Land, Line and Color
Richard Diebenkorn prints in Katonah; Contemporary landscapes at Forum Gallery
AMERICAN PAINTING in the second half of the 20th century owes more to the Marines than it admits.
While Robert Motherwell was sitting out World War II in Mexico, musing grandly on the Spanish Civil War, Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) enlisted in the Marine reserves at Camp Pendelton. Uncertain of a career path, he knew only that he liked to draw. At Quantico (where he flunked Officer Candidate School), a sympathetic sergeant kept him supplied with art materials. His skills sideslipped him into cartography; he was preparing for airborne reconnaissance over Japanese positions when the war ended.
That training ignited the genius—the distinctive aerial perspective and rectilinear landscape structure—of his “Ocean Park” series of abstract paintings begun in the late 60s and continuing for 20 years. The rest is art history.
His path to the “Ocean Park” series and beyond is on full display at the Katonah Museum. “Richard Diebenkorn: Prints 1948-1993” is the first retrospective of his prints. The exhibition features over 100 works, including series rarely exhibited in their entirety. Mr. Diebenkorn’s attraction toward various intaglio printing methods dates to the early days of his career. He made his first prints in 1948 and worked at printmaking on and off for the next thirty years. Beginning in the late 70s until his death, he immersed himself in sustained print projects, spending part of every year in the printing workshop.
Though he is more widely known as a painter than a printmaker, Mr. Diebenkorn’s prints are as distinguished as his paintings. Indeed, many of them offer themselves as paintings by another means. Take note of the imposing aquatint “Green” (1986), requiring seven plates and the assistance of five printers, or the woodblock “Ochre,” (1983) produced in concert with an expert ukiyo-e printer and carver. In each, color exerts its weight in luminous, textured overlays and painterly detail, dispelling any lingering thought of print-making as a step child to painting.
One of the advantages of this exhibition is its emphasis on line, an austerity that lends steel to the lyricism of Diebenkorn’s color sense. Drawing remains at the heart of Richard Diebenkorn’s achievement, in his abstract as much as his figurative work. Line provided counter to expressionist gestures—what Diebenkorn termed “that 50s morass.” It sustains the structure of his paintings no less than his hundreds of works on paper. The centrality of his line, running through the prints, is enhanced by the nitric acid bite and the irrefutability of scrapers, burins, and that drypoint burr.
Prints have the advantage of being embraceable. While the monumental size of Mr. Diebenkorn’s paintings holds the viewer at a necessary distance, even the largest of the color prints can be observed intimately. You can follow the rhythm of its parts—the puddling of the colors, the wandering smudges and chance effects of the printing process—without losing sight of the whole.
Starr Figura, curator of the exhibition, is from the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books at MOMA. She selected samples of every technique Mr. Diebenkorn used: lithography, woodcut and all varieties of intaglio, including spitbite and soapground. Her catalogue essay is a thoroughly useful, non-rhetorical guide through different processes and the history of Mr. Diebenkorn’s relation to them. Ms. Figura keeps her focus on the skilled labor—almost always collaborative—that undergirds the making of so much plangent beauty.
A finished print is rarely the work of a single hand and, by definition, yields multiple originals. This denies prints the status that accrues to unique objects. But status is not an aesthetic category. Richard Diebenkorn enriched the medium he worked in. And collaboration undertaken in a spirit of love for the perfection of the work leaves an indelible mark.
IN AUGUST, GALLERIES hang casual fare for accidental tourists, put their feet up and wait for fall. All the more reason, then, to applaud Forum Gallery for a vigorous selection of contemporary landscapes. Each of its twenty-plus paintings, drawings and watercolors is worth the viewing.
Go first to Israel Hershberg’s “City Center, Jerusalem” (1990-91). Painted from a hi-rise window, the view drops precipitously in the foreground, gradually fanning outward toward surrounding hills. Color intensity accumulates at the base of the vantage point, gradually dimming into the myriad indescribable neutrals of a sustained haze. The painting is saturated with mood and the fragility of its moment.
|City Center, Jerusalem
Hershberg makes no secret of his admiration for Antonio López-García, the great contemporary Spanish realist. Hershberg’s composition paraphrases López-García’s “Madrid desde Torres Blancas” (1976-82); his sense of light derives from the same contemplative patience and austerity. More than a professional nod, Hershberg’s cityscape expresses the reverence of a painter who recognizes his own soul in the sensibility and work of another. Such empathy, expressed on an almost preternatural level of achievement, is rare in contemporary painting.
Robert Bauer’s small landscape of southern Spain and three gossamer drawings make a fine accompaniment. They share Hershberg’s humility before the visual world and his unconcern with fashion. Bauer’s landscape drawings are particularly compelling for their receptivity to the abstract mysteries of depiction. Silvery hatchings in hard pencil travel lightly over the paper, caressing the subject more than describing it. Sudden dark notes, made by the sharpened point of a softer lead, tether near-immaterial marks to the singularities of a locale.
Craig McPherson's haunting monochrome pastel on canvas is based on Edgar Thompson’s historic photos of American steel works. Points of light punctuate the atmospheric sfumato of manufacture rising from clustered smoke stacks. Think of Seurat descending into Pittsburgh at its industrial height. Certain persuasions might interpret this as a sulfurous vision of hell; to me, it is elegiac and poignant.
Joseph McNamara frames the haze of sundown through the strict geometry of a dry dock. Fading light in the distance is captured in pale pinks and violets that weave, deepened and enriched, through the bedarkened greens and blues of the foreground structure. It is a more sophisticated excursion into the uses of color than the bravura exuberance of Brian Rutenberg’s “Until 2” (2002) that hangs nearby. For all its palette-knifed dash, Rutenberg’s kaleidoscopic charm is ultimately less satisfying than McNamara’s quieter, more deliberate analysis of his motif.
Davis Cone’s meticulous, brashly colored Art Deco picture houses strike the right balance between homage to cultural artifacts and wry recognition of the transience of Style Moderne. (Have fun finding his signature, hidden Where’s-Waldo style within the image.) Tula Telfair ‘s “Early Utopian Ideals” (2003) is lovely to look at and a good choice for anyone who prefers the idea of landscape—their own mental image of the sublime—to the disconcerting specifics of real places. Based on reproductions of 19th century American landscape painting, it has a bookish feel to it. But that is fine if you love books, too.
“Richard Diebenkorn: Prints 1948-1993” at Katonah Museum of Art , Katonah NY, Tel: 914.232.9555.
“Contemporary Landscapes” at Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, Tel:212.269.5436
A version of these essays were first published in The New York Sun, August 19th and 26th, 2004, respectively.
Copyright 2004 Maureen Mullarkey