It is by light,
I come to know you.
It is by breath.
It is by light,
I come to know you.
Peter Levitt, A Book of Light (1982)
Paintings either breathe in, or they breathe out. One only needs to look at the large brooding painting by Sean Scully RA, Doric Night (2011), currently on display in the Academicians’ Room, to see that it is sucking in air as fast as one can breathe. And the light too. In Diebenkorn’s paintings, especially the ‘Ocean Park’ series, one senses strongly the dry brittle light of where the desert meets the ocean. A crystalline light, noticeably different to the moisture-softened light we have here on the British Isles.
Diebenkorn said, ‘I arrive at the light only after painting in it, not by aiming for it.’ For the painting to hold the light, as opposed to depicting it by the means of chiaroscuro and shading, would seem to be what Diebenkorn is aiming for. A state in which the space in the painting is self-illuminating, almost transcendent. Such omnipresent light takes us back to Italian Duecento and Trecento painting, to a light before the slant of the shadow and human tainting. A time when form was in pure colour.
The American painter Willem de Kooning, when asked about abstraction in painting, said it was the smile on a Dutch man’s face. Georgia O’Keeffe, another American artist, when asked about an abstract drawing she had made, replied that it was about a headache. Our usual understanding of abstraction in art is that artists begin with something visually realistic in the world, and then somehow modify it, simplify it away from its original recognisable form.
But are there other ways to understand abstraction? In his book, Early Christian Art (1967), Frederic van der Meer writes of, ‘this constant double image – prefiguration and fulfilment, shadow and reality, past and present…’, words which are redolent with the complexities of attempting to paint an abstract painting. For the painting must find itself, and hold itself, in a condition whereby figuration is never declared and fulfilment is withheld, yet it must suggest a presence; a precarious state, a sort of waiting to be.
The term ‘prefiguration’, as used by Van Der Meer, is perhaps helpful in understanding the nature of the abstract in Diebenkorn’s late works. If our conventional understanding of abstraction in painting is that the image somehow moves away from the concrete object, be it a chair, an apple or indeed the human body, becoming in the process more ‘abstract’, then prefiguration suggests something prior to the object actually being perceived. A kind of painting that is formed in the artist’s mind before the concrete world appears. This is perhaps what Diebenkorn referred to as ‘not representing’.
Certainly in the architectonic spaces set up in the ‘Ocean Park’ paintings, there is a sense of expectancy, as if the space is waiting for the figure to materialise, to come into being. Yet, curiously enough, we somehow know it will not arrive, and the empty space in the paintings takes on a significance whereby absence becomes more weighted than presence (Ocean Park #43, 1971, below). This pregnant space is not new to painting. One need only think of Simone Martini’s incredibly beautiful painting, from 1333, of the Annunciation in the Uffizi in Florence. Flanked on the left side by the Archangel Gabriel and to the right the unsuspecting Virgin, the empty central area of the painting is, literally, pregnant with expectation (below). The Annunciation’s ‘abstract-ness’ is the subject of the painting.