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Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy

Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy

Kicking off my summer of museum visits, this weekend I went to see the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Proving that tube advertising still works, I hadn’t heard of him before but was drawn in by the beautiful painting in the poster. It’s not surprising; it’s been 24 years since his work has been shown in a major exhibition in this country. However, in the US it’s a different story. His work can be found in almost every major US collection, and even hangs in Obama’s personal quarters in the White House. He was described by the Washington Post as one of America’s “finest abstract painters”.  In 2012, Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #48 painted in 1971 became the most expensive picture by the artist ever auctioned when it went for $13.25 million at Christie's New York.

It’s worth saying that this is actually quite a small exhibition – just three rooms in total. So although I came away wanting more, I spent a lot more time with each painting. I’d also recommend going early.  I arrived just after the Royal Academy opened on a Saturday, and it was a treat to have so much space to enjoy the work in.

The exhibition is split into three rooms to reflect the three distinct phases of his career.

Abstract expressionism

This room shows of some of his earliest work – which was my favourite. As you’d expect, it’s a lot more experimental, dense with shapes and lines and a little ‘rough around the edges’. You can see the influence of artists like Pollock and de Kooning.  He also changes his colour palette more frequently, going from moody black and white textured pieces, to messy, brightly coloured splashes of colour. Saying that, the pieces are also extremely well balanced – Diebenkorn was always in search of compositional “rightness”. He spoke of his paintings as possessing a quality of “tension beneath calm”.

Figuration

The second room shows his change of direction to painting figures. He became a strong feature of the Bay Area Figurative Movement of the 50s and 60s. Personally, I was more captivated by his abstract work –I was more interested in the backgrounds than the people he painted.

Ocean Park

The third room featured his most famous ‘Ocean Park’ series of paintings. In the late 60s he moved to Santa Monica to take up a professorship at University of California.  Going back to his abstract beginnings, this style of work occupied him for a whole two decades, producing over 135 paintings. The style and colours of these paintings scream California;  having been there on holiday a few years ago, it transported me back there. In the Guardian write-up it says “California blues are all there – cobalt, aqua, sky, cerulean, the faded jade and turquoise of boatyards, beaches and outdoor pools.”  It’s a little bit Hockney-esque.

There are two threads that run through the whole of Diebenkorn’s career. The first is European Modernism. He had a deep admiration for Cézanne, Matisse, and Mondrian and was influenced by their work – particularly following a trip to Europe in 1964 and 65 when he was given special access to Soviet museums and their holdings of Matisse’s paintings. The second thread is his sensitivity to place and how it continually influenced his composition and colour palette, from New Mexico to California.

 

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