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Critics persist in referring to Diebenkorn's early work as "abstract expressionism." It does indeed respond to the art of older figures of the New York School, such as Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and Arshile Gorky (1904-1948). But Diebenkorn's New Mexico-period work pretty consistently lacks the sense of emotional eruption that might justify calling it expressionistic.
"IN 1967, THE AMERICAN PAINTER Richard Diebenkorn turned away from his widely admired figural style fluid, awkward, loosely evocative of Bonnard but less florid and more athletic-to return, to be sure with some marked differences, to the abstractionist imperatives he had just as abruptly put aside a dozen years before. His career thus falls naturally into three phases-or two phases of abstraction with a prolonged figurationist interlude-but this bland periodization fails to do justice to the unfolding narrative of his artistic discoveries. His figures were after all but regimentations of the same urgent and sweeping gestures that were the mark of his driving first abstractionist manner, and were set into pictorial spaces that did not exist in painting before Abstract Expressionism reinvented space. And the post-1967 abstractions have seemed to many sufficiently referential so that it is a critical commonplace to see them as suffused with a special California light, and as dense with coastal allusions to sky, ocean, seaside and sun, tawny hills, bleached architecture, sharp shadows and angular illuminations, green expanses and glimpsed distant blues, and possibly haunted by the erasure of human presences. Nor does the chronicle "abstraction-figuration-abstraction" adequately acknowledge the extreme determination, the aesthetic courage it had to have required first to shift from abstraction to "the image" at a time when such a change was perceived within the art world as something momentous, like a conversion or a betrayal or a heretical declaration, and then, at a time when one's great reputation was based upon the marvelous posing of figures in landscapes or interiors that looked like abstractions anyway, when pure abstraction was no longer the True Faith but only one of the ways to do things in an art world gone slack and pluralistic, to return to abstraction as one's own truth. Both changes are evidence of a certain dogged integrity, and were perhaps among the benefits of growing a career in California, away from the style wars and the critical fire storms of New York, with its fevered obsessions with where one fits, with who is in and which is out and what is new, fading, dated and dead.