Seeing from above, and beyond...

TWO interesting things happened – quite coincidentally, I would like to add – as I was travelling recently. I was on a flight from Zurich to Paris where I was to change and get on to another flight to Nantes in the northwest of France. The day was clear and the plane had started its descent on its approach to Paris; and just as I looked out of the window, most beautiful sights began to swing into view. Large, neatly trimmed, extended fields of lush green punctuated with patches of bright, sunflower yellow: the line of the field would be perfectly straight and then suddenly take a sharp arrow-like turn to assume the aspect of a broad wedge; another field would appear cut into two by a briskly angled swathe of purple at the edge of which would be another thin line of a green much lighter than that of the main field.

Whatever the crops were – it was impossible to make out from that height – the spectacle was one of saturated colours, and the flat shapes on the ground far below were absolutely seductive. Suddenly, racing to me, came the work of a painter whom I had long forgotten: Richard Diebenkorn. I began trying to recall his paintings but only vague images surfaced in my mind: subtly coloured geometric shapes, uneven in size but broad and angled, much like the fields I was seeing down below.

A painting from the “Ocean Park” series By Richard Diebenkorn
A painting from the “Ocean Park” series By Richard Diebenkorn

Another painting from the “Ocean Park” series By Richard Diebenkorn
Another painting from the “Ocean Park” series By Richard Diebenkorn

I was very struck by the parallel. Soon, however, we touched down in Paris, and the maze of concrete strips that define runways took over. After a short stopover, I was on the flight to Nantes but this time I had picked up a newspaper which remains to this day my favourite inflight reading: the International Herald Tribune. And as I turned to the culture pages, my eyes came to rest on a long, two-column article on a raging dispute between an art gallery and the surviving family members of a painter whom it used to represent. The painter? Richard Diebenkorn.

This quiet man, gentle of manners and shy of disposition, had been around as a painter for a number of years before he passed on some 20 years ago. He had covered a long, long distance by then. With California as his home, and beginning his career as a Marine, he turned a full-time painter as early as 1940, practising his art and teaching at the same time at major universities like the UCLA.

There were twists and turns that his style, and his interests, took: Abstract expressionism today, figurative painting tomorrow, colour-field next, and then back to abstraction, but with a difference. Living sparsely to begin with like most painters used to do, he would work from rented accommodation placed at a height from which he could view what were then long vistas of landscapes extending to the ocean: fields, roads, bridges and the like. Walking through the parks of Santa Monica as he used to, diverse impressions would register on his mind. And then he started to paint, as a critic called them, "abstract landscapes" – a contradiction in terms, as one can see – but it is these that began to win him great acclaim across the land and world-wide. Naming these landscapes as an "Ocean Park" series, and simply assigning them numbers after the main, recurring title, he painted as many as 140 of them from 1967 till his death in 1993. While the east coast was the acknowledged home of Abstract Expressionism as a movement in art, nobody could afford now not to hear this voice from the west coast of America, the work of someone who began to be referred to as the ‘Dean’ of California painters: still a ‘provincial’ title in a manner of speaking, but a distinguished one.

The ‘Ocean Park’ series, seen by some simply as ‘aerial landscapes’, is not an aggregate of observed views, but filled with great subtleties of colour and line. Writing about them, John Russell remarked that "to a degree not often realised, he has painted the autobiography of a specific section of the United States". Even where his paintings look to be entirely abstract, he said, "they have had something to do, way back, with the street plans, the road systems, the architecture, the vegetation, the light and the strange, precipitous changes of level `85" that came perhaps from his boyhood and his growing years.

There is a deceptive simplicity about these works – to call them ‘views’ would be to do them injustice –but it is easy to see that he worked hard, and again and again, on his canvases in which one can discern, under the surface, pentimenti – the presence of earlier images, forms, or strokes that have been changed and painted over, as the dictionary defines them – erasures, second thoughts.

"He creates a jumble of forms", one critic wrote, "and then covers them with fields of yellow paint, leaving seductive fissures that reveal the complex machinations underneath while providing a kind of latticework in the composition". But my favourite description of colours in his ‘Ocean Park’ cycle, remains this: "The narrative in these paintings is a story of their making – of a vertical blue line that gains a violet-rose shadow as it tracks down the edge of a canvas, turning off at an angle like a refracted ray of light and then sliding beneath a wash of luminous gray, only to emerge at the other side as a little wedge of canary yellow." Or, again: "The surface opens to expose what lies beneath it, and the past becomes present’’. Diebenkorn once said: "I want a painting to be difficult to do: the more obstacles, obstructions, problems, the better."

As I ruminate over these matters and these descriptions, I am struck by the fact of how odd, and how harsh, it all is: the contrast between the lyricism and the gentleness of the work of a painter as we evaluate him, and the unseemly squabbles that break out after he is gone. There is now this ongoing battle between a highly reputed art gallery – Knoedler – and Diebenkorn’s family, about which I read during my flight: talk about fakes and false claims and, of course, money. But then do we not see this in our own backyard in India too, now that such money – as different from value – has come to attach to art?