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  • Writer's pictureSimon Rivett

Abstraction and representation

Updated: Oct 3, 2019

Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) is an artist I greatly admire and have spent a great deal of time studying.

The American painter was a great artist, he worked both as an abstract and figurative painter. His calm, considered and individual vision has vast amounts to teach all those who want and strive to paint pictures with real depth.

Window, 1967 oil on canvas, 233 x 205cm

I have only seen his painting, Window, in illustration but it is high on my list of works I would like to view in exhibition. It was painted towards the end of his figurative period before he embarked on his major series of abstract paintings, Ocean Park.

In 1964 Diebenkorn had seen the great Matisse paintings collected by the Russian collector Shehukin. Then in early 1966 the huge and lasting impression these works had made upon him was strengthened further by an exhibition of Matisse he saw in Los Angeles. Amoung the canvases on exhibition for the first time in the United States was View of Notre Dame. This painting from 1914 is a rare example of Matisse coming close to embracing abstraction.

Henri Matisse  View of Notre Dame 1914

Diebenkorn and his 'representational' period of work was at this time coming to an end, even if the artist was probably not yet aware of it. Window with its strong sense of flattened spaces and strong structural verticals, horizontals and diagonals make more than passing nods to the Matisse painting. It is also the flattening of spaces whilst embracing elements of traditional perspective that make this painting both an end for representational painting and a beginning of the return to abstraction in Diebenkorn's work.

The front space of green is magnificent, particularly set against that orange wall. At first the green seems to be a simple flat block of colour but when you look closely you see a line separating the floor from the an internal wall and window frame. Evidence of alterations are left showing in subtle traces under the main body of colour which  tantalise and invigorate that foreground space. Diebenkorn is a master of leaving echoes of former efforts, this adds energy and freshness to the finished picture, so that the final conclusion never feel laboured. Considering the months and years of work some of his paintings required it is a masterful achievement to leave the work with strong feelings of spontaneity.

The picture is full of carefully considered balancing acts of colour and shape. Look at the little shape on the right hand side of the orange rectangle that  takes it form from the chair back. That chair with its simple painterly suggestion of reflections on its plastic seat, the strip of orange on the seat back, a colour which is used sparingly again on the left hand side. The more you look the more you see of this deliberate use of shape and colour to give the picture a magnificent harmony. 

There are many other pictures by Richard Diebenkorn I could attempt to write about, but do take the time to look at his work. He is an painter that painters admire and for good reason.

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