Visual Critic Series – Part I

Time's going by | Notes on Richard Diebenkorn

By Charity Coleman

“I think it’s hard for an artist to see himself, really.
I’m aware of a predisposition to spareness, or aloneness is something I value…”1

There’s the artist Richard Diebenkorn speaking about himself, and there are others speaking about the artist.

“He appears every bit the outdoorsman,” declares host David Browning on CBS Sunday Morning, during a segment on the artist, partially filmed outside in Sonoma County, California.

There are prompts to get the artist to speak, to reveal what cannot be articulated, driven by an investigative desire to explain the ambiguities of the studio process.

Browning: “Is that really the feeling, you feel like you’re wasting time, or uh?”
Diebenkorn: “Sometimes, yeah. Time’s going by.”

In this 1988 television program, the host narrates images of Diebenkorn’s work, referring to the artist as “a master of contemporary American art.” When interviewed for the episode, MoMA curator John Elderfield stated that Diebenkorn “remind[s] one in his work of the great masters of the past.” The (dated) fixation on mastery and closure contrasts with the artist’s functional ambivalence. The phrase “masters of the past” brings to mind a creepy cabal that is manipulating history.

When Browning asks if a particular painting is finished (the camera pointedly aimed at the canvas), Deibenkorn patiently replies:

“…I think possibly almost finished. Those are famous last words: almost finished.”

“Richard Diebenkorn has always felt uncomfortable in the spotlight,” the voiceover proclaims. No wonder.
There’s a shadow it’s making there.2

Rather than a pretense of mastery, Diebenkorn evinced a willingness to stay receptive, give way. The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation Archives contain selections from the artist’s writings and correspondence. In one example from a 1955 notebook, he considers artistic epochs and temporal limitations:

“… at present there are philosophical sanctions for just ‘being’ in paint. The impact of this moment becomes all-important since we ‘are not’ yesterday’s effort nor can we be in terms of tomorrow’s.”3

Humility is the journey is the destination. Diebenkorn’s redactions on one page—in pencil—suggest a kind of halting poetry mid-edit, with a whiff of the “possibly almost finished” comment made three decades later on television. His incomplete sentences are more beguiling than any manifesto:

I’ve understood for many years that


There is no question in my mind4

The artist’s mid-1950s turn to figurative painting, after years of making Abstract Expressionist work, led him to write in 1956 that the human image is “the most compelling possibility that exists” in painting. Through scribblings and erasures, the 32-year-old artist mapped an aesthetic shift toward form and landscape that was by then well underway.

“Just as I once believed that spatial ambiguities, intensity spelled out, and infinite suggestibility were necessary properties of painting, I now believe that the representations of men, women, walls, windows, and cups are necessary.”5

More than necessary, the representation of objects and forms was poetic to Diebenkorn. At the bottom of another page, a penciled X is drawn through the seriffed cursive of a lovely phrase—

“I could then look, and did, at the table beside me where I found a legitimate poetry attached to the facts of an ashtray and a coffee cup.”6

It’s curious, this idea of a legitimate poetry with its attachment to facts, but what the artist is getting at (aside from a departure from abstraction) is a reverence for the quotidian markers of life being lived—that is, the material business of being. There’s not only poetry in the tools and phenomena of daily rituals, there’s a recognizable and poignant structure. A coffee cup can very well lend order (form) to chaos. How legitimizing!
What comes to mind is a 1919 poem by Wallace Stevens:

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

The Stevens poem may seem decisive, but the first-person keeps things iffy. It’s that iffy-ness of our own “I” that leads us to fixate on objects or each other, perhaps. Possibly maybe, figurative painting is akin to a jar placed outdoors: it offers the illusion of taming (or harnessing) the transient wilderness of being a person… somewhat.

Poet Philip Whalen wrote in Berkeley in 1956, the same time and location as Diebenkorn’s notebook entries, a poem called “The Same Old Jazz” which offers an echo of Stevens’ jar and making peace with looking at stuff (aka, trusting the vicissitudes of perception).

An excerpt:

And it all snaps into focus
The world inside my head & the cat outside the window
A one-to-one relationship
While I imagine whatever I imagine

Whalen’s whatever is comfortable, and it’s enough, particularly when bookended by I imagine and I imagine. Its unapologetic self-prescribed leeway is both free and focused; a world inside and out.

As fragments, Diebenkorn’s mid-1950s notes are poetic in their hesitation to arrive at finality. Upside-down, fittingly, on the lower half of a page, Diebenkorn adds this reflection on the pitfalls of talking points:7

“I don’t object to verbalizations about painting or feel that words can damage it. But I am wary of the scant and often absurd relationship between painters’ works and their verbal stances and self-justifications.”

Well said.

1. Richard Diebenkorn, “From the archives: Artist Richard Diebenkorn,” filmed December 27, 1988, CBS Sunday Morning, Healdsburg, CA, video, 8:14,

2. Richard Diebenkorn, “Richard Diebenkorn: Two Weeks in January,” filmed January 1986, Crown Point Press, Oakland, CA, video, 34:38,

3. Richard Diebenkorn, studio note, RDFA.136, Richard Diebenkorn Foundation Archives © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

4. Richard Diebenkorn, studio note, RDFA.138, Richard Diebenkorn Foundation Archives © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

5. Richard Diebenkorn, studio note, RDFA.155, Richard Diebenkorn Foundation Archives © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

6. Richard Diebenkorn, studio note, RDFA.157, Richard Diebenkorn Foundation Archives © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

7. Diebenkorn, studio note, RDFA.155.