KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 11: Spring 2019
Essay: 1708 words

Proem: Ekphrasis and the Abstract Work

by Charles D. Tarlton


...there was this situation of a large, lighted rectangle, a more of a
square within it, and then, seen from the side, the transom provided
the diagonal.... Well, there’s just so many of the elements there, and
I remember several more astute people who visited that studio said,
“Well, look, you’re painting your transom windows.” (laughter)

—Richard Diebenkorn1

View from Studio, Ocean Park: 1969 drawing by Richard Diebenkorn

View from Studio, Ocean Park (1969)2
Gouache, charcoal, and ink on paper (17"x14")
Copyrighted © by The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

The Problem

From Homer to John Ashbery, ekphrasis, or the conjunction of poetry and the plastic arts, has been among the oldest of the world’s literary traditions. In the presence of the painting or sculpture, the poet searches for equivalences to the color, shape, line, and figure of the painting in the sounds, meanings, form, and texture of words.

It is pretty easy to imagine a poem about the trees, roof tiles, and clouds of John Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821)3, for example; you could write that poem yourself. The “objects” of figurative art provide an immediate subject-story to write about, whether superficially or profoundly.

The Hay Wain: 1821 painting by John Constable

The details of Constable’s painting conventionally terminate in ideas of peasant, oxen, wagon, tree, tile, cloud—in a word, narrative. He suggests them to us and we complete the picture and story, so to speak, attaching meaning.

Here is Wordsworth painting with words:

Bend the complying heads of lordly pines,
And, with a touch, shift the stupendous clouds
Through the whole compass of the sky; ye brooks,
Muttering along the stones, a busy noise
By day, a quiet sound in silent night....4

Beautiful, and even though it was not written about Constable’s painting, it seems to pick up its chief threads in plain words, words that are for us the general names of things; say the word, “brook,” and you see one, “muttering along the stones....”

No small part of the seduction of ekphrasis derives ironically from its practical impossibility; the physical experience of viewing a painting or sculpture cannot be duplicated in words. The actual apple in your hand or in the bowl on the table presents endless visual aspects for as long as you look at it, and still remains an apple.

But, the painting of the apple (even in the hands of a master of trompe l’oeil) is an illusion at another remove. The marks on the canvas, the angle and distance of perceptions, the light, and the conventions of viewing create the impression of the apple, but the curious eye cannot help but extinguish the illusion by falling onto the roughly applied bits of different color or the texture of the brush strokes.

Which is why so many critics of abstract art keep trying to talk about it as if it were no different, fundamentally, from figurative art, just somehow more distorted, or whatever. They look for the real objects or phenomena surreptitiously portrayed in the abstractions (somehow behind them), finding traces of sunshine or apples or (even more arbitrarily) the direct expression of emotions in the paint.

But, if we rule out this pseudo-realism as the deeper truth of the abstract painter, we are left only with the surface of the canvas, the composition, color, shape, line, and texture. With no apparent “meaning,” the abstract painting presents the ekphrastic poet with special problems.

Ekphrasis and Abstraction

The most tempting solutions are found in the idea of the painter giving expression to something—but to what? Some have suggested the artist’s inner state as subject; others say that the abstract painting is the “representation” of the body’s motions in making the painting, or, wilder still, that the forms and motifs of the abstract painting represent something (what? ideas? things? dreams? fantasies?) that knows no other instantiation except in these inarticulate figures.

I don’t think we can ever say exactly what the abstract painting means or represents, and from among the alternative goals left to us, I think the most fruitful in the case of Diebenkorn will be to focus on his process of making a painting as that is revealed in the painting itself. It is generally understood that Diebenkorn worked in stages, partially covering up his unsuccessful efforts (but at the same time letting them show through in pentimenti). Moreover, he has himself described his procedure in these paintings as beginning by “besmirching” the untouched canvas before he could go on, and then working toward “rightness” in a pragmatic, trial and error method, following where his improvisational instincts, logic, or intuition took him.

