Why isn’t Diebenkorn (or Neel) famous?

Terry Teachout, writing in the Wall Street Journal discusses one of my favorite pet peeve issues:

“Consider the case of Richard Diebenkorn, whose paintings are passionately admired by countless collectors and connoisseurs of modern art, not a few of whom place him close to the top of the short list of America’s greatest artists. But Diebenkorn, who died in 1993, has never quite made it into the pantheon of American modernism. MoMA owns a half-dozen of his paintings and works on paper, all of them first-rate. And how many are hanging there today? Not a one.

Why isn’t Diebenkorn famous? Because his work doesn’t fit into the standard narrative that many critics, scholars and museum curators use to explain the history of 20th-century art. For openers, he was a West Coast artist who spent most of his adult life in California when New York was universally regarded as the creative center of American art. And though he started out painting boldly colored Abstract Expressionist canvases that made perfect sense to the critics of the early ’50s, he took a sharp turn off the smooth road of history in 1955 and returned to figurative painting, producing an even more remarkable series of portraits, still lifes and suburban cityscapes.”

My pet peeve is not Diebenkorn’s lack of fame, although I agree 100% with Teachout in his case, but the underlaying point to his article.

His point is that the “accepted” art historical narrative, which isĀ the only narrative taught to young minds in our schools, promulgated through art history books and enforced tenaciously by most curators and art critics, is spectacularly wrong!

Teachout drives a ferocious key issue home when he writes that:

‘The trouble with these narratives is that they’re dreamed up by theorists so eager to explain the world around them that they sometimes fail to pay attention to it. Such explanations cannot be cobbled together without tossing a lot of “unnecessary” spare parts into the dustbin of inevitability.’

It’s easy to find a dozenĀ  Diebenkornian artists who don’t fit the accepted “art narrative” and just as easy for the galvanized “art narrators” to come up with heavy handed art words explaining the holes.

Alice Neel by Lida Moser
“Alice Neel in her New York City apartment” by Lida Moser

Teachout clearly and efficiently uses Diebenkorn as an example. In my mind Alice Neel is another brilliant example of someone who didn’t fit the narrative, and whose eventual success (according to her very good friend Lida Moser) was resented by many of her contemporaries, who didn’t want a representational female artist getting in the middle of the art narrative.

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1 Comment »

  1. October 21, 2008 @ 12:14 pm

    Andrew Said,

    There have been a few Diebenkorn exhibits at the Phillips Collection in DC - Diebenkorn in New Mexico and one called Degas to Diebenkorn, more of a general exhibit with some of his works. But I think that’s partially because the museum has a lot of his works.

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