A rare opportunity to see a museum-quality show of works by Bay Area Figurative giant Richard Diebenkorn and legendary New York School Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline is offered by the Alex Bult Gallery this month. Drawn from the collection of Wayne Thiebaud, the works on view are fascinating examples of each artist’s work.
Thiebaud, who took a sabbatical from teaching at Sacramento Junior College (now Sacramento City College) in 1956, went to Manhattan to study and work. While there, he became acquainted with several of the Abstract Expressionists, among them Willem de Kooning and Kline.
Visiting Kline in his studio, Thiebaud saw great numbers of small studies done on New York City telephone book pages scattered on the floor. At de Kooning’s suggestion, Kline started blowing these quick studies of abstract brushstrokes into paintings on large canvases that made him internationally famous.
While discussing teaching with Kline, who did not approve of the way art was being taught in colleges and universities, Thiebaud remarked that these studies would be great teaching tools for serious painting students. Despite his reservations about teaching art, Kline agreed to let Thiebaud pick out a series of the studies to be used in his classes at the Sacramento college.
Kline said at the time that these works were “only for this single use and should not be considered serious finished works in any way.” Thiebaud promised never to sell or compromise the works in any way. They remain unsigned and are not for sale.
Once again, they are being used as teaching tools for art students and art lovers in the Sacramento area. On view at the Bult Gallery, they are vigorous and varied expressions of a masterful artist’s experimentation with gestural abstraction. Ranging from spare markings to jaunty calligraphic explosions and soft atmospheric meditations, they are wonderful examples of how a serious artist uses drawings as starting points for larger works.
Here they are interspersed with prints and one drawing by Diebenkorn, who is acknowledged as one of the master printmakers of the last century. While it may seem odd for the Klines and Diebenkorns to be hung side by side, it’s a wonderfully didactic arrangement that points up the inherent abstraction in Diebenkorn’s figurative images of subjects ranging from domestic interiors, table-top still lifes, nudes and San Francisco Bay Area landscapes.
Most of the Diebenkorns are etchings that were done at Crown Point Press in San Francisco and their methods include drypoint, hardground etching, and aquatint. An untitled hardground etching from 1965 demonstrates his masterful composition techniques. Here we see an interior with a folding chair, a partial figure in a doorway, and a vase of flowers on a table top. The repeated angles and diagonals set up a kind of internal rhyme in the image, a quality that appears regularly in his works whether in a primarily abstract work like “Two Right Angles, One in Other” or a gritty drypoint of scissors, and a knife, fork and spoon.
In addition to the etchings there is a masterful drawing of a reclining nude that is both solid and sensitive and two lithographs – one a contour drawing of an angular figure in a folding chair, the other a rich and inky still life of a cup and saucer with cutlery. They are tour de force works, ones that again demonstrate Diebenkorn’s mastery of contour and chiming abstract markings.
An added pleasure of the show are two graphite portraits of Kline done from life by Thiebaud in 1956. They are both sensitive and bold and have references to Abstract Expressionism.
One must congratulate Alex Bult and Wayne Thiebaud for providing such an informative and impressive show. You won’t want to miss it.