This is not an issue to be solved in a single paragraph, however, and it is not my main focus, anyway. Let’s take it for granted that the abstract painting is an improvisational performance, that it avoids conventional representations, and that it, therefore, entails a process of action-reaction, until resolving itself.

The question remains of the poet’s encounter. My attempts both to “read” several of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Parks and to discover how the poem can really relate to the thoroughly abstract painting are contained in the pages that follow. I am standing back from them, you will see, reacting and peeking in, but never dreaming to encompass them once and for all.

“Besmirched”: Unexpected Rightness: as Method

The purpose here is not art criticism via poetry, not interpretation, reiteration, nor merely commentary on Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings. Both painting and poetry have their own processes and strategies, and I assume that in both there is some sort of goal or end, although, crucially, it may not be seen and recognized by the contemporary painter or poet until it has been reached.

Eager to get to the poetry’s purpose here, let’s say that the paintings (or, one at a time, “the painting”) provide(s) the initializing gesture for the poetry, which is then worked out in poetic terms (just as we conjecture that each of the Ocean Park paintings were begun with a single “gesture” whose simple origins were there in Diebenkorn’s studio.)

View from Studio, Ocean Park is the pivot around which Diebenkorn turns from a period of figurative painting back to abstraction. He did not return to his earlier organic abstract style (see, particularly, the Berkeley series) but to a new “geometric” one, based on the lines, angles, and shapes of View. This abstract style—parallel lines and parallelograms (with triangles, trapezoids, and trapeziums) at the top part of the canvas and with larger and much larger squares, triangles, and so forth in the lower and main part. The larger patches are painted usually in one dominant color or shade, although brush patterns blending in darker and lighter are visible throughout. The building, roofs, horizon, and skyline suggest the overall geometry in the middle of the paintings.

The deployment of color, shape, and texture is nevertheless unique in each of the Ocean Park series. The initializing gesture having been laid in (or simply imagined there on the canvas), a combination of preliminary moves from mechanical drawing (the idea of a straight edge is never far away), makes the first divisions into sections, large or small, narrow or wide, close or far apart.

At this point, I imagine that a partly critical/partly creative consciousness takes over and a process of alteration begins. Colors are painted in, and then painted over, scraped and rubbed, and painted over again. The residue of all these movements remains visible in the picture. Lines are moved, erased, drawn over, and crossed and re-crossed. New little shapes are created with the passage of a brush loaded with red or green or bright yellow; lines are drawn around these to suggest again the geometry, but the color often spills over.

We are in the midst of Diebenkorn’s creative process. He seems to have struggled (whether in a premeditated way or instinctively we will probably never know) against these first gestures using a process of improvisation, intuition, automatic painting, whim and caprice, logical deduction, and, probably, passion.

Of course, I don’t go into the studio with the idea of “saying” something—that’s ludicrous. What I do is face the blank canvas, which is terrifying. Finally, I put a few arbitrary marks on it that start me on some sort of dialogue. I need a dialogue to get going.5

The struggle remains manifest in a painterly way, of course, and the visual evidence, like the tracks of an animal’s passing left in the snow or the remnants of what were once cumulonimbus clouds blown now into white striations by the winds, demands the viewer’s attention and guides the eye.

At what point the painter stopped we can actually say—it is there in front of us—but the reason he stopped is a more difficult question to answer, unless we just say that he stopped because he had reached this place. But, to wonder why Diebenkorn stopped where he did other than because he reached that particular place is to intrude upon the creative act with an assumption it is impossible to make reasonably (or even unreasonably). Diebenkorn has made it clear that he did not paint these pictures according to preconceived models that told him when to stop. He was searching for what he called an “unexpected rightness” in the overall balance of the work.

This is the core, possibly, of all art, isn’t it? That the artist moves and lives in a world of feeling rather than reason or logical method; and even in the case of an artist who might make aesthetic decisions on mechanical or empirical/numerical bases, the judgment to conclude or evaluate the work remains emotional. This likelihood is underscored in the case of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series, in which each of the roughly 140 paintings, arising from a common matrix, differs in important ways from the others. The task, the path, and the outcome being different each time the painter entered the studio made possible such a sequence of separate but related paintings.

