Thursday, May 4, 2017


No surprise that I found myself thinking about abstraction as I made my way through the spectacular Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last week. I was pondering some pretty basic, perhaps even na├»ve questions, like Why abstraction? And, What is abstraction anyway? Also, gazing at the sometimes unfinished, sometimes sketchily brushed surfaces of both these artists’ paintings: Why leave these surfaces incomplete? And, Is incompleteness abstraction manifest?

I like this simple definition of abstraction: “the process of removing something.” In art, what is removed is generally understood to be any reference to representational or figurative qualities. But then of course something is “removed” as soon as you put paint to canvas, even if your painting is representational or figurative. Say you’re working from a nude model—and there is a whole gallery of superb life drawings by both Matisse and Diebenkorn in the exhibition—you’re removing all the flesh and bones from the human being in front of you and substituting… what? Charcoal, graphite, ink on a sheet of paper. You’re removing the third dimension, too, of course, and making it two-dimensional.

By this token, then—to state the obvious—all art is abstraction, no matter the medium, the period, or the style. What was of particular interest to me, in this exhibition, were the degrees of abstraction chosen by each artist and how they moved—especially, of course, Diebenkorn—in and out of it. I was fascinated, for example, by the juxtaposition of Matisse’s 1914 View of Notre Dame...

Henri  Matisse, View of Notre Dame, 1914, oil  on canvas; the Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired  though the Lillie  P. Bliss Bequest and the  Henry Ittleson, A. Conger Goodyear, Mr. and Mrs. Robert  Sinclair Funds, and the Anna Erickson Levene Bequest given in memory of her husband,  Dr. Phoebus Aaron Theodor Levene; © Succession H. Matisse /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
... with Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #79, 1979...

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #79,1975; oil on canvas; Philadelphia  Museum  of Art, purchased with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and with funds contributed by private donors; © the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

.... both lyrical compositions that work with strong, rhyming lines and overall blue hues. For Matisse, the actual cathedral building recedes in importance in this painting in favor of its general shape, its “aura,” and illusory volume. Its placement in the overall composition floats it improbably above lines that evoke streets and square. It’s the “abstract” of the cathedral rather than its representational stand-in. For Diebenkorn, likewise—as the eye reminds us from neighboring representational images of the artist’s Ocean Park Studio—the physical appearance of the studio, the surrounding streets, the distant ocean are abstracted into a structure consisting of lines and shapes alone.

For both artists, structure, shape, line, color and the application of paint on the canvas surface take precedence over devotion to external appearances. What happens on the surface is their reality, not what’s going on outside. It’s the inner process of perceiving that interests them more than the object of perception—an observation that helps me with my second set of questions, those wondering about completion. Because what’s left on the surface is a record of the perceptive process. What we learn from the artist in these sketchy brush marks, or washy, dripping areas of paint is something more vital than the nature of the world out-there. We learn, human eye to human eye, human mind to human mind, what it’s like in this moment for a fellow human being to experience and recreate the world we share with them. Through the act of laying paint on canvas they communicate not a judgment about the world but a shorthand, instantaneous experience of it, a being-in-the-world, and share that experience with us.

These are two great men—men who have given unending thought to what they do in the studio and how they perceive the world. They are, in a real sense, giants, head and shoulders above the rest of us. From the heights they have scaled through an unfailing commitment to seeing and to making an account of what they see, they offer us the opportunity to follow the path they have blazed for us—if only we will take the time to journey along with them. They require nothing more—nor less!—than our attention.

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