photo of motif Bonnard ideaFrom my mediations today on Bonnard’s art, I had one of those moments when you bang into the obvious.  “Pierre Bonnard’s art is indistinct.”  The thought floated into view in my brain like a boat that you see as it silently sails down the river.  Why should I feel some need to plan everything when his own starts (some of those exist) demonstrate how furtively he sometimes snuck up on his motifs?  And writing about the big painting conjured in me a great desire to begin, so I’ve begun.

I’ve started with his sketch, which I’ve decided to use like a map.  Certain key locations of the canvas I plot using this map.  I have things that I’ll be adding — most keenly the vase of flowers — that are absent from his motif.  The part of his canvas where my flowers will go is empty wall so clearly that changes everything.  But I sort of copy the general plot of his design.  My format is wider, too.  He has things in his picture that will not appear in mine — like ghostly Marthe on the left margin of his scene!  All these differences and the many that will follow will make the two images very different from each other. Yet I learn things about Bonnard’s painting already in even these most  cursory gestures.

I feel like Diebenkorn looks over my shoulder.  He studied Bonnard too.  And because I must change things from the outset, I become aware of all the changes that Diebenkorn introduced into his most Bonnard-like images.

And, oh! the things you notice.  Bonnard’s vertical lines are not plumb!  Not at all.  The frame of the window just veers off in wild fashion.  The painting entire holds together like an iron grill or like diamond thread — both delicate and adamant.  What gravity binds his image together … who can say?

Already the delight begins …. my delight … as I begin painting.

me and RD

I have loved Richard Diebenkorn’s work since whenever it was (a long time ago) that I first saw it.  Without knowing anything about him, just seeing one of his pictures on the cover of a magazine, I fell in love. His ideas have affected me since.

Here in the drawing from one of his little notebooks (above left) and the detail of my painting Distant Oak (below), I think the affinity shows.  I never met Mr. Diebenkorn (who was the same age as my mother).  But I still think of him as being one of my teachers.

DSC_1231 (3) Distant Oak smaller

The Sameness that Renews itself

Richard Diebenkorn wrote “Notes to himself on beginning a painting.”  They are somewhat like Gibb’s Rules.  Diebenkorn’s number one (they are similarly numbered) says, “attempt what is not certain.  Certainty may or may not come later.  It may then be a valuable delusion.”

At first I thought Diebenkorn’s rule sounded at odds with my practice.  I plan my paintings as much as practicable, following a procedure that is not radically different from what the old masters did.  Yet in essence I do “attempt the uncertain.” 

The “warp and weft” of the painting will come through the process of painting.  My preliminary drawings (which I do habitually, especially when I fall in love with a motif, repeating it over and over) these reiterations seem to open doors.  But when I go through the door, when I work on the actual painting, I find that the drawings point toward possibilities.  They do not close down, they open up.

I could compare it with walks I take.  I go back to the same places again and again.  After many occasions I come to know the terrain thoroughly.  But each visit contains its own incident and mood.  Weather changes.  Times of year, the hours of the day, the angle of the light.  Equally much I have my own internal weather and seasons:  I travel there in different moods.

Memories of past times have their effects.  It’s never the same path exactly.

My Diebenkorn, My “Berkeley”

my diebenkorn 2 rotated

Blogger June Malone posts a copy she made after an abstract Gerhard Richter watercolor, saying that she wasn’t sure she understood Richter’s abstraction, but that copying one taught her more about achieving depth and richness of color in the watercolor medium.

It inspired me to pull out my copy after Diebenkorn above.  The original, Berkeley #57, painted the year I was born,  lives at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  There’s a great many differences between my copy and Diebenkorn’s original painting which I’m aware of even though I’ve never seen the actual painting.  I’ve seen enough Diebenkorns to know that his oil painting’s surface is very textural whereas I kept the acrylic paint I used to make my copy fairly thin.  The scale of the paintings is radically different.  Diebenkorn’s painting is 58 3/4 inches square and mine (not truly a square) measures 18 x 24 inches.

However, like June, I found the practice of copying an abstract painting very intriguing.  My approach to copying Diebenkorn, not withstanding the paint, is rather more like a drawing in feeling.  I drew his lines and shapes, felt my way through the image’s forms, and ignored (of necessity) the layerings that I know exist in the original.  Also, my copy has a lot of “me” in it. 

Copying his painting was somewhat like taking a short walk with him in a Berkeley of imagination (I’ve never even been to California).  And while we walked, suffice to say we had a brief and pleasant chat. 

