Fans of Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93) will find many wonderful pieces in “Diebenkorn: the Berkeley Years” now showing at the DeYoung in San Francisco. Also many that are somewhat less than wonderful. Diebenkorn’s work typically exudes energy and a determination not to be pat. Generally that works well for him; at other times the focus on adventure begins to resemble indecision.
But very decisive while still redolent of adventure are such pieces as “reclining nude, pink stripe.” Here Diebenkorn pushes the odd pose and surrounding shapes into a fresh and engaging composition. The drawing is frank and strong, and the wet, loose paint handling is robust without getting arbitrary.
There is a similar sense of exploration in “large still life.” Again, you get the sense that he knew more or less where he was going when he began, but never assumed when he laid down a brushstroke that he knew exactly how it was going to read; the next stroke would then be both a pursuit of the original intention and a response to the previous one–a wonderful, ongoing, zig-zaggy dialogue from beginning to end.
And below, “studio wall,” perhaps the most conservative and understated piece in the show because it is the most straightforwardly illustrative. The drawings on the wall are rendered as drawings, with minimal painterly touches—drawing boards, wall, floor, all convincing. The chair is typical of Diebenkorn’s chairs, being modeled loosely and largely in negative by the surrounding shapes, but he must have loved those chairs. It’s a solid, convincing chair. It is this end of Diebenkorn’s work that I most admire—exemplified by the three pieces here—where intention and exploration don’t stray far from each other, and the the result is both rich and taut.
Pieter Janz. Saenredam (1597-1665) is admired for the breathtaking (and improbable) light in his wonderful interiors. In St. Anne, below, the image is largely held in light middle tones so that the dark, sprightly figures along the bottom command the space. That is masterful; but then he tied himself to a mechanical one-point perspective where all the receding lines converge on point: the head of the lady with the dark-clad gent and child.
Meanwhile, all the lines across–the back wall, the column bases, the roof above the pulpit–are drawn straight across the picture plane, parallel to the bottom of the canvas. The result is that the farther rectangular shapes are from center of the composition, the odder and less rectangular they become. Similarly, all verticals are drawn as vertical rather than converging as they rise, so that as the eye follows walls and columns up the walls seem about to collapse outward.
One-point perspective works for him, more or less, in a narrow view such as the Buurerkerk, left, because the eye scans it in one view. But in a wide space like St. Anne the eye shifts several times as it moves from the center to the sides. The pulpit would be seen straight on, and not, as here, out of the corner of the eye. The essential note here is that things converge as they get farther away. So the pulpit’s nearest wall, being below eye level, would get smaller–that is, rise slightly to the right. The pulpit itself, being above, would slope downward, and the ceiling, together with the far wall, being higher still, would slope more sharply. Our sense of space is disoriented when they don’t.
Single-point perspective wasn’t Saenredam’s folly alone. It was taught in an influential book by Jan Vredeman de Vries (1527-1604), and a hundred years before that was employed by no less a hero than Albrecht Durer in his otherwise breathtaking St. Jerome, below. Here we have an oblique view into the room, but the back wall is seen square-on. This makes Jerome’s desk much wider on the left side than the right, while the left legs practically do splits.
The essential skill of cartoonists lies in presenting a visual setup so that it can be comprehended at a glance. The more adept they are in this, the easier it is to miss their formal strength–because I get it at once, ha ha, and move on. Why linger?Unhappily, a cartoon’s transparency becomes a lost opportunity for the viewer. Cartoonists employ the same formal means as “fine” artists, and if they have to hold them in to avoid muddling the hit of their image, their work nevertheless repays respectful attention.*
For example, this New Yorker cover by the complex and versatile George Booth (b.1926). The dog is the center of interest, both formally (Camille Corot recommended placing a white shape in the center of a composition) and dramatically. The dog is where the action is, especially if you are familiar with Booth’s dogs (a typical sample, left) so that you pick right up on the personality of the beast in the present case. But the entire space is lovingly described: the squared-off rectangles of wall and door (with tall, oval-topped panels, hinges, locks); receding floor planks in the same pale, mottled red; the rug with floral doodles that pick up the flowers in the vase; the oval table, mirror, clock face, and pendulum weight; the table legs that rhyme the dog’s hind legs; the squares and rectangles of the clock; the colors: strong greeny-blue in the clock, repeated in the dog’s collar, softer in the flowers, paler still on the walls (reinforced by the green stripe down the left side); lavender rug repeated deftly in the clock, the table, the flowers, and the mirror. And all described in a simple but slightly wavering line that lets Booth be clear without ever falling into niggle. Even the typographical elements at the top are factored in: in anticipation, Booth has left the top a little light and loose. The block of type prevents the eye from drifting out the top, and presses down so that the white dog commands the eye more forcefully than it otherwise would. I noted in the April 13 post on Rembrandt that his images are full of richness, but the details don’t compete with the essential hit. You have to linger and look for them. Rembrandt & Booth, Booth and Rembrandt: the craft of storytelling hasn’t changed.
(*It should be noted that the generalizations I make here about cartoonists refer generally to the past, but only very selectively to the present. The New Yorker, formally the Louvre of elegant and expansive cartoon art, now fills mean spaces with inept, boring, and repetitious scribbles. Very little of this discussion would apply to work you find in current issues of The New Yorker.)
Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883) and Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920) aren’t two artists I normally associate with one another, but the two pieces here, while very unlike in effect, are so similar in pose and detail that I have to wonder if the one is a cheeky quotation of the other.The Manet is a depiction of a dead bullfighter, not on the sun-baked, kicked-about sand of a bullring but in romantic isolation and smoothness and stillness–a spiritual condition rather than a physical space. He might be napping were it not for that decorous little trickle of blood. Thiebaud’s supine woman is presented no more realistically than Manet’s matador, but to very different effect. Instead of his evocative, decaying light she floats in her bright, juicy, abstract white field. The pictorial action is in the contrast of the improbably powerful blacks and flesh tones, the utterly arbitrary and audacious blue shadows–and her expression. She couldn’t be more alive: she is spirited rather than spiritual, a very sentient model who looks as if she has other and better things to do than lie there for one more minute. There is smoothness of a pop sort, but no romantic isolation or stillness about her. She is Manet’s toreador reversed in every element.
James Weeks (1922-1998) was a figure in the Bay Area Figurative movement in the ’50s and ’60s. His work tended to be strong in color but more reserved and pictorially conventional than that of his confreres.This piece is a favorite. The figures and objects in it are descriptive but refined to simple shapes. These appear again and again so that the ensemble grows increasingly complex the longer one looks. Take the stool shapes on the right–we find them again in the music stands, the piano legs, the piano stool; and then in the linear shapes of similar width in the window, the floor, and the blackboard on the right. The rigor of those rectilinear shapes plays against the softer shapes of the figures. The busyness of the floor and figures plays against the large, simple shapes of window, walls, and piano. The light side of the cellist’s left arm draws the light tone of the walls down into the darker bottom third of the composition. It’s the only shape in the painting that swoops and changes direction. The effect of all these devices and their balancing is a sense of stillness–a very active stillness.