Art Essay Sample: Looking Through a Reducing Glass

Published: 2022-09-01
Art Essay Sample: Looking Through a Reducing Glass
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Art
Pages: 6
Wordcount: 1406 words
12 min read

Richard Diebenkorn (1922 - 1993), an American abstract artist, a representative of the second generation of abstract expressionism, is one of those painters whose art is simultaneously simple and profound, materialistic and philosophical, straightforward and introspective. He is famous for his incessant creative dialogue with Matisse, partiality to the bird-eye perspective, bold colors and generous brush-strokes, urban landscapes and simplistic still-lifes full of hidden semantic undertones. Interior with View of Buildings was painted by Diebenkorn in 1962. This piece of contemporary art is currently displayed at the Cincinnati Art museum. It is oil on canvas, 84 x 67 in. (213.4 x 170.2 cm). The painting is one of the most fascinating artworks created by Diebenkorn, as it is an ingenious and intriguing combination of a landscape, a still-life, and a figure. All these elements work together to explore and reveal to the viewer Diebenkorn's creative method, which can be metaphorically seen as looking at life through a reducing glass.

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The painting is very vigorously divided into two juxtaposed horizontal halves - the upper one being the landscape and the lower one representing the interior of Diebenkorn's studio, the two worlds between which Diebenkorn divided his attention as a devoted landscape painter. The vertical orientation of the canvas allows the eye of the spectator to 'scroll' up and down the picture comparing the two worlds. There is no visible frame of the window, no distinct and obvious lines separating the two worlds. The view could be painted on the wall. The two worlds are obviously contrasted with each other, but they also mirror each other in terms of colors and subject matter, emphasizing the strong connection between the landscape as a primary source of Diebenkorn's inspiration and his studio as a representation of his artistic craft.

The landscape is a view of a street marked by pronounced southern coloring: white houses, yellow and orange sandy pavement, dark green masses of trees, rich violet shadows and immense blue sky. A row of the white houses resembles a line of neat white teeth biting into the juicy blue of the sky. The sky is so huge and overpowering with its visible whitish thick air that it seems to be almost palpably hovering over the houses, weighing them down, pressing them into an even thinner line between the blue and the orange. A scattered burst of rectangular black windows contrasted sharply with the whitewashed walls creates an impression of looking at a motion piture film strip which brings into the painting a sensation of slightly noticeable horizontal movement. The sensation is intensified by the resemblance which the very front house bears to a railway carriage. Thus, the rectangular shapes and the horizontal composition of the upper half of the picture induce it with certain stability and material tangibility, the images that are invoked by the way the artist interprets the landscape speak of internal movement of life and the pace of time that cannot be stopped.

In the lower part of the picture, the interior of Diebenkorn's studio is painted in darker colors which effectively emphasize the gay brightness of the landscape. If the upper half of the picture is structured horizontally, the interior is introspective in its highly layered structure of brush-strokes, dark coloring with predominating dark blue shades thickly covering the cheerful orange background which echos the hot, steaming bright orange and yellow sand in the upper half. The reducing glass on the table mirrors the colors of the landscape. Ruth E. Fine explains that Diebenkorn "often looked at his paintings through such a glass, as if from afar, giving him a different view of their totality" and also "was know to view his work in reverse through a mirror" (Fine, 1997, p.97). One might surmise that here the reducing glass is serving as an artistic metaphor for the way a painter perceives life in its entirety and reduces it to lines and colors. Like an airplane flight, painting helps an artist to rise over the details and particularities to see the magnificent and mesmerizing pattern of life as if from a bird's perspective. When a picture is painted, a new microcosm is created, a tiny model of the bigger whole, which can be used by the spectator to enable him to see the essential truth - in the Aristotlean sense - that is hiding behind the immense and frightening variety of the physical manifestations. Thus, the two lines inside the reducing glass - the yellow and the blue - are a symbolic and philosophical representation of the landscape above. In this geometric simplicity, one can observe an anticipation of the boldness of lines in Diebenkorn's signature "Ocean Park" series.

The introspective movement of the interior in the lower half of the painting is centered around the semantic core of the picture, the portrait of Diebenkorn's wife, Phyllis. Her portrait is leaned against the wall in a row of other canvases. It is not only a picture within a picture, an artistic metareference, but in the background, it also features the same landscape that is portrayed in the upper half of the painting. This painting looks like a puzzle fragment that has fallen out of the whole picture of the landscape above. It introduces the lacking human presence to the artwork. Yet, this presence is ephemeral. Ruth E. Fine considers Studio, Quai Saint-Michel (1917) by Henri Matisse "which Diebenkorn saw as a young serviceman in the Phillips Collection in Washington" and "credited throughout his life as one of the most important inspirations" to be the prototype for Diebenkorn's painting (Fine, 1997, p.96). Yet, in Matisse's painting, the model is still lying on the couch, the canvas rests on the easel and only the painter's place is vacant. All these details create a sensation that Matisse has just left and will be back any moment now. In Diebenkorn's picture, there is no such sensation: the portrait is placed on the floor together with other paintings, the woman on the portrait is looking at the distant landscape with her back turned to the spectator, there are no live human beings in view. The painter's favorite chair (featured in other pictures as well) is there, in the right bottom corner of the picture. Its slender, elegantly curved arm is echoing the sweep outline of the female head on the portrait. Yet, it is empty. Moreover, it is not even in the primary focus of attention, opposite to the way the painter's chair is placed in the very center of the studio in Matisse's artwork. The space between the chair and the table, where the painter might have been standing holding his reducing glass and looking at his painting, is consciously left blank. It is just a square of dark color, a void left unoccupied after the painter has gone out of the studio, and now generously offered to the viewer. In this way, the painter is inviting the recipient to try and see the world through his eyes. Here, Diebenkorn is consistent in the way he yields the limelight to the primary sources of his inspiration: the landscape in its geometric simplicity and the things in their essential, palpable 'thingness.'

Thus, Interior with View of Buildings is not only a canvas, but it is an invitation. Diebenkorn is inviting the viewer into his studio which becomes a metaphoric representation of the way the painter sees the world, interprets and represents it. The objects included in the picture are instruments that can help the spectator understand Diebenkorn's creative method better. As Ruth E. Fine puts it, "accounting for the specific objects represented in Interior with View of Buildings is essential to an understanding of what formed Diebenkorn's world and how his paintings celebrate that world" (Fine, 1997, p.96). In this painting, Diebenkorn offers a productive combination of different genres - a landscape, a figure, a still life, showing how they interact within one canvas creating a complex, multilayered structure. The heterogenic mosaic is united by the echo of colors and lines in the two halves of the painting, as well as the symbol of the reducing glass which serves as a metaphoric key to the painting and the whole of Diebenkorn's art.


Diebenkorn, R. (1962). Interior with View of Buildings [Painting]. The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial, Cincinnati Art museum, Cincinnati Art museum (currently displayed).

Livingston, J., Fine, R., & Elderfield, J. (1997). The art of Richard Diebenkorn: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art.

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