Richard Diebenkorn’s Seawall (1957), oil on canvas
  • Richard Diebenkorn’s Seawall (1957), oil on canvas
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Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years 1953–1956, on view at the de Young Museum until September 29, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco. 415-750-3600; deyoung.famsf.org

Beyond Belief: 100 years of the Spiritual in Modern Art, on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum until October 27, 736 Mission Street, San Francisco. 415-655-7800; info@thecjm.org

Impressionists on the Water, on view at the Legion of Honor until October 13, 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco. 415-750-3600; legionofhonor.famsf.org

As I write here in San Francisco in August, the cold, hard-blowing fog in my Haight-Ashbury neighborhood astonishes out-of-towners. The unprepared (or reckless) wear tank tops and shorts and hug their goose bumps, but they’re grooving on it, because it’s San Francisco. We who live and shiver here know that soon, maybe, Indian summer will be upon us in September, the air will soften, the fog will keep its distance, and the city will more sensibly be a place where people might want to take the air.

If you do visit, and if you have an interest, three exhibitions are drawing big crowds. The splashiest, and intellectually the most probing, is an ample exhibition at the de Young, in Golden Gate Park, of work Richard Diebenkorn produced while living in Berkeley from 1953 to 1966. Diebenkorn grew up in San Francisco, was already drawing skillfully as a child, attended Stanford and the San Francisco Art Institute (formerly the California School of Fine Arts), and after a few intervening years in New Mexico and elsewhere returned to Berkeley in 1953. With David Park and Elmer Bischoff, he was part of an adventure that became known as Bay Area Figuration. All three started out as seekers of a fresh abstract style but in the 1950s and 1960s experimented with representation. Diebenkorn and Bischoff eventually steered back into abstraction; Park began to paint bold, totemic figures and never looked back.

The Berkeley years were an explosive, exploratory time for Diebenkorn: having absorbed the precedents of Abstract Expressionism, especially the work of de Kooning and Gorky, he’d developed a swinging, propulsive way of painting. He sheeted overlays of angular planes aroused by jumpy marks and calligraphic play. His deep, complex color had a steady lyrical hum. He reworked his canvasses endlessly: what mattered most was being in process of finding just the right deployment of painterly energies. So in a sense, even when he declared a picture complete — one swooping drawn line could pull all the elements of a picture into a satisfying, gorgeous form — it wasn’t really finished.

I can’t separate Diebenkorn’s obsession with the topography of the painted surface from his observation of actual landscapes, especially from elevated or aerial points of view. He rarely modeled a picture on an actual scene, but his pastoral and oceanic patches and swells of color are an emotional response to Bay Area scenes that lived in his imagination. In 1955 he consolidated and re-deployed these energies in stately representational pictures — landscapes, still lifes, figure paintings. He didn’t entirely give up one practice for the other: in any given year he might make nonrepresentational works as well as images of figures sitting on a porch or in a room. Two sweet pictures titled Beach and Seawall are indistinguishable from abstract pictures he made the same year, and all are installed in a room that gives a roundhouse view of this critical passage in Diebenkorn’s long career.

The figurative work opened up space for him. He began to explore the dynamics of interior and exterior light. A window or door discloses a luxuriant spaciousness. The figure of a woman at a table looks casually monolithic. The expansiveness of his interiors recalled Matisse, and Diebenkorn acknowledged his shaping influence. It’s especially apparent in blunt flourishes of floral wallpaper, wrought iron filigree, and striped textiles. It’s also evident in the way Diebenkorn floated figures in warm enfolding space. He was, like Matisse, a very steady sensualist, though more even-tempered and with less erotic restlessness. I saw the exhibition with a friend who got caught up in two pictures of a male sitting opposite a female. She commented that they didn’t seem engaged in any kind of human contact: “What kind of conversation do you think they’re having?” I don’t ask such questions of paintings, but it’s not an irrelevant one. The pictures are traditional “artist beholding the model” scenes, but Diebenkorn wasn’t interested in psychological-erotic dynamics. The pictures evoke an insular intimacy not between artist and model but between artist and form.


Some of the pictures in the Diebenkorn show come from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is closed until 2016 for a huge expansion project to accommodate the recent gift of the collection of Doris and Donald Fisher (of the GAP fortune). In the meantime, SFMOMA is staging satellite exhibitions at other spaces, one of them, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, devoted to the spiritual aspects of modern art. The spiritual is what one makes it; it can be orthodox and shared or idiosyncratic and private. Most art-making is spiritual in that it occurs at the frontier where immaterial reality is brought over into material forms. Major modernists had something to say on the matter. When asked if he believed in God, Matisse replied: “Yes, when I’m working.” Giacometti said that his best work comes out of his sense of a fall from an Eden of perfect representation. Chagall, Dalí, Picasso, Rouault, and other artists used religious iconography not for decorative or formalist reasons but as signs of invisible orders.

Paul Klee’s A Spirit Serves a Small Breakfast (1920), lithograph with watercolor

Paul Klee’s A Spirit Serves a Small Breakfast (1920), lithograph with watercolor

Beyond Belief: 100 years of the Spiritual in Modern Art sweats too much trying to prove its case that modern artists addressed questions of genesis, transformation, and deliverance. But you can ignore the argument, because the works on view are choice. Beyond Belief generously revisits the spiritual hub of early modernism, the Blue Rider group of 1911. Its members — Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee — believed that art, abstract art especially, expressed spiritual realities. Marc’s Landscape, built of shuffled triangular prisms, is a vision of nature as a stacked and interleaved vitalism. Klee, whose work is so quiet that it never appears as grand as it actually is, believed that abstraction is always inspired by nature, that art is “a simile to the works of God.” The many angels in his work are (like artists) messengers bringing news from unseen orders. A Spirit Serves a Little Breakfast enacts, with Klee’s uncanny whimsy, the ordinary intervention of the extraordinary in our world. The show also contains a handful of exquisitely spare drawings by the Russian suprematist Kazimir Malevich, each of them a devotional act to the purity of geometric abstraction. Also represented are two sacred monsters of mid-20th-century art. Philip Guston’s triptych, Red Sea; The Swell; Blue Light, dramatizes the exodus story in a flood of shrieking, boiling reds; and a signature Mark Rothko abstraction, a sulfurous orange block floating above a block of sultry violet blue, is for me the most dire expression of melancholy in modern art.

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