Ten random observations on seeing Richard Diebenkorn – The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 at the De Young, San Francisco

  • Nearly every piece in the show is both sui generis (although that’s sometimes subtle, given his imitators) and stunning.
  • A discovery: Diebenkorn’s simple, sensual charcoal figure drawings.
  • Roughly 75 % of the people viewing the show were women.
  • Roughly 95 % of the figures depicted by Diebenkorn were women. A Diebenkorn quote from a 1970’s TV profile shown at the exhibition about his canvasses: “When they are new, they are too pristine to do anything with. But when they get besmirched, they’re fair game.” It’s a queasy moment.
  • The men in the crowd were soft-faced, well-dressed, middle-aged.
  • In his early years, Diebenkorn was beautiful; in his later years, avuncular.
  • Many contemporary painters still clearly work under Diebenkorn’s influence.
  • Diebenkorn’s Berkeley work is strongly marked by what have become moderne style clichés. It easily reaches beyond them, but from 2013 the resonances are impossible to miss – in how he divides his frames, in the architecture and furnishings he depicts, in his color choices, in his cultural optimism tinged with privileged ennui, in his embrace of modernist art historical convention and economics, in his disinterest in ornament, in politics, in mess.
  • The work captures (and encapsulates) the mid-century Anglo-expansionist era of Californian history, the vestiges of which still surrounded us, but which no longer defines or controls its growth – it’s there in the coastal and city landscapes that are still being built out, in its very specific (white, male, straight) eroticism, in images of overwhelmingly Caucasian people living in newly-built homes, with large yards and the time to sit and reflect, to be enigmatic, decorative, interesting, to look.
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