museum in San Francisco is on a roll. In the past three years or so, the de Young has hosted some amazing art exhibitions, with still more in the queue. The latest in this string of must-see shows is Diebenkorn: the Berkeley Years 1953–1967. Richard Diebenkorn lived and taught in the Bay Area, where he influenced Wayne Thiebaud and worked with or knew Elmer Bischoff, David Park, Nathan Oliveira and others.
Now, I’m not much of a fan of Bay Area figurative art, or of mid-century modern art in general. Abstract art isn’t my thing. I tend to come down on the side of the Beautiful in art, not the challenging. Indeed, before we went into the Diebenkorn exhibit, my friend Steven and I meandered through a small collection of modern pieces in one of the museum’s other rooms—and I felt like I was in one of those New Yorker cartoons of a woman standing in front of a piece of modern art grumbling “I don’t understand this.” I’m sorry: casts of tire treads in clay and binder mounted on a wall? Never mind if Robert Rauschenberg did it—why is that art?
And yet… The Diebenkorn show really struck me. Some of his abstracts are clearly landscapes: he admitted as much himself. The figurative pieces from the late 1950s are harsh, gritty, sometimes ugly. There is a palpable sense of alienation in those pieces, as if they were actively pushing the viewer away. But if the alienation is palpable, so is the life force. The energy. The furious scrubbing and layering and scraping of the paint. This is not Bouguereau’s invisible brushstrokes, or Monet’s calm deployment of paint (I’m thinking of the water lilies here). This is more like Van Gogh’s frenetic brushwork, only released to make its own abstract way.
The show is set up more or less chronologically. The alienation passes, the paintings calm down—still abstractions, but less driven, less hemmed in. The works become explorations and contemplations, whether they are just a coffee cup on a table, a pair of pliers, or a woman sitting in a chair. The final pieces on the exhibition show the clear influence of Diebenkorn’s trip to the Soviet Union and of seeing the works of Matisse.
It’s a fascinating show. I learned a lot about art, about painting, about trusting the medium more. And now I want a studio where I can paint much larger works!
Diebenkorn: the Berkeley Years 1953–1967 runs through September 29, 2013. Highly recommended.
Have you seen the Diebenkorn show? Do you prefer abstract art over representational works? Why or why not?