Part 1. ART APPRECIATION
Detail from “Ocean Park #79” (OCMA Website)
I recently viewed the Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park Series exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art. I went in part because my friend Mat Gleason said, in his review of the show in the Huffington Post:
If you miss this one, you are just not into art. Maybe you're buzzing around some tertiary sphere like design or product photography or academic advancement, but you are not really with those of us who like art.
This exhibit is a litmus test both of whether you make time for great art and how sensitive you are to paintings that are as good as it gets. How do you feel about being in the presence of art that hangs with the most rigorously challenging abstraction and yet is as unabashedly sentimental as holding hands on the beach at sunset? Richard Diebenkorn created mesmerizing paradoxes with these pictures that tossed away all references to representation and yet confirmed a sense of place and geography far more informed than any illustrative landscape could hope for. Deceptively simple, the placidity of these paintings is an antidote to the conceptual, but not to the intellect; in the Ocean Park series intelligence is paired with relapsing emotion.
I think I’m “into art,” but that isn’t the reason I went – to prove whether or not I was “into art.” Mat’s instincts – or maybe it’s his evolved knowledge – are unerring. Mat is almost never this glowing about art. That was part of the reason I went.
The other part of the reason is that I’d had an experience earlier in my life that served to open a portal into art.
Diebenkorn’s name was dropped during this experience, like a magic word, an “abracadabra” that would open the portal. And this “open sesame” experience served to heal a wound that sometime before had closed the portal into art in a painful way. The purpose of this personal essay is to tell the dual stories of the closing and the opening.
Part 2. WRITING AS ART AND AS A MEANS TO AN END
Detail from "Ocean Park #36" (OCMA Website)
For most of my life I’ve known that it was my calling to write. Writing is part of who I am. Somewhere along the way, I realized that a “calling” is a lifelong quest to find ways to be fully ourselves, to be true to ourselves, and to bring what we’ve got to the table, despite all the usual and customary roadblocks and setbacks.
Writing was an aspiration as well as a means to an end. I enjoyed writing, felt I was good at it, and wanted to make my living from it. In a sense, this is what I have done, but as a “communications professional,” not as a writer of published fiction, which was the original goal. I’m coming back to this goal only after learning what it takes to be an artist.
This paragraph from the literature for the Diebenkorn show serves as a good description of “what it takes to be an artist”:
Each work was for Diebenkorn a search for “rightness,” an attempt to solve complex and often self-imposed compositional and spatial problems, to welcome mistakes, push through objections, and come to a balanced resolution. The artist worked and reworked the canvases, scraping and repainting, building up layers as well as atmospheric fields and planes, finally arriving at a solution through a combination of intention, intuition, and improvisation. [Emphasis mine]
I’ve spent most of my career as a “communications professional,” devaluing both the work and the experience. I was using my talents as a “hack,” working in cramped cubicles and offices in the service of agendas that were not my own. Seeing a familiar name on the plate identifying one of Diebenkorn’s “works on paper” included in the exhibition made me realize that seeing myself as a “hack” was closing me off from seeing the ways in which Providence had attempted to expand not only my view of myself, by my view of the world.
The familiar name at the Diebenkorn exhibition was Maybelle Bayly Wolfe. And this particular piece, 73.7 cm high by 55.9 cm wide, was a “work on paper,” made from acrylic paint, crayon, gouache, and cut-and-pasted paper. I interviewed Ms. Wolfe, a prominent Pasadena arts patron, a number of years ago. She said she was a collector of works on paper. Her Diebenkorns were among her most prized pieces. This may have been the first time I heard the name “Diebenkorn.” It was also the first time I’d ever met an art collector who specialized (many do, I now realize).
I was interviewing Ms. Wolfe because she had recently donated a large work on paper by Pat Steir to an organization I worked for. The piece I was writing required me not only to interview the donor, but also learn something about the piece that had been donated. (A similar work from this series can be found on the Cerritos Library’s website.) It was this research that cracked open the portal ever so slightly. It required me to learn not only about Steir and her art, but also about traditions, techniques, influences, and sources for art. In this case, the lineage of the work on paper Ms. Wolfe had donated included Hokusai’s “Great Wave Off Of Kanagawa,” Gustave Courbet’s “The Stormy Sea also called the Wave,” and an incredible printmaking collective called Crown Point Press.
