The Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Palm Springs Art Museum is an inspiration and a revelation for anyone interested in watching the creative mind at work. It covers only a relatively brief period of the artist’s work, “The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966,” but they are critical years for the development of his vision. Everything that was to matured in th great paintings of the Ocean Park series is presaged here, as the artist moved from an early period of abstraction into the figurative work of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and back into abstraction–the work now vitally informed by the values explored in paintings and drawings of the human figure, interiors, and landscapes.
What I came away with was perhaps what I brought along with me–the dedication to the search. I like to think it’s what defines me and everything I do. Diebenkorn, it seems to me, is deeply concerned with listening to what the painting wants to be. In the video of a CBS Sunday Morning segment with the late Charles Kuralt that accompanies the show, he describes his need to sit for hours in contemplation of a work in progress before deciding what might need to be done next. I was irresistibly reminded of Ken McLeod’s injunction, to look, keep looking, and to “rest in the looking.”
If this search is a necessary preliminary for each step in the artist’s painting process, it is akin to the process itself–for this, indeed, seems to be the subject of each painting. The viewer is encouraged–no, required, if he is to pay full attention and to “understand” the work–to get acquainted with each structural choice, each change of mind or strategy, and each reversal. We must follow the artist in each step along his path toward completion, taking note of the substrata of lines or colors left visible beneath new surfaces, of each change of direction, each new emphasis. If a scumbled, scratched-out or thinly delineated passage of brushwork looks “unfinished,” it is because the artist has taken it as far as he needs to go in his process of discovery: the passage has revealed itself to his satisfaction and needs no further attention.
A part of the quality of searching is of course that there is no end to it. Every discovery or revelation leads to a new question, a new challenge, a new mystery to be solved. Every answer, to the true searcher, is provisional. As the French poet Yves Bonnefoy wrote, in the last line of a poem that has always stayed with me: “L’imperfection est la cime” (“Imperfection is the summit [of artistic achievement].”) In this sense, each one of Diebenkorn’s marvelous creations is a discard, a stop along the path rather than an end product. In another video, to be found on YouTube, he speaks of the need to “violate” the next “pristine” canvas in order to find his way into a new painting, to create that imperfection that allows him to move forward.
What we’re privileged to see, then, in this exhibition, is the creative human mind in action, both in each individual work of art–whether painting or drawing–and from painting to painting, year to year. We are invited not only to witness, but to participate in the artist’s journey, deriving a deep satisfaction from his “work.” And if I put that in quotation marks, it’s to insist that it’s not simply the “work of art” that we admire but, for me just as importantly, the “work” it took to make it.
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