Richard Diebenkorn, the Berkeley years, 1953-1966

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Author: Darwin Marable
Date: Sept. 1, 2013
From: World and I(Vol. 28, Issue 9.)
Publisher: News World Communications, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,780 words
Lexile Measure: 1360L

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Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) was one of the most influential and acclaimed California artists of postwar America. Diebenkorn lived and worked in Berkeley from 1953-1966 during a time of great innovation which caused considerable controversy in the art world. This is the first exhibition to explore his movement from the abstract to a more representational style as he played a leading role in the Bay Area Figurative Movement..

The exhibition opened on June 22 and continues through September 29, 2013 at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The Palm Springs Art Museum will host the exhibition from October 26 to February 16, 2014. The exhibition consists of more than 120 paintings and drawings--many rarely or never seen before in public-assembled from both museums and private collections.

Diebenkorn was born in Portland Oregon, the only child of Richard Clifford Diebenkorn Sr., a sales executive and his wife Dorothy Stephens, but the family moved to San Francisco in 1924 where Diebenkorn was raised in the Ingleside Terraces neighborhood. He attended Lowell High School, a college preparatory public high school, noted for its academic excellence and its prominent alumni, including Alexander Calder, the sculptor, theatrical personalities, and a number of prominent science, math, and business leaders. While at Lowell, Diebenkorn enrolled in art classes.

However, his interest in art began at an earlier age. He often spent summers with his maternal grandmother, an amateur artist, who gave him a set of oil paints and introduced him to books with illustrations of the paintings of N.C. Wyeth, Frederic Remington, Charles Russell and others.

In 1940 he enrolled at Stanford University and in his third year took art courses. When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, Diebenkorn signed up with the United States Marine Corps and, as part of a training program for future officers, attended a summer session at the University of California, Berkeley where he studied both physics and art. He was subsequently assigned to a photographic section to make maps at Quantico, Virginia and then assigned to a photographic section at Camp Pendleton, California. These experiences later influenced his interest in aerial photography and also his paintings.

Diebenkorn's introduction to Abstract Expressionism, the dominant style at the time, occurred in 1946 and continued to 1956. While he was a student at the California School of Fine Arts he first studied with David Park who later became a significant figure in the Bay Area Figurative Movement. He visited New York City where he gained a greater understanding and appreciation of the style on several occasions and met the art critic Clement Greenberg, and the painters Wilhem de Kooning and Franz Kline. The New York critics tended to marginalize Bay Area art.

This exhibition includes a substantial number of large paintings from the series of fifty-eight Abstract Expressionist paintings completed from 1953-56 when Diebenkorn first moved to Berkeley. He completed a painting every two weeks. But, in contrast to the often more somber palettes of Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and others, Diebenkorn's paintings seem more expressive of the experience of living in the Bay Area. His large horizontal bands of earth colors are punctuated with large geometrical shapes and energetic lines. Light and space are always dramatic. His paintings seem more thoughtful and restrained. The images originated in his imagination, not in his observations of exterior reality.

At the entrance to the exhibition, the viewer is immediately confronted with Berkeley # 8, 1954, oil on canvas, 69 1/8 x 59 1/8 inches, a meditation on color and form with its large rectangular bands of earth tones and occasional grey blues. Berkeley #26, 1954, oil on canvas, 56 1/4 x 49 1/4, consists of large rectangular bands of green, brown and, at the top, stark black and white. The construction, forms and process of the painting are prominent. For Diebenkorn, a painting begins from a mood and out of a relationship with objects, and is not completely removed from reality. They are expressive of his inner landscape rather than exterior reality.

While returning from Albuquerque by airplane in 1951 Diebenkorn had a revelation as the airplane was flying over the Grand Canyon. He saw in the two dimensional design of the earth below images which became the inspiration for the handling of planes in his paintings. Years later he made 35 mm slides of the earth while flying in an airplane. His Lower Colorado series, 1969 to 1970, were based on photographs that he made of Arizona landscape from a helicopter. Such use of photography by painters dates back to the nineteenth century.

In 1955 Diebenkorn made an abrupt change in Chabot Valley, 1955, oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 18 3/4 inches, as he reduces the size of his painting and now paints an abstract, yet recognizable cityscape near his home in Berkeley. On one occasion, Diebenkorn said, "Temperamentally perhaps, I had always been a landscape painter.... Another indication of a change was his abstract and expressionistic Self-Portrait, 1956, oil on paper mounted on hardboard, 19 x 17 inches. The human figure, which had been nearly eradicated from painting, was now being reintroduced by the artist and was a shock, especially to the adherents of Abstract Expressionism. He no longer felt the need to "super-charge" his paintings with spontaneous and explosive colors.

During the time that he was working on the Berkeley series he was also attending drawing sessions with a model along with David Park and Elmer Bischoff who had already gravitated to the figure in their paintings as early as the early 1950's. Diebenkorn loved to draw and was also making drawings of still lifes, interiors and landscapes.

