The Corcoran Gallery of Art: Coast To Coast Dreaming
From Ocean Park, California to Arlington Cemetery, Virginia, dreams come in many forms. Between wakefulness and slumber, the artist can find inspiration for his or her next creation. For West Coast abstract painter Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), it happened in the ethereal and luminous planes of color. For Dutch photographer and animal portraitist Charlotte Dumas, it continues to reside in the intimate relationship between man and animal in a private moment. Washington, D.C.’s The Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art & Design has mounted showcases of these two distinctive creators — separated not only by space but by their own visionary obsessions — and it is at once splendid and startlingly alive.
Richard Diebenkorn – A California Dreamer
When you first enter the spacious second-floor galleries that house The Ocean Park Series, you feel a slight headiness — even weightlessness, as if light and air and color have commingled, and you, the viewer, are all part of it. The exhibition features nearly 80 works — large scale paintings, smaller paintings made on cigar box lids, mixed-media drawings on paper, and monotypes and prints as a full exploration of the artist. But unquestionably, it’s the monumental canvases that began in 1967 and continued over a period of 25 years that first greet the eye. Named after the Santa Monica community where Diebenkorn kept his studio, you can’t help but get the feeling that this Ocean Park neighborhood — and the wide blue Pacific itself — is lurking just outside the walls.
There is a certain kind of Western — the American West — canon that incorporates light, the idea of light through the manifestation of color, into the creation of art. In the artist’s words, “I see the light only at the end of working on a painting. I mean, I discover the light of a place gradually, and only through painting it.” Other West Coast artists whose works have relied heavily on the power and properties of color, in contrast to many of The New York School, include the likes of Sam Francis, Wayne Thiebaud and David Hockney. Thanks are due to the Corcoran’s forward-thinking philosophy that Diebenkorn finally found a home this summer in the nation’s capital.
Part of the magic that these majestic, grid-like images work on the viewer is due in no small part to the actual size of the color planes and the layers of translucent paint in sun-drenched colors that seduce the sensibilities. Yet there is conflict aplenty, the kind that comes from the juxtaposition of hot and cool blocks of color colliding. In Ocean Park #24 (93-3/4 x 77-1/2 inches), a sky blue mass fills the lower right half of the picture and as the eye travels upward, a diagonal line of orange and green juts out. A smokestack shape in like colors stands firm in the upper center of the canvas and again, a hard blue diagonal line cuts into the frame, continuing downward as if to sever the playing field.
Colors act like the players in a full-scale symphony within each canvas, sometimes concordant and at other times, intentionally discordant. The interplay is all the more arresting because of the Diebenkorn palette. If the pastel serenity of his aqua greens and ceruleans blues, his dusty roses and almost edible corals can make you feel slightly giddy, or even weightless in those high-walled white rooms, just wait. The sharp grids in other images act as counterpoints to the calm you thought you were embracing.
According to curator Sarah C. Bancroft, the artist scraped and repainted again and again, building up not only layers but an array of abstract geometric relationships and lines as well, “gathering a history through the pentimenti, until finally arriving at a resolution. Anger, frustration, hesitation, despair, relief — all these emotions came to bear on the paintings, a combination of intention, intuition and improvisation.” Diebenkorn, describing his process in the wall notes, remarked: “I can never accomplish what I want — only what I would have wanted had I thought about it beforehand.” That stands as an elusive and elliptical statement if there ever was one.
While Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings remain the main stage attraction, it’s a comprehensive show, inclusive enough with its panoply of works on paper, cigar box lid paintings and monotype prints, to give the impression that this artist wasn’t about to just wile away his time daydreaming.
If not the kind of action painter we picture when a Jackson Pollock comes to mind, you can’t help but get the feeling that the creative impulse at play in Diebenkorn was quick to use whatever was easily within reach. The artist’s cigar box lids are on generous display. Using the mediums of oil, graphite, charcoal and watercolor in varying combinations, they serve as miniatures of the colorful abstractions seen on a grander scale. An interesting exception to the grandiose abstractions is an expressionistic work on paper with gouache, charcoal and ink (Untitled; View from Studio, Ocean Park), with somber tones of gray depicting nearby A-frame rooftops with overhanging palms, lightened by a cloudy blue sky. In spite of its realistic imagery, it manages to convey a characteristic concentration on geometric planes and the powerful contrasts between light and dark. These are typical of Diebenkorn’s style, factors that emerge even when the color spectrum is of the bright sun colors reminiscent of the Ocean Park Series.
Other images show color taking a backseat. There’s a hint of Mondrian without the hard-edge. With Diebenkorn, there’s often the sense of a shape in process, suspended between nothingness and something, not quite discernible but there all the same.
Born in 1922 in Portland, Oregon, Diebenkorn spent his formative years in San Francisco, receiving recognition during his lifetime as an important seminal contributor to American abstract painting. During the 1950s and 1960s, he was an active member of the Bay Area figurative school and much of his work during that time owes a great deal to the color master himself, Henri Matisse. His spontaneous, intuitive searches in landscape and figure work show the inspiration of artists as diverse as Willem de Kooning and another West Coast artist of renown, Wayne Thiebaud. Still, it’s not surprising that the Corcoran Gallery’s retrospective of his most significant body of abstract work, The Ocean Park Series, is the first exhibition for these canvases on the East Coast. It is high time that an artist of Diebenkorn’s stature be given the homage his life work deserves. Philip Brookman, the coordinating curator of the exhibition, sees these pieces as an investigation of the “tension between the real world and Diebenkorn’s own interior landscape.”
He was a bit of a wanderer. His artistic journey took him from Berkeley, California to Albuquerque, New Mexico and from Urbana, Illinois to Woodstock, New York (not necessarily in that order). He was what you might call a peripatetic painter, ready to go where the muse led. If he had never strayed from Ocean Park, then that would have been enough to insure a lasting place among the best of 20th-century American artists.
Charlotte Dumas – Animal Dreamer
Entering the second floor rotunda, at once confronting Dumas’ darkly somber photographic horse portraits, it’s impossible not to feel the power of their forms, the warm brown eyes at rest. These are horses, surely, but in this case, this centerpiece exhibit of Anima features the burial horses of Arlington National Cemetery. These are army animals, members of the Old Guard Third Infantry Regiment that hold the honor of carrying soldiers to their final resting place.
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