THOROUGHLY MODERN MAN: Richard Diebenkorn, Royal Academy of Arts

Cityscape #1, 1963

Richard Clifford Diebenkorn Jr. is an unprepossessing name for an artist whose paintings exude Californian cool. The Royal Academy’s Sackler Wing is not sunny and is best suited to displaying prints and drawings – it provides a rather gloomy environment for Diebenkorn’s clear, bright landscapes and lyrical abstracts.

The first of three rooms contains his little known Abstract Expressionist works from the 50s – exciting dynamic paintings that show the obvious influence of De Kooning. Diebenkorn’s pictures are rarely completely resolved but appear to have just stopped at an interesting point; he replaces the violence of De Kooning with floppy rhythms and wonky patches of subtle colour.

His figurative works like Girl on a Terrace from 1956 involve distracted silhouetted bystanders with the components of Edward Hopper’s ‘portraits’ but with less psychological tension. Diebenkorn’s signature Ocean Park series is heralded memorably by 1963’s masterpiece, Cityscape #1 with its satisfying balance of surface and depth, painterliness and description, energy and composure. The 1970s works in the series are airier and less argumentative, moving further from the motif and towards an easier geometric language, swopping the intense pentimenti of the earlier pictures for broad areas of confidently applied pastel colour.

Diebenkorn’s paintings take elements of Matisse and Bonnard and expand them into broad American vistas. He is a painter’s painter and the gallery was full of earnest enthusiasts leaning in to examine the surfaces from two inches away.

Diebenkorn’s euphoric art is rarely seen in this country and, while being very welcome, would benefit from a more expansive and celebratory exhibition.

Continues until 7 June 2015, more information and book here.

Written by a Thoroughly Modern Man, Chris Kenny.