Richard Diebenkorn, 'Ocean Park No.54', oil on canvas, 1972
I had a very welcome day to myself in London just over a week ago. I went to visit a few exhibitions I was keen to see, a treat I seem to have less and less time to do these days.
I went largely to see the Richard Diebenkorn retrospective at the Royal Academy, a small Alex Katz exhibition at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in Mayfair, and then Marlene Dumas at Tate Modern. It was exciting to be in London, jumping on and off tube trains; riding endlessly long escalators ( I particularly like the Death Star like architecture of the Jubilee Line); dodging traffic in Piccadily; and even finding myself walking alongside Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Volcano Choir, whose music I really love, at one point.
I started my day with the Katz show, a particularly favourite artist who never fails to disappoint, and this show of his recent “Black Paintings’ was no exception, before heading down to the Royal Academy just ten minutes walk away to see the Diebenkorn exhibition. I must admit I feel very uncomfortable walking around Mayfair amongst all the very moneyed knobs. It just brings out the class warrior in me. This time, as I walked through the rather obscene Burlington Arcade the queue of said suits all waiting to have their expensive shoes shined seemed to make me bristle. It’s the image of the shoe shine bent at the feet of these people as they sit staring at their phones that seems to get under my skin. Anyway, I digress…Diebenkorn:
Richard Diebenkorn at The Royal Academy of Arts, LondonI have only come to looking at his work with any great seriousness in the last three or four years as my interest in landscape painting has developed. His work is rarely seen in the UK, so this seemed too good an opportunity to miss. The actual show was contained in just three galleries, and was a bit smaller than I anticipated, but in a way, this scale seemed just right as an introduction to the painter and the three distinct phases of his work: the early Abstract Expressionist works; the development into the representational work of the landscapes, still lives and figure paintings and drawings; and the final well-known ‘Ocean Park’ large abstract paintings. These seemed to distill all the preceding ideas into one much more sophisticated and mature body of work. The "Ocean Park" series, begun in 1967 and developed for the next 18 years, became his most famous work and resulted in approximately 135 paintings. Based on the ariel landscape and perhaps the view from the window of his studio, these large-scale abstract compositions are named after a community in Santa Monica, California, where he had his studio. Apparently, like many colour field painters such as Rothko, Diebenkorn, in this series of eventually 135 paintings was initially influenced by Matisse’s ‘French Window at Collioure’ (pictured) and ‘View of Notre Dame’ when they were exhibited in the US for the first time.
Henri Matisse, 'French Window at Colliere' oil on canvas, 1914
'Ocean Park No 63'
'Cityscape', oil on canvas, 1963
Untitled (Alburqueque), oil on canvas, 1953
My final exhibition was to see ‘The Image as Burden’ at Tate Modern, a retrospective of the work of South African born, Netherlands based painter, Marlene Dumas. This was a bad choice, after later becoming more aware of the ‘Adventures of The Black Square’ exhibition at Whitechapel, which looked much more interesting in retrospect. At the time, the Dumas show, with its promises of painterly, political expression of the human form and the portrait looked really tempting, but in reality it was a huge disappointment. The paintings, whose images are largely derived from found or personal photographs, but mainly found ones, just didn’t hold up to a show of this size. When Dumas got it right, some of the paintings were just really terrific, but this seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time, I found myself getting increasingly irritated by their empty gestures and the sense that so many of the paintings just look too unfinished; they more often looked like enormous sketches in paint, rather than a more serious commitment to making a more meaningful statement of some kind.
A very good Marlene Dumas painting!
An enormous painting by Dumas that looks like a big oil sketch
And the paintings of Amy Winehouse and Phil Spector (with and without wig) just felt embarrassing. Dumas is seen as near the top of the art world bubble in terms of status, but I was left wondering how did that happen? Compared to contemporaries like Richter and Tuymans it all seemed so under developed and lacking in rigour; the paintings inspired by bold impulses that didn’t go any further. I paid a small mortgage to see it too….
Phil Spector with wig by Marlene Dumas- a bit dodgy (the wig and the painting!)
On the train home I found myself sat next to a bloke called Frank, who was currently studying for his post graduate studies in Fine Art at the Royal Academy. He struck up conversation after seeing my paper bag of postcards from the RA. We talked at quite some length about his experience of studying there; a forthcoming 3-month student exchange to Japan he was about to participate in (lucky devil!); and our shared disappointment with the Marlene Dumas exhibition. Frank also knew Birmingham quite well, and had done his first degree at Nottingham Trent University. We also chatted about our individual practice and my work as a lecturer in Birmingham. It was really nice to chat, and we bid each other well as he departed at Leighton Buzzard (what a great name place that is). After watching him jump off the train I found myself reflecting on how middle-aged I have felt lately, and more depressingly others perception of my middle-agedness. I tend to forget my age most of the time, and like most people I feel mentally much younger, but lately I have felt older and wonder where it is all going…