California Dreaming: Richard Diebenkorn at the RA

Throughout this exceptionally damp and cold spring of drizzle and wind there’s been a quiet corner of sun, sand and sea in Mayfair. Up a winding staircase at the Royal Academy, the Sackler Wing Galleries have been playing host to the colour-splashed canvases of Richard Diebenkorn, a 20th century Californian painter who defied categorisation or finite definition. Associated, but by no means a member of, the Abstract Expressionists, Diebenkorn managed to work for several decades without being lumped into an artistic movement, an impressive feat for any artist in this age of obsessive art historical classification and ‘ism’-ing. Early abstract oil paintings of the 1950s show a clear influence of Fauvism with bright palettes and chaotic compositions; there’s a sudden regression back to figuration (in the sense that most artists start with figuration and develop abstraction later) of which not much good can be said; before returning to abstraction with a new palette and set of rules to paint his Ocean Park series in the 1970s.

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape #1

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape #1

Richard Diebenkorn, Seawall

Richard Diebenkorn, Seawall

The exhibition is small which, in a city full of blockbusters, comes as a blessed and refreshing relief. Although adamantly abstract, his paintings clearly reflect the environment in which they were made – for example, the brilliant perspectival view of Cityscape #1 accompanied by Seawall, which fill these modest galleries with deep reds and verdant greens, sun soaked blues and yellows, patches of coloured light in which to gaze or bask alternately and imagine the fairy tale of Californian living. A move to Alberquerque, New Mexico, sees arid, sun-baked oranges creeping onto the palette, and a return to California is evident in the Berkeley series, with luminous pinks, yellows, greens and whites reappearing in softer and more fluid form. His unhappy time in Urbana was clearly signposted by the sudden change to greys and muted blues bruised by huge shadows of black dominating the canvases.

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #5

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #5

Richard Diebenkorn, (Untitled), Albuquerque

Richard Diebenkorn, (Untitled), Albuquerque

The Ocean Park series, painted between 1967 and 1988, and strictly abstract according to the artist, seemed to me to be clearly formed along the rigid lines of the window through which he saw the view which inspired them.  Although first and foremost an arrangement of flat geometric expanses of colour, broken up by white bands, I’m tempted to see it as a natural extension of Matisse’s window views onto sea and sky, as indeed their effect is the enlivening one of windows thrown open to fresh air, with varying patterns of weather. Ocean Park #27 is like a prism refracting light, with jewel like wedges of colour in rainbow variation putting one in mind of a sunny summer’s morning; whilst Ocean Park #46 has a more bleached palette of whites intersected with blues, reds and greens, as though the sun has gone behind a cloud but still beats through with bright white light. The real delight of this series were the cigar box lids on which Diebenkorn painted miniature Ocean Park compositions as gifts for his family, and they show to what extent he was an unusually “happy” and domesticated painter, if such a thing can be said of any artist, than his East coast counterparts, Pollock and Rothko, whose paintings are so full of angst, loathing and fervour.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #27

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #27

If I have a criticism of this exhibition, it’s that it lacks a bit of depth – but perhaps this is a criticism of the artist more than the curator. For sheer, joyful art though, and to anyone who loves paintings for the purpose of looking rather than intellectual discussion, Diebenkorn can’t be beat, and this exhibition should not be missed.

This exhibition finishes on Sunday 7th June so catch it this weekend!

Copyright Disclaimer: I do no own or have the rights to any of the images used.

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