Summary of Richard Diebenkorn
Question: what would an artist have to do to become famous and significant without being involved in the New York art world? Answer: paint like Richard Diebenkorn, the American painter who, through his seductive colors and surfaces and exquisite sense of balance between planes - and between figuration and abstraction - came to define the California school of Abstract Expressionism during the early 1950s. Although he moved back and forth between making abstract and figural paintings throughout his career, his version of Abstract Expressionism became an important counterpart to the more well-known brand of the movement popularized by such New York artists as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. During the 1950s through the 1960s he was noted for developing a unique form of Northern California realism, now referred to as the Bay Area Figurative School.
- Although Richard Diebenkorn was a great student and teacher of art, he did not, in the end, contribute in any revolutionary way to the narrative of art history. However, it is significant that he was a contemporary artist who could successfully combine such diverse influences as Abstract Expressionism, Color Field Painting, and the whole history of European "belle peinture" ("beautiful painting").
- The truth is that Diebenkorn, in addition to being a more private than public individual and not self-aggrandizing, was fundamentally a West Coast artist - influenced by his New Mexico and California environments. These personal traits also found expression in his ability to create a kind of humanized abstraction, either through the direct use of the human figure within an abstracted setting or through the delicacy and personal expressivity of the touch of his brush.
- One of the most significant and unusual features of his art was the fluidity with which he could change styles between abstraction and figuration, observing the structure and order both in nature and on the canvas. His works exquisitely reconcile his perception of the natural environment with his conception of the created entity on the canvas.
Biography of Richard Diebenkorn
Two years after Richard Diebenkorn was born in Portland, Oregon, on April 22, 1922, his family relocated to San Francisco. Although his parents were not particularly supportive of his interest in the arts, Diebenkorn found encouragement from his grandmother, a poet, painter, and civil rights lawyer, who fostered his visual imagination by giving him illustrated books, taking him to local galleries, and impressing upon him a love for European heraldic imagery. Diebenkorn disappointed his father by choosing to study art and art history rather than the more pragmatic pursuits of law or medicine at Stanford University, where he began his undergraduate studies in 1940. Daniel Mendelowitz, one of his art history professors and mentors, introduced the aspiring painter to the work of modernists such as Edward Hopper, whose works would prove formative to Diebenkorn's early artistic development. Mendelowitz also took the artist to visit the home of Sarah Stein, sister-in-law of Gertrude Stein, where he saw works by Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse -- modern artists who also inspired Diebenkorn's artistic development.
Important Art by Richard Diebenkorn
Diebenkorn's earliest paintings reflect his interest in Edward Hopper's style, which is very much in evidence here, with its realistic depiction of an American scene expressed in the stark contrasts between shadow and light. We see before us, spread laterally across the picture surface, an uninhabited cityscape. The background consists of the sky, punctuated by the hotel sign, telephone poles, and vents - all indicators of contact with people and the outside world. In the middle ground sits the hotel itself, with shops below at street level, in front of which is a fence separating it from - at the same time it unites with - the foreground chain link fence and railroad tracks. These railroad tracks also connect to the outside world, leading, as they do, out of town. They contrast with the homey, but stately and enduring, presence of the warmly lit hotel. The streetlamp at the far right balances all the horizontals in the painting while helping to fill in the negative space of the sky. Significantly, it is not lit - it is the warm light of day on the rich stucco surface that has captured the artist's attention. The artist's treatment of the formal elements of this work points to his innate sense of the abstract surface, which would become characteristic of his work.
This work typifies Diebenkorn's Abstract Expressionist period in Albuquerque, the influence of New Mexico's desert landscape clearly evident in the sunburnt red and gold colors that the artist summons forth. This painting also exhibits the gestural markings and quasi-symbols that had defined the Abstract Expressionists' interest in a subconscious reality, seen most clearly in the work of Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still. Although the artist was inspired by the forms and colors he saw in the surrounding desert, the resulting work is an abstraction - a beautifully composed and balanced series of flat shapes executed with subtle and sophisticated layers of color. However, and significantly, this canvas also suggests Diebenkorn's eventual departure from the New York School towards figuration; not only does his palette refer to a specific location (the surrounding desert), but also the large shape areas can be traced back to representational aerial views of the Southwest landscape.
Berkeley No. 8 is one of Diebenkorn's last Abstract Expressionist paintings, executed upon his return to California and just before transitioning to more imagistic work as part of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Perhaps hinting at this return to representational form, Berkeley No. 8 - as opposed to his earlier Abstract Expressionist works - exhibits a more expanded view of the landscape, with an increased number of forms and more varied detail. In the lower right quadrant, the artist introduces additional overlapping and, therefore, more of a spatial component - a suggestion of depth - as well as supplementary diagonal lines and shapes that interrupt the flatness and surface orientation of earlier examples of his work. In this painting, it has been suggested that Diebenkorn was influenced by the landscapes of Chaim Soutine, with their divided surfaces and diagonal intrusions, but more importantly - in view of the fact that the work is both drawn and painted - it relates to and ties together the two kinds of Abstract Expressionism: gestural abstraction and Color Field Painting, as exemplified in the work of Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, respectively.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Richard Diebenkorn
- Richard DiebenkornOur PickBy Gerald Nordland
- The Art of Richard DiebenkornOur PickBy Jane Livingston, John Elderfield, and Ruth Fine
- The San Francisco School of Abstract ExpressionismBy Susan Landauer and Dore Ashton
- Richard DiebenkornBy Jane Livingston and Barnaby Conrad III
- Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings and Drawings, 1943-1976By Richard Diebenkorn, Robert T. Buck, and Linda L. Cathcart
- Richard Diebenkorn: Small Paintings from Ocean ParkBy Richard Diebenkorn
- Richard Diebenkorn in New MexicoBy Gerald Nordland, Mark Lavatelli, Charles Strong, and Charles Muir Lovell
- Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966By Timothy Anglin Burgard, Steven Nash, and Emma Acker
- Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966By John Seed / The Huffington Post / September 24, 2013
- Slideshow: Richard Diebenkorn in New MexicoThe New York Times / January 24, 2008
- Hail, Richard Diebenkorn! So Heroic, So UnderratedOur PickBy Hilton Kramer / The New York Observer / October 20, 1997
- A Painter Unafraid to Change StylesBy Grace Glueck / The New York Times / October 10, 1997
- Richard Diebenkorn, Lyrical Painter, Dies at 71By Michael Kimmelman / The New York Times / March 31, 1993
- Park Places: Richard Diebenkorn's Sad, Luminous 'Ocean Park' Paintings are a Revelation at MOCA RetrospectiveBy Christopher Knight / The Los Angeles Times / September 13, 1992