Richard Diebenkorn: Shifting Form

A question that has been on my mind of late..

What drives some artists to output work with almost rapid abandon, and others who feel driven to continually re-state, re-work or edit their work?

This is something that I often contend with in the studio, wondering how to strike some balance between bursts of activity and the need to reflect, critically adjust and reshape the output.

So I turned to the work of Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993).

Had I paid more attention during art history lectures, perhaps I would not have overlooked the significance and strength of this American painter’s work.  Yet the scope of his work is broad so I’ll consider a few works on paper here.

In considering Diebenkorn’s drawings I felt a strong affinity with his method; they strike a strong chord with me as I struggle to balance creative impulse with the rigour of critical revision. As those who have drawn from life will know, forceful and convincing studies of the human form are rarely as simple as the medium (charcoal in this instance) might suggest – as in the following work:

Seated Nude 1966

Seated Nude 1966

You can see and almost feel the vigour of Diebenkorn’s thoughts and hand as they interrogate and study human form. The marks which seem to randomly cut across the surface are sensuous without being sentimental – their primary focus is on the overall sweep, weight, presence and gesture of the human subject – a way of responding to both the subtle and bold rhythms inherent in the body.

What does it remind me of ? That each model, each person has their own unique way of projecting this energy so that no two encounters with a live model ever have to be the same. And the work itself can be a testament to that.

Reclining figure1 1962

Reclining figure1 1962

I love this drawing for all its energy and bold declarations of the reclining form. There is no overworked emphasis on the light, texture or surface of or around the figure. In fact in parts of the drawing it is form itself that appears to be shifting and disintegrating; Diebenkorn’s marks have responded to the restlessness and transient nature of the naked human subject (even when drawing or painted from memory, the works project a force and energy one learns to respond to and translate only through observational/life drawing).

There are parts of the work that are erased, omitted or obscured and which inherently lend the works their own sense of mystery and suggestion. But essentially the marks are expressed as marks, the nature of his response and interpretation as the artist are laid out for us with an intensity and rawness that is present in most great drawing.


Untitled (n.d.)

It drives home the lesson that to have the doggedness and courage to reexamine and revise your work is like mining for its true character, believing that out of the process will emerge the constants which define that character.

So the compulsion to revise, adjust and re-examine your work is not all madness or vanity. This method of change itself has the potential to invest the work with meaning.

And that inspires me. Time to draw...

(If you liked this topic, you may find this post on Ginny Grayson of interest.)



4 thoughts on “Richard Diebenkorn: Shifting Form

  1. Hi Paul
    I too have been looking back at Diebenkorn recently. What I love about all his work is the fine and supercharged dialogue he sets up between the abstract and the figurative. Each of these ways of seeing is pushed to its extemity; each threatens to overwhelm and dominate the other without ever completely doing so. I think this quality is one of the things that gives his work its enormous vitality.

    This is something Diebenkorn shares with another great artist he and I both revere: Henri Matisse, the seriousness of whose work is still much misunderstood.

    Keep up the good work!


  2. Thanks for this entry. I agree with your analysis and wrestle with many of the same questions in my own drawing. I find a lot of joy in searching across the landscape of the figure to find the elusive elements which translate the energy and presence of the model, the human condition, to paper. There’s a difference between map making and artistic perception that many people seem to miss. Getting to the core of the thing as opposed to simply recording it.

    Drawing is so important yet so ignored these days. What I love most about it is its immediacy. With paint you can get hung up on the process, setting up palettes, squeezing tubes, arranging things, preparation–ritual culminating (hopefully) in some moment of enlightenment and revelation where the painting reveals itself beneath a hand guided by forces. Or at least that’s the popular myth many artists entertain. In fact it’s just a lot of work and then more work with bits of pleasure sprinkled about.

    I’ve always marveled at the degree of satisfaction and fulfillment I get from a 15 minute drawing. It’s right up there with a painting that might have taken 6 months. For me, drawing is a means to an end and not just an exercise.

    I admit that Diebenkorn is an artists who I appreciate but don’t yet fully understand. It’s advanced stuff and I’ll try to spend some more time with it.

  3. Thanks for your comments guys.

    Whether painted or drawn, there are some deep seated and unique mysteries in hand-made marks that should remain untouched by reason or our desire to understand.

    Not sure if Diebenkorn would ever have been satisfied from initial responses, from what I have learned his continued revisions were key to the development of any work.

    If you have not seen it, I recommend getting your hands on The Art of Richard Diebenkorn (Ahmanson-Murphy Fine Arts Book). It has great sections outlining his working methods.

  4. “Whether painted or drawn, there are some deep seated and unique mysteries in hand-made marks that should remain untouched by reason or our desire to understand.”

    I agree completely. I’m always fascinated by how one mark seems to translate when another does not. It’s one of the more exciting aspects of image making for me and thankfully it’s an experience that only seems to get more fascinating over time.

    I will pick up that book as well as the Scully one. You probably already have them but my 2 personal favorites art “Art & Fear”, Bayles and Orland, and “The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri. They both have been an endless source of inspiration for me especially when I’m stuck as I have been lately.

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