The school’s art teacher hangs posters in the hall outside her room and on the walls in the adjoining staff bathroom, some of it trendy rubbish – Duchamp, Warhol – intended as a sop to hipness, but one reproduction delivers reliable pleasure each time I pass: Richard Diebenkorn’s “Cityscape I” (1963). Despite the title, the scene feels suburban, perhaps because I grew up in a postwar suburb, on the margin between empty lots and development, the middle and working classes, concrete and trees. For a putatively urban painting, Diebenkorn’s is deeply, attractively green (the color, I mean, not the fad).
Critics demean suburbia for conformity and dullness, but that’s not how I remember it. Our neighborhood balanced the familiar and foreign, and seemed to us like a place made for exploration. “Cityscape I” reminds me of our suburb’s raw edge of fields and woods, an ideal setting for childhood. The people, too, were raw, men who worked for Ford or Republic Steel, women who worked at home. I grew up not knowing anyone who had “gone to college” – that was the phrase – and life was better than anyone suspected. In Diebenkorn’s painting I see unbounded geometry, form without limit or fear, and that was our sense of growing up in the suburbs.
After his death in 1993, Diebenkorn’s wife found a list of ideas – call them aphoristic advice – among her husband’s papers, and John Elderfield published it in his essay included in The Art of Richard Diebenkorn (1997). The first of the artist’s ten points seems pertinent:
“Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may be a valuable delusion.”