Richard Diebenkorn and Stanley Anderson – Royal Academy
I’ve tried, God knows I’ve tried, but the meaning of modern abstract art continues to elude me. Take the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy – spoiler alert, the lift is out of commission and so you have to climb two flights of stairs, exercise that is designed to destroy any sympathy for an artist, unknown to me at least, before I got there.
According to the blurb Diebenkorn (1922 – 1993) is a celebrated post-war master in his native United States. The exhibition features about 50 of his works, hung in three rooms, representing his Albequeque, Berkley and Ocean Park series.
On the positive side, the exhibition was not crowded and so there was ample time and space to look at the works, a rare pleasure I find these days. And most of the canvases were large, showed a clever and imaginative use of colour, particularly of pastels and you could detect the shift from the subdued light of New Mexico to the harsher light of California. But what the hell was it all about?
Again, according to the blurb, Diebenkorn closely identified with and was inspired by the landscape and geography around him. Well I’ve been to Albuquerque – a grade one hell-hole if there ever was one – and none of the works imaginatively entitled Albuquerque series followed by a sequential number looked remotely like anything I saw there. But, hey, I’m not an artist. What we have is paint rather crudely slapped on to the canvas, spilling over the boundaries of the harsh, geometric shapes.
The Ocean Park series was a little more to my taste and I saw some merit in Ocean Park #27 and #79 which suggested an influence on some of the works of artists like Hockney. And the figurative pieces in the second room suggested that there was an accomplished draughtsman struggling to get out. But the overall conclusion I drew from the experience – and one of the not inconsiderable benefits of an annual membership of an august institution such as the Royal Academy is that I find I go to exhibitions which I would never otherwise have gone to – is of an artist who was taking the piss and whose elevated status is down to collective and deluded group-think.
Fortunately, in parallel to the Diebenkorn exhibition the RA are hosting a retrospective of the prints of Stanley Anderson (1884 -1966) called An Abiding Standard, another artist with whom I was unfamiliar. There is a certain wistfulness in his subject matter – mainly, country folk at work at traditional jobs such as blacksmithing, saddling, scything (with shirt!), trimming, faggoting and clamping potatoes. You can’t help think that between the wars this was an image of pastoral England that was fast disappearing and as well as being a staunch advocate for nostalgia Anderson was documenting honest labour before it was finally subsumed by mechanisation.
The first room showed a remarkable collection of London street views and sympathetic portrayals of the characters of the street and it was fascinating to compare and contrast with the modern vistas.
Anderson always referred to himself as a craftsman rather than an artist and there is an astonishing level of technical accomplishment and sheer detail in his drawings. His distinction is telling though because breathtaking and vibrant as the prints are he is a rapporteur rather than an interpreter. Detesting modernism in all its forms – describing Picasso and Matisse as “ugh” – God knows what he would have made of Diebenkorn. He may even have seen the funny side in the juxtaposition.