Put a Bird On It? I Don’t Think so!

Although Richard Diebenkorn stayed here only a few years after his birth in 1922, I like to think that Portland exercised its influence on him just as it did on Marc Rothko. (I’m going to assume Aberdeen Washington had a similar effect on Robert Motherwell.  It couldn’t possibly be a coincidence that three of my favorite painters are from the NW could it?)

Visualize what you know of Diebenkorn’s work.  There are those figures bathed in light and placed on the canvas for purposeful divisions.  The influence of Hopper can be seen here–so different than the early expressionist work which writhes with expressive marks and big brush loads of juicy paint. And we can all envision the late Ocean Park paintings—flat, veiled geometry in which hints of the history of the work’s very making float between taut edges and angles.

Michael Kimmelman, art historian and former NY Times critic (and one of my big crushes), writes about meeting the artist, published in the Times: September 13, 1992–

He speaks in a halting, almost apologetic manner, forever correcting what he just said, or wincing at what he perceives as the imprecision of his own, or your, remark. He’ll pause for a good while before answering a question. Sometimes he will correct or alter even a minor statement he made a day or more before, having silently ruminated about it during the interim. He somehow exudes at the same time extreme self-doubt and tremendous self-confidence. He seems to revel in the process of arriving at a solution no less than in the solution itself.

This is very much the spirit in which Diebenkorn paints. He has produced hundreds of abstractions during the last quarter of a century, most of them part of his Ocean Park series, named after the section of Santa Monica where he kept a studio from 1966 until he moved north of San Francisco to Healdsburg in 1988. Each of these abstractions discloses the history of its making: the works are composed of second thoughts, pentimenti, erasures and emendations, which at their best combine to form images of remarkable elegance and poise. The strength, and also the curiosity, of the work lies in this contradiction — that indecision, conflict and ad hoc tinkering could become the stuff of such deeply lyric art.

This is not a new way to work for many of us, we Portlanders are “ad hoc tinkerers”, shifting contexts to create new meanings. We exhibit “at the same time extreme self-doubt and tremendous self-confidence” (stump-jumping hipsters). It’s not only ok to have “second thoughts…erasures and emendations” but in actively doing so belief in process over product is confirmed.

This week we will embrace our halting worldliness and channel our inner-Diebenkorn working backwards to the future.  Bring old works to which  you are not attached–the crustier the better. If you work best from a source bring one, or bring the source that inspired the old crusty work to begin with.

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