LOS ANGELES—Two of California’s senior masters are, by happy coincidence, currently seen in separate exhibitions of works on paper. The shows combine to inspire thoughts of what it means to make art on the West Coast.
William Brice is seen in a survey of some 60 drawings, watercolors and prints at UCLA’s Wight Art Gallery. Richard Diebenkorn is represented by about 70 examples at USC’s Fisher Gallery.
The two men are old teaching colleagues and good friends. Astrology buffs will surely find significance in the fact that they were born precisely one year and one day apart. Both have birthdays in April. Diebenkorn will be 71 on the 22nd; Brice will be 72 the next day. Nobody has said these exhibitions are in celebration of those events, but it’s a nice idea.
People have noticed parallels in their art, if not similarities. Both are concerned with the now-classic canon of European and American modernism from the great days of Picasso and Matisse to the heroic era of the Abstract Expressionists. Both have spent the major chunk of their long careers working in California.
What does that mean? Well, the Pacific shore is said to be a place where Euro-American and Asian history meet. The first is a dynamic tradition, the second a contemplative one.
The first believes that something called artistic progress is mandatory, the second holds that progress is impossible, since everything is cyclical.
The most one can hope for is to add something to the tradition. It’s a proposition both Diebenkorn and Brice seem to have embraced with success.
Each makes his art in a state approaching austere rumination hovering somewhere between the mandarin and the monkish. There are virtually no pictures by either that do not layer the pentimenti of their thoughts about other artists and the timeless grammar of making art.
Both appear to have concluded that solving problems involves acts of renunciation. For neither may art be an open act of emotional expression. Such feelings as they betray come out as oblique seepage. Neither holds art as a confessional religion.
That given, it’s not surprising that both have achieved oeuvres of great intelligence and solidity. It is rather surprising that both have made art of distinction.
One is unlikely to mix their work up either with the other’s or with any of the art it alludes to. In short, they have taken what appears to be a formula for the worst kind of academic rigidity and turned it into something supple and intensely personal.
Brice likes to tell of reading about how Asian artists are trained in brush drawing. At first, he thought all the copying and use of mandatory strokes demanded by the form were stultifying. Then he learned that when the student gains enough skill to work directly from nature he is expected to do more than render the stroke required for, say, a bamboo shoot, correctly. He is required to give the stroke, “cloud longing”—a numinous something made of passion and poetry that cannot be taught.
His own work certainly does that. His UCLA exhibition covers roughly the past decade. During that time he has continued to make art with abstract forms that allude to the real. His compositions hark back to the early days of Abstract Expressionism when artists like Adolph Gottlieb evoked ancient pictographs, and hieroglyphic stones.
Brice’s compositions are at once iconically simple and symbolically complex. They so often include images of stone fragments combined to resemble the human figure that, if you didn’t know better, you’d think Brice was a sculptor. All works are untitled. In one color etching we see a ceremonial lineup that includes a vulva form, a Dubuffet-like graffiti figure and what might be a primitive Greek sculpture thinking about Jacques Lipchitz. There are abstract comic-format panels that recall Picasso’s “The Dream and Lie of Franco,” but the drawings within are pure line.
Brice waxes momentarily ironic in a drawing of a portal done with Ben Shahn’s barbed-wire line. Recent dark watercolors could be fragments like the Dead Sea Scrolls whose deciphered contents would prove to be poetry about the guilt of forbidden passions. Brice brings modernism squarely eye-to-eye with its roots in the ancient world. In his version, a kind of rabbinical elaboration of argument and rationale suggests the Judaic past.
Years back Brice did bravura drawings of heads that were updated versions of G.B. Tiepolo. They gloried in their own virtuosity while finding something monstrous in it. His present work looks in part like a renunciation of beauty, of ego, of sensuality. It faces the world of myth against the world of fact and the combination produces a muffled, modern agony.
In the past four years, Richard Diebenkorn has been seen here in two major retrospectives, the first of drawings at the County Museum of Art, the second of paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art. That might appear to consign USC’s exhibition to the status of a footnote. Don’t believe it.
The show and its catalogue are the work of gallery director Selma Holo’s Museum Studies Program under the guidance of USC professor Susan Larsen. It was drawn from the collection of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson, who, on evidence have been passionate and perceptive collectors of Diebenkorn’s works on paper for a very long time. On the walls of the Fisher Gallery this show functions as a miniaturized survey of his oeuvre since the ’60s. Somehow it’s concentrated focus dramatizes Diebenkorn’s fundamental concern with structure.
His West Coast rumination on modernism has taken more than one form. His figurative etchings of the ’60s take the cosmopolitanism of a Matisse or Bonnard and anchor it back to traditional American realism, to Hopper and the Ashcan School. The results are relaxed interior scenes of the good life in California, its easy sophistication and underlying anxiety. A girl reclining in saddle shoes brings just a hint of Balthus-like eroticism to suburbia. A walking figure has a vague overtone of the spectral. A more recent self-portrait finds the artist with a double-outline nose that has a bit of fun with Picasso.
But the structure of the etchings is as sober and solid as Piero della Francesca, Vermeer or Cezanne. Those guys don’t make jokes. There is also a bit of muffled playfulness about works in Diebenkorn’s occasional clubs and spades series. They reflect the artist’s childhood fascination with knighthood, chivalry and coats-of-arms. Even when he’s toying with these slightly abstract-surreal forms he can’t help making them solid as armor. They look like ship’s screws and iron orchids.
Diebenkorn’s long contemplation of the Southland in his “Ocean Park” yielded many excellent paintings. The Anderson collection includes small versions in gouache, acrylic, pastel, crayon and collage that are in some cases better than the full-size versions. They are so architecturally solid they look like abstractions drawn from Paxton’s Crystal Palace.
Brice’s and Diebenkorn’s shared attraction to absorbing the timely into the timeless is part of an aesthetic that sets California art apart, stamping it with the peculiar originality of its place.