To Look, To Turn and Why this Painting is Important to Me:
My Reflections on Richard Diebenkorn
Interior with View to Buildings
The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial
Cincinnati Art Museum
By Sheila Fleischer
Editor’s Note: Aeqai asked Cincinnati artist Sheila Fleischer to select a work of art from The Art Museum and tell us why it is important to her; her essay on a Richard Diebenkorn painting follows. This article is part of a multi-year series.
Walking into the gallery, I search for color, vivid color amid the white walls. I have come once again to visit Richard Diebenkorn’s work and to be amazed by his talent. Once again I am reminded why this painting changed the way I look at art. Several years ago, when I was an art student, my professor of painting asked if I was familiar with Diebenkorn. She said something in my painting had reminded her of his work.
I had never heard of the artist, so after class I quickly ran to the library to check out some books on Diebenkorn. Looking through these books of paintings, I soon realized I had found an artist to admire.
This particular painting became meaningful to me in so many ways. Let me tell you the thoughts I had during that time. As an art student, I could relate to the “lining up of work” for a critique. Laying out my paintings, thoughts and ideas for comment while feeling young and vulnerable, then standing back to access the day’s work were a constant modus of operandi. In this painting, Diebenkorn showed me just those activities. Here, I saw several paintings lined up against a wall or balcony awaiting critique.
One of these small paintings was a portrait of a lady. The lady in the portrait is looking at the other small paintings and behind her is the scene and view from the room where she modeled. She was showing me to look. Looking at these small paintings within the larger painting, I was inside and outside in my viewing. This painting brought to mind the constant reminders of my professors, “look, look, look!” This scene was familiar and comforting and gave me direction and hope in a way I had never felt before. Perhaps, with hard work and lots of reflecting, I too could become a painter.
Taking the advice I learned from these professors, I looked for more of the story in the large painting and found the table was sending me a message. On the table was a round hand mirror, calling me to view, to see what was being told in the painting. The handle of the mirror was resting just over the plane of the tabletops edge, suggesting that it was quickly placed. This referred to a quick check by the artist and then the reaction of paint being rapidly applied to the canvas. Many times in class, I would check proportions of my work by turning my back to the painting and gazing at the work in a mirror. In this painting, the hand mirror reflected an abstract of colored lines in dark indigo, orange and bright blue. These are taken from this scene Diebenkorn was painting. These were the bright blue of the sky, the orange in the window and the dark indigo of the room.
I was beginning to find more of the story in his work. I finally saw the real world as abstract. I realized how brilliant this painting was to me. Diebenkorn had taken a realistic scene from everyday life and composed and infused it with abstraction. I somehow felt my life as an artist had changed. I thought, “This is what I want to paint, I want to take the landscape and show the abstract parts.” Was this to become a statement of the times?
On closer inspection, I saw the process of his creation. With brush and palette knives, he had scraped and stroked the surface of the canvas. Diebenkorn had etched and reworked the painting many times. The scars of earlier brushstrokes infused the impasto and hints of color choices appeared. Also, I could see where Diebenkorn had changed his mind about an area of the painting. Just below the surface I could see the faint ghost of a figure on the right hand side of the canvas. I could see the massive strokes and careful details of his composition, as I delved into the layer upon layer of the previous work. I could see the hours of work he put into this creation. Being a poor young art student, I would often re-use a canvas. It appeared Diebenkorn might have done this as well, as I could see a broad band of indigo at the top of the painting. Could this have been the remains of earlier work, perhaps?
Along with this broad indigo band from the previous work, three planes of color were perfectly divided by the Golden Mean or “the rule of thirds”. This was a lesson I learned as a way to compose a pleasing composition. I noticed a small line of multi colors highlighted this division, calling attention to this rule. Diebenkorn had utilized all the colors of the rainbow and the painting featured bands of color also along the edges. Many of the shapes were repeated here and triangular forms led my eye around the painting. I remember learning to repeat shapes as a way to pull a composition together.
‘Interior with a View of Buildings’ taught me to react to my artistic emotions. I learned this by studying the energy Diebenkorn has shown in his use of paint drips and energetic splatters. It appeared he was in a hurry to capture his emotions and the ever-changing bright light inside and out of this scene. Even though three large bands of color divide the painting, much color was promoted in the foreground and the background.
The windows of the buildings in the background were lined up just like the paintings on a gallery wall and just like the inside of his working space. In these buildings, all the windows were painted black, dark from the bright sun. A middle window toward the center of the painting was not dark and it invited further study into its meaning. Why is it not painted dark? Also, I saw three treetops and I wondered if this hid religious significance. This dichotomy of looking inside and outside led me to know the scene was on the second floor. I surmised this because of the treetops seen from the window.
Returning to the portrait of the lady, I wondered where she was gazing while posing.
An empty chair occupies the right one third of the canvas. Was this where she sat or was this chair a resting place for the artist? In this small painting scene, I could tell it was summer because the woman’s clothes suggest a warm season. There was a shadow from her head that seamlessly formed a lost edge. In the room of the main painting, an empty chair faces me, yet the model in the small painting is painted from behind. Outside, on this sunny day, shadows created triangles on the buildings. Behind her I saw the bands of those same buildings contain shapes juxtaposed against the areas of the mostly solid blue sky.
Diebenkorn had also used the Impressionist technique of adding a complementary color next to another. I had been taught this creates color vibration and visual excitement. Small additions of red aided this style and the under painting applied to the canvas. For some reason, these splatters of red reminded me of blood and I remembered the work, hard work and blood, sweat and tears. This was the life of an artist. This painting taught me to search for the story or meaning among all this hard work and to spend time studying each area for the clues to a story. I learned each painting has a history and a timeline in the paint application. I came to respect the struggles and the hours it takes to finish a painting.
As I leave the gallery, I turn once more to look at the painting that gave me new direction in my own artwork. Diebenkorn has once again invited me to look and once again I find more reason to search and to find the inspired answers to this shared story. I hope you will visit ‘ Interior with View of Buildings ‘ and be inspired as well. Thank you Richard!
By Sheila Fleischer