Diebenkorn’s improvisation, Durango Herald, Aug. 28, 2007

Taos museum chronicles painter’s student years

Photos clockwise from top: Plate 73 (RD 1086)
Untitled (Albuquerque), 1952. Oil on canvas, 68 ¾ x 60 inches (174.6 x 152.4 cm). The Buck Collection, Laguna Beach, California; Plate 49 (RD 1084); Untitled “M,” 1951. Oil of canvas, 43 ⅛ x 52 ¾ inches (109.5 x 134 cm). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Gift of Rena Bransten in memory of Mason Wells (86.88). Photograph: Ben Blackwell; Richard Diebenkorn and a lost mural he painted on a plaster wall for Joan Evans in Albuquerque from 1950-52. It is 5 feet by 10 feet and is now painted over.

Richard Diebenkorn, one of the most celebrated abstract expressionist painters of the 20th century, said that his two and a half years in New Mexico were a time when everything came together for him as an artist.

The Harwood Museum of Art of the University of New Mexico honors the role the state played in the artist’s growth through a brilliant exhibition, a beautiful book and a scholarly symposium held Friday in Taos.

For Diebenkorn (1922-1993), abstract painting was not just a style; it was a conviction. According to scholar Gerald Nordland, a friend of Diebenkorn’s, the artist was certain that his role was to render deeply felt experience, divorced from objects, figures, stories and nostalgia for the daily world.

Influenced by Cezanne, Matisse, Gorky and cubists, he also took inspiration from his contemporaries De Kooning, Rothko and Clyfford Still, with whom he taught at the California School of Fine Art.

As Nordland pointed out during the symposium: “All artists are influenced by others. It is what one does with the influence that is important.”

What Diebenkorn did was focus on spontaneity and improvisation, attempting to work below the level of the conscious mind. He rejected drawing though he was an accomplished draftsman. He rejected academic mythology though he was an academic and teacher. For Diebenkorn, the challenge was the exploration of himself.

As an abstract painter, he got rid of anything he recognized and believed that every element – form, line, color and texture – must serve the painting materially.

Nordland told me last week that he had stacks of notebooks filled with quotes, interviews and observations about Diebenkorn (the artist would never allow his interviews to be taped nor would he allow himself to be photographed while painting).

Nordland said that painting for Diebenkorn involved a frenzy of emotional activity followed by quiet study from across the room and that Diebenkorn admitted that he was forced to strive to an extent that embarrassed him.

The exhibit at the Harwood Museum includes more than 50 paintings and works on paper, loaned from museums and private collections around the country. All work was created between January 1950 and June 1952 while Diebenkorn was a graduate student in the art department at the University of New Mexico.

The work is mature and powerful. Diebenkorn told Nordland that “Albuquerque 3, 1951” was his breakthrough work. Diebenkorn said he painted it with the paint remaining on the brushes from the day before. The painting came after Diebenkorn had returned from his first flight over the desert.

“The aerial view showed me such a variety of ways of treating a flat plane, like flattened mud or paint,” Diebenkorn said to Nordland.

The flight took Diebenkorn to San Francisco where he visited the memorial exhibition for Arshile Gorky. As Nordland said, Diebenkorn knew what to do with the influence.

One can see influences in the work of Diebenkorn, but what is so compelling about his paintings is the unique expression of himself. The vigorous searching expressed in the work. There is something unexpected and surprising in each painting – be it a line, a color or a texture.

There is clearly a New Mexico landscape influence on the work in this exhibition, but these are not landscapes.

“Temperamentally, perhaps I had always been a landscape painter, but I was fighting the landscape feeling. In Albuquerque I relaxed and began to think of natural forms in relation to my own feelings,” Diebenkorn said.

Nordland describes the New Mexico paintings as “abstract improvisations in color and line,” in Richard Diebenkorn in New Mexico, the book that accompanies the exhibition .

He added that they have “intuitive reflections of landscape elements which slipped into the work. `85 In later years, he responded similarly to light and color wherever he worked but tended to recognize his new awarenesses only after weeks of effort and adjustment.”

At a time when most curators choose to focus on an artist’s later work, it is inspiring that the Harwood and UNM chose to bring together these early works. The artist is best known for his Ocean Park Series (1967-1988), but viewing these early, often masterful paintings, is worth a trip to Taos or San Jose or New York.

This is clearly a show of international importance launched by a small museum in the Southwest. Kudos to them.

If you go: Diebenkorn in New Mexico, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, Sunday Noon-5 p.m., through Sept. 9, Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux St.,Taos. Call (505)758-9826 or harwoodmuseum. org. The show will move to the San Jose Museum of Art, Oct. 15-Jan. 6, then to Grey Art Gallery at New York University from Jan. 23-April 15.

artsjournalist@centurytel.net Leanne Goebel is a freelance writer specializing in the visual arts.

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