In Girl on a Terrace, 1956, oil on canvas, 70 1/2 x 65 3/8 inches, the transition to figures in the landscape had begun. The lone figure looks out onto a landscape of large bands of blue and green combined with vertical and horizontal shapes which, in contrast with his earlier abstract expressionist paintings specific objects are now recognizable chair, patio, tray with glass, etc. But in spite of the vivid colors, the mood is introspective. The figure in an intimate environment became characteristic of his paintings and there are numerous engaging examples in this exhibition.

Diebenkorn, himself, said, "I began to feel what I was really up to in paintings, what I really enjoyed, almost exclusively, was altering--changing what was before me--by way of substracting or juxtaposition or superimposition of different ideas."

There is a simple, yet reflective, charcoal, chalk and ink on paper drawing, Untitled, 1955-1967, 17 x 14 inches, which is a portrait of a woman. It shows a detailed face and a more abstracted torso and reveals the artist's versatility and competence as a draftsman. Another charcoal on paper drawing, Untitled, (seated Woman Reaching Down), 1960, 15 3/4 x 11 inches, is a single line drawing reminiscent of Matisse.

By 1963 Diebenkorn returned to San Francisco where he created a number of cityscapes in which form, color, line and especially light are prominent, for example, Cityscape # 1, 1963, oil on canvas, 60 1/4 x 50 1/2 inches. While his sense of the urban landscape is obvious, his unique sense of color, light, form, line, as design elements, creates the overall flatness which predominates.

Two small paintings are little jewels and especially while noteworthy and can easily be overlooked. Untitled, ca. 1956-1966, 15 3/4 x 18 inches, watercolor, ink, and torn-and-pasted paper on joined paper, consists of several horizontal bands of different blue tones punctuated by a small dark blue rectangular shape. The second small painting, Invented Landscape, 1966, 18 x 23 inches, acrylic on paper, consists of several horizontal bands of color--green, gold, orange and blue--with two abstracted trees off to the right.

During this time the artist painted a number of still life scene of common objects-scissors, cups, vases, and other ordinary things. Corner of the Studio-Sink, 1963, oil on canvas, 76 3/4 x 70 inches, which, in contrast to his usual palette, is painted in dark tones and is in contrast to his usual colorful and light filled canvases. Simultaneously, he was painting his colorful and light flooded cityscapes of San Francisco.

Toward the end of the exhibition there are several paintings that are an abrupt and a surprising change for Diebenkorn, perhaps commentaries on Pop art. Two are relatively small adjacently placed paintings, yet so brash that they cannot be overlooked. Untitled (Yellow Collage), 1966, cut-and-pasted paper, gouache, and ink on paper, 28 1/4 x 22 inches, is a collage of a woman, consisting of yellow with a blue dress. Untitled (Collage-Woman in Blue Dress), 1966, cut-and-pasted paper, construction paper, graphite, ink on joined cardboard, 25 1/2 x 24 7/8 inches, is also abstract, but the figure in a different pose, also wears a blue dress, but sits on a red couch. The background is a stark yellow.

Nearby on another wall, Nude on Blue Ground, 1966, oil on canvas, 81 1/4 x 59 1/4, suggests an homage to both Picasso and Matisse. The face seems to originate from Picasso while the figure seems to be borrowed from Matisse.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s San Francisco was going through a cultural renaissance. West coast jazz or cool jazz, in contrast to New York's fast tempo and aggressive jazz, was pervasive. Likewise, the Beat movement in poetry and literature, that was often evocative and confessional, was centered in San Francisco's North Beach, and opted for a freer use of words and language in poetry. The poets, Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Phillip Lamanatia were some of its leading proponents. Jack Kerouac, who used a kind of free association with words, became one of its major novelists. Likewise, Abstract Expressionism was the dominant style of painting, although it had become academic. The experience of living and working in the Bay Area provided a freedom and a license to pursue art in a different direction. This was the cultural background in which Diebenkorn thrived and found his unique voice as a painter.

The human figure had essentially vanished from American art since the 1940s and Diebenkorn played a significant role in returning the figure to American painting.

This exhibition validates the prominence of Richard Diebenkorn, a painter's painter, as both a significant Abstract Expressionist and a dominant figure in the Bay Area Figurative Movement. During the 1950s and early 1960s San Francisco Bay Area artists lived in the shadow of New York where Abstract Expressionism, the dominant style, was centered. A small group of dynamic Bay Area painters forged a radical new direction in art.

Darwin Marable, Ph.D is a photo/art historian, critic, and lecturer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Marable, Darwin. "Richard Diebenkorn, the Berkeley years, 1953-1966." World and I, Sept. 2013. Gale Academic Onefile, Accessed 20 Oct. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A350977330