I found that I really dug art.
Part 3. THERE ARE PORTALS ... AND THEN THERE ARE PORTALS
Detail from "Ocean Park #79" (OCMA Website)
Maybelle Bayly Wolfe was not the first art collector I had met. But, whereas Ms. Wolfe’s donation and brief afternoon with her collection opened portals to the world of art, an experience with another collector seemed almost designed to close them off.
This collector, in fact, was my friend Eleanor’s father. Eleanor’s late mother had been a collector first. Her father took it up later in life, after a windfall stock split made him a wealthy man. Two subsequent stock crashes have made him destitute. A lesser man than I would say, "Karma's a bitch, isn't it?" But I try really hard NOT to be lesser.
Eleanor's father, whom I will refer to as Smitty, grew up in New York City, and was attracted to the art scene, which in the Fifties included cool jazz, abstract expressionism, and the pinnacle of American theater, marked by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. In fact, Smitty fell in love with an actress who had a baby (Eleanor). He wound up marrying the actress and moving them all to Miami. The couple divorced seven years later.
Smitty was, as the British would say, a cad.
But not completely. He did marry several more times, but he continued to support Eleanor for another fifteen years or so after her mother died, ("of a broken heart," Smitty told Eleanor), not long after the divorce.
Smitty was smitten by abstract art featuring parallel lines. Barnett Newman was the most well-known proponent of this approach. I remember visiting the Getty Center in Southern California with Smitty soon after it opened. While the architecture reminded me of Francisco Franco's monument to Fascism at the Valle de los Caidos, I'll never forget Smitty's observation that the Getty Center contained a Newman-like "zip," that starts at a "spring" on top of the hill upon which it is built, and holds its line as it drops through widening levels that simulate the local flora and fauna, emptying in a circular "pond" that features a topiary maze, effectively breaking the "zip" into a a series of concentric circles, perhaps mimicking the proverbial tossed stone.
Smitty seemed to know something about art, and I was eager to learn. I remember how my enthusiasm began to build as I listened to Smitty talk about art once when Eleanor and I spent a day in New York City "gallery-hopping" with him and Wife #3. Toward the end of the day, when Smitty was contemplating entering One-Gallery-Too-Many, I must have said something like, "Gee, Mr. Smitty, that sounds really swell." Wife #3 had had enough. "Ask Sidewinder," she said in a voice loud enough for me to hear, "That if you said shit was green, would he agree?"
It was offensive, but Wife #3 was offensive, so I took it in stride. But when Smitty repeated the question to me, it really hurt. I smiled and said something like, "Sure, shit IS green, isn't it?" But inside I said, "Fuck all y'all and your snooty, supercilious, hypocritical bullshit." I couldn't really articulate it any better than that. But I've come to think of that incident as the day that almost closed the portal into art for me.
It was over a decade later that I met Maybelle Bayly Wolfe and her Diebenkorns. And, of course, another 15 years or so after that, at the Orange County Museum of Art's exhibition, I can see the influence not only of parallel line abstraction in Diebenkorn's work, but also the beautiful fields of green and blue that must have radiated to his studio in Ocean Park from the top of the hill upon which the Getty Center would one day be built. I could see the fields of blue and green traveling like a laser beam through time to OCMA, and perhaps emanating to Manhattan, where Larry Rubin of M. Knoedler & Co. exhibited Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series for 10 years.
In fact, now that I think if it, the "zip" at the Getty points directly at Ocean Park, like a "ley line" connecting the two to perhaps infinite portals into art.
I realize now that Smitty is a cad precisely because he had once wanted to be an artist, but was too afraid to follow that "zip." A parallel realization is that fear is like a stone that ripples out in waves that leave destruction in their wake.
I have vowed to follow the "zips" that connect to portals of love, which radiate into fields of joy, life, and infinite possibility.