Following this Proem are five of my “Ocean Park” prosimetra, only a small sampling from my inventory but ranging from earlier paintings (Numbers 17 and 67) to later (Numbers 109, 116, and 118).


Publisher’s Notes:

1. Richard Diebenkorn. “Interview with Diebenkorn,” Session 4 (Tape 9, Side B, 15 December 1987), conducted by Susan Larsen for the Archives of American Art, the Smithsonian. Transcript retrieved on 09-26-2018 from:

2. View from Studio, Ocean Park (1969) (acrylic, charcoal, and ink drawing, 17"x14") by Richard Diebenkorn is held in a private collection; appears above with kind permission from The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

3. The Hay Wain (oil on canvas, 1821) by John Constable (1776–1837) is held at the National Gallery in London, and is reproduced above from the public domain via Wikimedia.

4. William Wordsworth in The Prelude, Growth of a Poet’s Mind. Book XII: “Imagination and Taste, How Impaired and Restored” (page 318). London, Edward Moxon, Dover Street (1850).

5. Richard Diebenkorn, as quoted in the Encyclopedia of Creativity, Volume 1 (page 329). Edited by Mark A. Runco and Steven R. Pritzger. Academic Press (1991).

[Five of Tarlton’s ekphrastic tanka prose (ETP), based on Richard Diebekorn’s Ocean Park series of paintings, also appear here in Issue 11. And his ETP are featured in our 2016 print anthology, State of the Art. Two others appear in Issue 8 online. Links to additional ekphrastic and other prosimetra by Tarlton are listed below.]

Charles D. Tarlton
Issue 11, Spring 2019

is a retired university professor who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife, Ann Knickerbocker, an abstract painter. Tarlton has been writing poetry and flash fiction since 2006, and his work is published in: Abramelin, Atlas Poetica, Barnwood, Blackbox Manifold, Blue and Yellow Dog, Cricket Online Review, Fiction International, Haibun Today, Inner Art Journal, Jack Magazine, KYSO Flash, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Prune Juice, Rattle, Red Booth Review, Review Americana, Shampoo, Shot Glass, Simply Haiku, Six Minute Magazine, Sketchbook, Skylark, Tipton, and Ink, Sweat, and Tears.

He is the author of Touching Fire: New and Selected Ekphrastic Prosimetra (KYSO Flash Press, 2018). He has also published a poetry e-chapbook in the 2River series, entitled La Vida de Piedra y de Palabra (a free translation of Neruda); a tragic historical western in poetry and prose, “Five Episodes in the Navajo Degradation,” in Lacuna; and “The Turn of Art,” a short poetical drama pitting Picasso against Matisse, composed in verse and prose, which appeared in Fiction International.

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Featured Author Charles D. Tarlton, with six of his ekphrastic tanka prose and an interview with Jack Cooper, in KYSO Flash (Issue 6, Fall 2016)

Notes for a Theory of Tanka Prose: Ekphrasis and Abstract Art, a scholarly paper by Tarlton residing in PDF at Ray’s Web; originally published in Atlas Poetica (Number 23, pages 87-95)

Three American Civil War Photographs: Ekphrasis by Tarlton in Review Americana (Spring 2016)

Rowing Home, Tarlton’s ekphrastic tanka prose on the watercolor by Winslow Homer, in Contemporary Haibun Online (January 2018)

Simple Tanka Prose for the Seasons, a quartet by Tarlton in Rattle (Issue 47: Tribute to Japanese Forms, Spring 2015)

La Vida de Piedra y de Palabra: Improvisations on Pablo Neruda’s Macchu Picchu, Tarlton’s e-chapbook of a dozen poems, with the author reading several aloud; chapbook is also available in PDF, with cover art by Ann Knickerbocker

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