Monday, September 2, 2013

Diebenkorn: Notes to Myself

There's a site I recently found out about called Brainpickings, "a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why, bringing you things you didn’t know you were interested in — until you are." One of the recent posts there was a list of ten things artist Richard Diebenkorn put together to explain some elements of his thinking as he goes about beginning a painting. As a way of collecting my own thoughts about it, I've decided to annotate the list. Here goes:

Notes to Myself on Beginning a Painting

Richard Diebenkorn

1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.

I agree on the first two counts. I count myself among those who believe that too much of a plan is a dangerous thing, whether in art or in writing or in living, as is too much certainty. The interesting stuff happens when the artwork or the writing or a day in your life starts to run away with you. I'm not sure about the "valuable delusion" piece. Perhaps he means to say that sometimes certainty gives you the self-assurance to move forward, and in that sense is valuable, in contrast to a debilitating uncertainty.

2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued—except as a stimulus for further moves.

Again, agreed. It's easy enough, and probably unwise, to settle for something easy, something "pretty," that does not go beyond the surface, that makes no move toward breadth or depth, insight or surprise. I see this a lot in student artwork and writing: something pretty, something cute, something that gives a momentary pleasure but seeks to go no further. A lot of student writing seems to come to close at the bottom of a page. You can almost feel the relief before the dismount: there, I made it, done.

3.  Do search. But in order to find what is other than searched for.

This is good. It's true that if you ask yourself a question or set yourself a task, you will inevitably start filtering whatever input comes your way on the basis of its apparent relevance to what you thought you wanted to find out. I think it's good counsel to actively consider the possibility is that what you think you are looking for is not in fact what you really want to find.

4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.

This seems to me to be a slightly different take on the same insight articulated in number three. Just because you start out with something that seems cool or unusual or fresh doesn't mean that ultimately you have to stick with it. Sometimes the things you want to hold onto the most are the things you have to let go of in order to transcend yourself.

5. Don't "discover" a subject—of any kind.

This feels counterintuitive at first. Isn't it precisely the point of artistic endeavor to "discover" what you did not know you were going to find? Isn't that the implication of rules 1-4? I don't know exactly what Diebenkorn meant by this. But my hunch is that the emphasis should be on the word "subject," and not on the word "discover." Again, once I know, or think I know, what my "subject" is, I stop being an explorer and start being a propagandist, a person with a point to make. And I'd argue that one critical difference between good art and great art, good writing and great writing, is that the great work can't be ultimately be reduced to a "subject," a paraphrase of a position. Here's one of my favorite Diebenkorns. What is the "subject" here? And would it encourage us to look at it any more carefully or help us to experience it any more fully if the "subject" was more explicit?

6. Somehow don't be bored but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.

This one feels inexact to me. Part of it is just syntactical: there's no antecedent for "it" and "it." The implied antecedent is "boredom," but that still doesn't work for me. How would I go about using the destructive power of boredom? What would that look like? What does that mean? I'm sure it made perfect sense to Diebenkorn and he'd be able to explain it, but as written it doesn't do much for me.

7. Mistakes can't be erased but they move you from your present position.

Well, again, not to pick nits, but you know what? Often mistakes can be erased. I get it that mistakes are a necessary and valuable part of the creative process and that often they do serve to move you forward. (Lewis Thomas has a wonderful essay called "To Err is Human" in which he argues that if we can just find a big enough mistake we can really learn something. He praises computers in this regard, that they allow us to make really big mistakes.)

8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.

Uh, no thanks. I do know something about Pollyanna. In fact, one of my first crushes was on Hayley Mills. I was 13. I got over it. The original 1913 novel by Eleanor Porter, according to Wikipedia,  has Pollyanna playing the "Glad Game," which consists of finding something to be glad about in every situation. Which I guess is why the sobriquet "Pollyanna" came to mean refer to a person whose cheerful optimism sets everyone's teeth on edge. I don't know why RD wants me to keep thinking about her, but I'm gonna pass.

9. Tolerate chaos.

Well sure. What are the alternatives?

10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Sorry. I don't get it. Again, I'm sure it means something. Maybe even something profound and worth thinking about. But the recommendation isn't of much use to me in its obliquity.

Feels a little to me like Diebenkorn had two or three good ideas that he decided to build out to a nice round number: ten. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. But less might have been more. But as my friend and mentor George once said in a printmaking class, "If you get the color right, you're forgiven."On that basis, we're going to have to let RD off the hook.

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