I've been to the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College several times in the past, and every time I visit this hidden sanctuary, I am impressed by the amount and quality of art they are able to offer in such a small space. When I walked up the wide staircase to the second floor a couple of days ago and looked around at the Roy R. Neuberger Collection, the first painting that really caught my eye was Richard Diebenkorn's, "Girl on a Terrace.” I’d never heard of the artist before, but something about this painting made me want to discover who he was. And, I thought, what better way to learn about this artist than to write my art critique about his "Girl" for my art class.
Upon researching Richard Diebenkorn, I came across his response to William Wilson's sad remark that he (Wilson) cannot paint:
Of course you can't paint. Nobody can paint. I can't paint.
You just go ahead and do it anyway. It is the marvel of this
enterprise that you set out to do something utterly impossible.
You must forget about time, money, fame, loved ones and all
the rest and just stand there putting it on and scraping it off until
you achieve the impossible. That's how it works.
This quote has value for me as an artist because I feel the same way as Wilson. I feel like I cannot measure up to many talented artists. Sometimes I ask myself if I should paint at all. I may be able to learn the technique, but there is lot more to painting then just applying the paint. Sometimes when I stand in front of a painting and study how the artist made it, it looks so easy, yet it was he or she who thought of the technique and especially of the story. Not me.
Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), one of the founding members of the abstract expressionist school of art, was born in Portland, Oregon, but lived most of his life in California, although he traveled a bit, too. Diebenkorn’s interest in art was encouraged by his grandmother Florence Stephens ever since he was a small boy. After serving in the Marine Corps from 1943-45, Diebenkorn majored in art at Stanford University. He was influenced by Edward Hopper, Elmer Bischoff, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and surrealist painters Joan Miro and Arshile Gorky. In his early years he produced mostly organic non-representational abstract paintings. From about 1955 he started to work on representational imagery, and he became a figurative painter. In the mid sixties, after a visit to Russia, where he went to view Henri Matisse paintings, he returned to geometrical abstracts. In over twenty years he created about 140 abstract paintings in a series called "Ocean Park.”
"Girl on a Terrace," an oil painting on canvas, was painted with brush in 1956. The main focus of this painting is the figure of a girl. Her body was painted from the head to just below her calves. She is turned slightly sideways, with her back exposed at an angle and the right side of her body turned toward the viewer. Her left arm is bent behind her back, and she is holding her right arm with her left hand. The artist painted the right side of the girl’s profile. She is wearing a long skirt with vertical blue and white stripes and a brown sleeveless blouse.
There is another person in the painting in the upper left area, but the viewer can see only a partial figure -- a torso and a leg. The head seems to continue beyond the canvas. This second person, who gives the impression of being male, is wearing a yellow top and blue pants. If the viewer looks toward the bottom left, he may recognize a drinking glass standing on a table, and a folding chair with light blue legs, next to the girl. In the middle of the canvas, just above the horizontal center line, the artist has placed a light blue area, perhaps a pond, and an indistinguishable object to the right of the pond. These two objects are divided by a broad white line which continues diagonally in a pink line across the grass and toward the two figures in the foreground.
Diebenkorn used mainly primary and secondary colors in the painting -- deep blue sky, green grass, yellow shirt, red and orange terrace. However, there are also neutral colors -- the girl's black hair and her brown blouse -- and white and gray colors were used to paint the table. Perhaps to add some oddity, Diebenkorn used cyan and pink colors. His colors are mostly saturated, but on several occasions, for example in painting the girl’s shadow, he used black to add some deeper value. There is a nice balance in the use and placement of cool and warm colors, such as a yellow-green color next to a blue one, or yellow and orange colors placed next to a red with blue undertones and cyan color.
Upon careful examination the viewer may notice that the artist created a visual dimension by using several techniques, for example the layering of colors or varying the thickness / thinness of his oil paint. We can see a yellow and blue color beneath the grass, pink color seeping through the yellow top, or several different colors beneath the white stripes of the girl's skirt to name a few. At the same time, dimensionality was created by using several shades of the same color -- such as blues in the sky and greens in the grass, while the terrace foreground dimension was created by using several different colors -- yellow, orange, red and a few shades of brown transitioning into pink.
Then a dimensional look was created with the use of a thick layer of paint (such as in the the sky), a thin layer (the girl's right arm), and no paint on the canvas at all (for example, the foot of the other person, or an area at the bottom of the canvas). There is even paint scraped off in the lower left corner, which seems to be part of the chair. The drinking glass is the only area where Diebenkorn created a three dimensional look with the use of a very thick textured layer of paint.
Another way the artist added dimension to the painting was by using organic shapes and lines. The viewer can observe a line that starts wide at the table on the left side and continues diagonally, intersected by the girl's body, toward the lower right side. As the line continues, it is getting thinner, thus looking like a triangle. The artist used a few rectangular shapes, for example the sky and pond. Oval shapes are represented by the girl's head and table. There is a pink line in the middle of the canvas that is short, but again is painted diagonally from the girl's body toward the top right corner, which is then extended further with a short white line. This pink / white line seems to be almost ninety degrees to the wide thick line. The viewer can notice the cross in a cyan / white color (the legs of the chair), and many vertical white / blue lines that are part of the girl's skirt.
Since Diebenkorn positioned the girl slightly off center to the left, and the other person and furniture to the left of the girl, he made the painting on the left side very "heavy," thus vertically asymmetrical. Yet, the indistinguishable object on the right side is balancing the painting. By looking at this masterpiece, one could say that the painting is balanced horizontally, because the artist divided the painting into three major and nearly equal horizontal parts consisting of the sky, a grassy area, and the foreground / terrace. If the viewer notices how the yellow color was placed (the man’s shirt, the indistinguishable object on the right side of the painting, and the area to the left of the chair), and if he tries to connect these three yellow areas with imaginary lines, he will get a triangle, taking space over nearly the entire canvas. Another way the artist balanced the painting was by using a strong blue color for the sky, which has a horizontal feel, and then painting vertical blue stripes on the girl’s skirt at the bottom of the canvas. The thickness / thinness of lines and the many colors in the painting create a sense of variety, while the stripes in the dress create a rhythm with their white and blue alternating colors.
When I saw the painting for the first time, the striped blue / white paints grabbed my attention with their strong geometrical energy. I have a soft spot for stripes, just like the artist. But as I was looking at the painting, I realized that it has quite a melancholic feel. It could be because of the chosen color palette. Or, perhaps it is because of the expression on the girl's face or how her head is tilted. One just must wonder, "Where is she looking?”
I do not feel just a melancholy, but a tension, too. As if the two people were quarreling. Each of them is standing and facing in the opposite direction. The painted space between them is very narrow, and part of it is unpainted, sort of raw. Then if I look at the chair I feel a loneliness. Who was sitting on the now empty chair before and having a drink?
There is an untold story in this painting, which reminds me of a European movie where there is no ending, and the viewer walks out of the movie theater wondering how the story ended. Then he / she creates his own ending. In this painting there is no ending, and anyone who stays and looks at the painting for a while may end up creating their own story with their own ending.
Who knows, maybe I will take a canvas, mix some oil paints, and do the same thing that Richard Diebenkorn did all his life. I will place on layers of paint in different planes, some thick, some thin, some none at all. Then I will scrape some paint off and add some more paint on. And maybe at the end, even if I cannot paint, I will create a story with no end. Then I will hang the painting on my wall, sit in my chair with a glass of wine and I will think of different endings to my story.
Photo Jim Frank, www.neuberger.org
Also, huge thanks to my dear husband (my biggest fan), who corrected my grammar :-)