Richard Diebenkorn, opening on Saturday at the Royal Academy, is a pitch-perfect exhibition of a pitch-perfect artist. It begins with a rough, sooty rectangle with comic remnants of legs and head, “Disintegrating Pig”, painted in 1950, when Diebenkorn was a student. It closes three decades later with the lustrous oil and charcoal abstractions “Ocean Park #116” and “Ocean Park #130”, where fat slabs and thin horizon lines in aquamarine, rose and lemon are baked into a structural scaffold held between geometry and its dissolution into pulsing light and colour.

The journey between these works is characterised by mastery of nuance and delicate balance, turning chaos to stillness and painterly doubt to triumphs of spontaneity and fluidity that resonate with today’s pluralist styles. Divided into three pristine clear spaces, each celebrating an epoch in the life of the shape-shifting American painter, the Sackler Wing has seldom looked more seductively cool, or felt more keenly evocative of place.

The location is the American west where, working in isolation from hothouse New York, Diebenkorn switched from abstraction to figuration and back again during an era when such decisions represented moral imperatives. Diebenkorn freed painting from such rigid historical missions and, resisting US heroics, created an oeuvre distinguished by reticence, elegance and interiority. It is odd that he is little known in Europe: among his American generation, born in the 1920s, only Cy Twombly, another hybrid painter, is as steeped in European tradition.

Like Twombly, Diebenkorn began in abstract expressionist mode. In 1950, enrolled on the GI Bill at the University of New Mexico, he began the “Albuquerque” series whose swelling forms in pinks and oranges, warm ochres and dusty whites, reference both the Chihuahuan Desert and Sandia Mountains surrounding the city, and the shrill palette of Willem de Kooning. But already there is quirkiness: “Albuquerque #4”, for instance, is enlivened by heraldic signs and emblems — memories of the Bayeux Tapestry and medieval chivalry, which Diebenkorn had loved as a child — interrupting the saturated abstract fields. Two experiences in 1951-52 fixed what happened next. Returning from Albuquerque to California on his first commercial flight, Diebenkorn perceived in the aerial view, ways of treating a flat picture plane. “It was the combination of desert and agriculture that really turned me on,” he said, “because it has so many things I wanted in my paintings. Of course, the earth’s skin itself had ‘presence’ — I mean, it was all like a flat design — and everything was usually in the form of an irregular grid.”

‘Albuquerque #4’, 1951
‘Albuquerque #4’, 1951 © 2015 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

In the “Berkeley” series (1953), hazy, watery, organic shapes in blues and greys, evoking the cloud, marine fog and moist air of the San Francisco Bay area, resemble a patchwork seen from above. The cool tonality is a stunning contrast with the earthy ochres of “Albuquerque”, though the gestural brushwork still recalls de Kooning and the veils of colour Rothko.

But, at the back of Diebenkorn’s mind, an influence was working that would turn out to be yet more decisive. In 1952 in Los Angeles he saw a retrospective of Matisse, an artist he had revered since encountering “Studio, Quai St Michel” at the Phillips Collection when he was stationed in Washington for military training. In the mid-1950s, as he came to distrust abstraction — “It was as though I could do too much too easily. There was nothing hard to come up against. And suddenly the figure paintings furnished a lot of this” — Matisse, who had died in 1954, became a reference point.

In the second gallery here, marvellous, unexpected nudes, drawn in dark outlines to carve the figure spatially, in rich textural combinations of graphite, charcoal, conté crayon, ink and gouache are made monumental by close-up vantage points and cropping. But they remain alive and unresolved, with erasures, emendations and pentimenti that incorporate the history and time of their making. They are homages to Matisse, whose impact reaches its zenith in the important painting “Woman by the Ocean” (1956). This translates the “Quai St Michel” subject of a model in an interior, with an open window on to the Seine, into the high light and vast open spaces of California.

Black window posts intersecting with horizontal bands of sky and ground in sunny blues, softly brushed yellows and greens introduce a skeletal grid, anchoring the figure in shallow space. Laconic but toughly formal, this crystalline picture and its complex, diagonally constructed successors of figures in reverie — “Girl on a Terrace” (1956), “Interior with View of Buildings” (1962), where a magnifying glass reflects a slice of sky — develops modernism’s exploration of the window or door as a compositional device and a musing on interior versus exterior space, confinement versus freedom, culture versus nature.

‘Cityscape#1’ (1963)
‘Cityscape#1’ (1963) © 2015 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Creamy, dynamic still lifes, such as “Ashtray and Doors” (1962), elaborate the theme in a minor key. An arresting small work, “Seated Man” (1956), a shirtless figure wedged into place by a yellow table that holds the mere suggestion of plate, cup, spoon, and blocks of layered blacks and orange, is a figural, still life and abstract painting all at once. “One wants”, he said, “to see the artifice of the thing as well as the subject.”

And then, as suddenly as it appeared, the figure disappears from his oeuvre. In 1966 Diebenkorn moved to Ocean Park, Santa Monica, and for the next two decades was wholly occupied with the “Ocean Park” abstractions for which he is best known. Controlled yet ethereal, they suffuse the final room here with the milky coastal light of southern California and are really a meditation on both landscape and abstract painting itself.

“Ocean Park #27” (1970) resembles jewel-like stained glass window panels defined by wide white bands in an idiosyncratic play of right angles. The architectonic latticework of “Ocean Park #79” (1975) is repeatedly aligned, realigned, overlaid with sumptuous glazes of azure, turquoise, lavender into a grid formation animated by splatters, drips and sprays that relate process, struggle, improvisation. Later examples are more sparely stratified, with scraped-down paint suggesting lines cutting into sand. Allusions to landscape and sea persist, as do vestiges of windows. Diebenkorn’s studio window, cranked open at an angle, is a direct source of some of the diagonal lines and trapezoidal shapes that seem to jumble water, sky and architecture.

Cézanne’s architectonic disequilibrium is here, and Mondrian’s regimented geometry, loosened by the vaporous, bright Californian setting; absent are the 1960s-70s currents of pop and conceptualism. “I’m really a traditional painter, not avant-garde at all. I wanted to follow a tradition and extend it,” Diebenkorn said.

This revelatory exhibition celebrates a great synthesiser for whom pure painting, and its evocation of states of mind and feeling, always reigned stronger than fashion or theory.

Until June 7,

Photographs: Neuberger Museum of Art; Brooklyn Museum; Saint Louis Art Museum; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

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