Richard Diebenkorn’s coastal landscape, ‘Seawall,’ does everything you could want painting to do

Richard Diebenkorn’s “Seawall” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco is a painting I can imagine mumbling about on my deathbed. “Something about paint … about light … light and strong shadow … the sea, the air …” At which point I think I’d be about ready to expire.

I’m not trying to get ahead of myself. I’m just trying to say that, for me, this painting has — to an almost startling degree — what some very deep, scarcely examined part of me most wants from art. It’s totally in tune with itself, with the world it depicts, and somehow also (oh, miraculous art!) with me. The only reason you’d say anything in its presence would be to prolong the impossible moment, like Hugh Grant in his bookshop in “Notting Hill” mumbling inanely away in front of Julia Roberts.

It’s no Mona Lisa, of course. It’s just a rough little daub. But its modesty is somehow an index to its authenticity. Get up close and you can see pretty much every brushstroke. Some were made with a loaded brush. You can see how the bristles zigzagged back and forth depositing the juicy blue of the sky or the thinner green of the grassy hill on the right.

Other parts — the blushing patch of pink in the middle distance, for instance — must have been made with a dryer brush, a more tentative touch: You can see the weave of the canvas beneath.

The whole scene breathes. It trembles in the salty air, responds to the muffled boom of distant surf.

Apart from a few diagonals gesturing laconically toward a vanishing point, there’s no real attempt to create a sense of receding space. All that green on the right is simply slapped onto the surface, no modulation at all. A couple of clouds are implied not by puffs of white but by two patches of slightly paler blue applied with more agitated brushstrokes. Amazing how just a few loose movements of Diebenkorn’s wrist are made equivalent to large-scale atmospheric turbulence.

When he painted “Seawall” in 1957, Diebenkorn had just emerged from a brief period in Berkeley painting abstractions in the explosive manner of Willem de Kooning but inflected with a specific California light. Lots of gold and pink. Dramatic gestures.

They’re some of the best abstract paintings of their time. But the style required a supercharged intensity that Diebenkorn soon began to mistrust. “I think what is more important,” he said at the time, “is a feeling of strength in reserve — tension beneath calm.” The world of appearances provided the restraint he was seeking.

Diebenkorn had been imbibing Matisse all his life. He knew from the Frenchman that color intensity was a function of scale. A big area of blue, in other words, is always going to create a more intense sensation of blue than a smaller area of the same blue. In “Seawall,” Diebenkorn unleashed the full force of a bright, drenching green, setting it against a fluctuating but still pure blue and harmonizing both with a small strip of yolky yellow.

He opened up the canvas — “aerated” it, you could say — with patches of off-white, tan and the aforementioned pink. Many are smudged with or undergirded by streaks of those stronger colors. He let patches of darker color do the work of carving out the form of the landscape. He orchestrated high- and low-pressure zones by contrasting loosely brushed, expansive areas with the congested central area of parti-colored dabs and dots. The whole painting, shadows included, may be bursting with color, but that pure white against the jet black where the tip of the landform meets the sky is genius: It’s sheer light — the point where contrasts become so strong that color evanesces.

All of it, you sense, has been done intuitively. You can see the residue of the many revisions.

Sea and sky are nice. But “Seawall” is hardly picturesque. Diebenkorn is not giving us the Matterhorn or Niagara Falls. He’s giving us an unadorned view of a barrier against seaside erosion. The whole painting, in fact, shrugs off the assumption that art should be precious, sublime or grandiose.

It replaces all that with a quiet self-confidence, a sensuality, an awareness of contingency and a plain-spoken honesty that is neither too much nor too little. Standing in front of it is like being stuck in a room with dozens of fools staring into their phones when someone you love — a real adult — walks in and looks right at you.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.




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