EXHIBITION CATALOGUE Hackett-Freedman Gallery, San Francisco CA
Tradition and Innovation: The Still Lifes of Guy Diehl
by Susan Landauer
Guy Diehl is something of an anomaly in todayʼs art world. “I often wonder where I fit in,” he mused in a recent conversation. “I donʼt know whether Iʼm a traditional realist or a classic modernist. These are, of course, thorny categorizations to begin with, but Diehl, paradoxically, qualifies as both. This Bay Area-schooled artist came of age in the early 1980s, just when representational painting was once again becoming a viable option for young artists. The revival of still life was announced as early as 1979, with the Allan Frumkin Galleryʼs exhibition, The Big Still Life, in New York, which set off a flurry of critical reviews conjecturing a major sea change in the art world. After decades of strict formalism and antagonism to tradition, artists were once again free to explore the art of the past, even such time-worn genres as the still life. The artists of the 1980s and 1990s discovered that the elements of still life could be infinitely reshuffled and adapted to suit the needs of the moment, whether as an instrument of parody or socio-political inquiry. It seemed that finally the art world had recognized that, as Kirk Varnedoe put it, “the radically new is often the conventional reconfigured.
Diehl fully embraced this sifting through the usable past, but shied away from the irony and detachment of his colleagues. The witty and subversive posturing fashionable among contemporary artists never appears in his work. Instead, as Los Angeles Times critic Leah Ollman observed, Diehl “practices painting as an act of homage. His works are truly devotional in two ways: they are devoted both to the many artists he openly reveres throughout the history of art and to the painstaking craft of painting. Yet he is also a modernist in a very important sense. For Diehl, the clusters of objects he paints are primarily scaffolds for plastic exploration. The building blocks of Cézanne – color, form, and composition – are the fundamentals of his work. Diehl is a formalist above all, and his very subject matter – which he describes as “art about art” – is a staple of classic modernism.
Diehlʼs love of art began at an early age. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he moved with his family to the Bay Area when he was eleven, and by the time he finished high school he knew that he wanted to pursue painting. At Cal State University, Hayward, he was lucky enough to study with Mel Ramos, one of the best known Bay Area figurative Pop artists, who taught him “discipline and professionalism,” as well as the use of the camera as a tool. For his MFA at San Francisco State University, Diehl found two more important mentors, Robert Bechtle and Richard McLean, the Bay Areaʼs preeminent practitioners of photorealism. He worked under their spell for several years, painting sunny pool pictures with their cool eye and unrelenting neutrality. Around 1982, he had an epiphany: he saw Bay Area artist Gordon Cookʼs modest still lifes at the Charles Campbell Gallery in San Francisco. Cook impressed Diehl with his quiet restraint and the purity of his workmanship. “I was stunned by how simple and strong they were,” Diehl recalled. That was the beginning of his twenty-five-year preoccupation with the still life. Through Cook, Diehl discovered the Italian still life painter Georgio Morandi, whose unassuming renderings of bottles and jars he admired for their spare color and powerful reductive form.
(Diehl cites Jean Lipman and Richard Marshall, Art about Art, New York: Dutton, 1978, as having a formative influence. “I remember referring to it then (as now) as a means of inspiration and the belief, plain and simply, that art and the ideas of art have always followed each other through time.” (Diehl, email to the author, February 8, 2007)
Morandi and Cook continue to this day to serve as Diehlʼs guideposts. “I have to look at them frequently as a cleansing or grounding act, a reformatting of oneʼs hard-drive, so to speak,” he says. “Sometimes I find myself drifting – my work becomes too much about technique, too ornate, or too detailed. Thatʼs when I have to get back to Morandi and Cook.” These words provide an important key to understanding Diehlʼs work. Fundamentally, his is a “less is more” sensibility. Distillation, paired with subtlety, is paramount; many commentators have noted his intense concentration on particular subjects. For the past fifteen years, his repertoire has consisted mainly of hard cover books in pristine condition without dust jackets, typically on art or other cultural subjects. The books are often accompanied by some related iconic element such as a card or an envelope, or perhaps a piece of fruit or a flower. The pristine condition of the books – without imprints or wear – suggests the pristine condition of his images. And here is one of the engaging tensions of Diehlʼs canvases. His art is exceedingly chaste, but the velvety surfaces and rich colors are also immensely seductive. And it is that sensual paradox that gives much of the power to Diehlʼs work.
Susan Landauer, Katie and Drew Gibson Chief Curator San Jose Museum of Art, California
Guy is currently represented by the Dolby Chadwick Gallery of San Francisco CA