Diebenkorn’s painting is abstract, having no identifiable subject matter.  But it contains many feelings about natural forms, some of them landscape .  Equally it has many touchstones to early European and Euro-american painting: indebtedness to de Kooning, for instance, and through de Kooning more remotely to Picasso.  The SFMOMA site has some videos of Diebenkorn being interviewed and working.


I paint things.  But from my earliest recollection of seeing the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn, the great American abstract painter of the last generation, I was smitten.  I always loved Richard’s paintings.  It was love at first sight, a love that is still going strong.

When I was coming up, abstraction was considered not merely a given, but was thought to be the form that had forever left representation behind.  That judgment was clearly a bit hasty. And while I never bought into that dogma myself, I think anyone considering the question today can easily see that “representation” is a central facet of human experience and ain’t going anywhere.  But even now the trend watchers will swear that their movement is the wave that washes everything else away.  Not quite.

What struck me about abstraction in my earliest experience being a painter, and which I suspect needs repeating even now, is that all perception is “abstract” in the sense of being partial, evocative and incomplete.  Artists take things apart and reassemble them on the canvas.  In between stages of taking the imagery apart are “abstract,” which is to say they consist of just lines, tones, shapes, colors.  Even in a finished and highly realistic painting, the process of the image is still visible to a discerning viewer.  These marks of the painting-as-painting are abstract elements that separate it from and distinquish it from its real, its actual subject.

How could art not be abstract?  If you paint apples, they are not apples but depictions of apples.  All that is left out by virtue of their being imitations of something is what makes them “abstract.”  Admittedly though, we reserve the word for images that are so removed from sources as to be unidentifiable.  But in truth all art is abstract — only sometimes the artists are the only ones really understanding this.  Realist artists know this better than anybody.

A friend asked me how Diebenkorn chose the framework of his pictures.  Couldn’t he have cropped it anyplace?  Why is the painting this format that it is and not some other?  His questions struck me as incredibly insightful.  Indeed, close observation of Diebenkorn’s surfaces show smaller “versions” or intervals of the same processes and ideas that wash across the whole.  Diebenkorn’s visual ideas are like Chinese nesting boxes or almost-fractals.  In that regard, they have intellectual touchstones amid certain ideas of mathematics and physics!

Aesthetically, what we can take from these questions, I think, is this:  the painting (or drawing) should have a structure that is strong in the parts as well as in the whole.

[Top of the post:  A detail of the author’s large abstract crayon drawing.  By Aletha Kuschan]

“My Diebenkorn”

Richard Diebenkorn, were he still living, would be about my mom’s age.  So he was a grown up painter when I was this size.  He’s like an art Dad to me.  (Matisse and Bonnard are my grandparents.)  I wanted to paint something that was thoroughly my own, yet Diebenkorn-like.  A wonderful large Diebenkorn of a Seated Figure Wearing a Hat was on display at the National Gallery of Art around the time I made my picture.  The textures are very different — his and mine — but something of the brushy Diebenkorn surfaces comes to life in its own way in my picture too.

My painting is a self portrait. It depicts a larger than life-size, two year old me, clinging to her doll which “me” is afraid of losing to some other children.  To get this image, I used a little square format, black and white photo dating from Post-Cambrian times.  It’s a striking picture (if I’m allowed to say so myself).  It’s a very modern sort of thing to shake up just the right kind of bright decor.

And I need to find it a home.  It’s kind of an orphan!  [Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 56 inches, by Aletha Kuschan]


Got a hero?  I do.  Lots of them.  Richard Diebenkorn, the great 20th century American painter of life and abstraction, is one of them.  I went through a whole phase of studying Diebenkorn’s painting about eight years ago.  I poured over every book I could find and visited as many Diebenkorn paintings in collections as possible.  Thanks to new motherhood, I had missed a huge Diebenkorn show in Washington.  That’s okay.  I’m happy with the kid.  But perhaps to make up for the missed opportunity, I studied him in this other, vicarious way.

While my baby daughter was asleep, on a few nights when I was not, I rolled out large sheets of paper on the floor and made my own big abstractions using kids’ tempera paints!  I was just like Richard Dreyfuss with the mashed potatoes (mentioned a few posts back)!  What a lovely obsession it was to feel this thrill of the pure beauty of paint itself and the aching search for forms that are untied from things and thingness.

The painting above, however, comes from Diebenkorn’s figurative phase in the 1950s and early 60s.  It shows a limp girl who seems to be feeling somewhat like I felt (after a night of tempera painting while baby slept).

[Designers take note: I make copies!  Commission me to copy a Diebenkorn.  I’d love it.   Just like  Rubens, I still make copies.]