Richard Diebenkorn - Biography and Legacy
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.
Diebenkorn married fellow Stanford student Phyllis Gilman in June of 1943, and enlisted directly after in the U.S. Marine Corps where he served two years. While stationed at the base in Quantico, Virginia, Diebenkorn took the opportunity to visit the East Coast's most important collections of modern art, including The Museum of Modern Art, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Upon his return to San Francisco in 1946, Diebenkorn took advantage of the G.I. Bill by enrolling at the California School of Fine Arts. He became a faculty member at the school the following year, after spending a winter painting in the vibrant artistic community of Woodstock, New York. His fellow teachers included Clyfford Still and David Park. He received his B.A. degree from Stanford in 1949.
Always looking for a change of scenery, he moved his family to Albuquerque to pursue his Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of New Mexico in 1950. The contacts he made traveling, teaching, and learning at these different universities had a huge impact on the young artist, who participated in a great exchange of ideas. During this period, when he was flying at low altitude in a plane between Albuquerque and California, he was able to view the landscape from above. This experience had a major impact on the layout of many of his compositions, both in New Mexico and California. Albuquerque in the early 1950s was also where his Abstract Expressionist period truly began, which lasted roughly five years through his move to Urbana, Illinois, (where he had accepted a faculty position at the University of Illinois) and back to California. Berkeley was his place of residence between 1955 and 1966 (his "Berkeley Period"). From the fall of 1964 to the spring of 1965, Diebenkorn traveled throughout Europe; in particular, he was granted a cultural visa to visit important museums in the Soviet Union and view their holdings of Matisse's paintings.
Late Years and Death
Diebenkorn and his wife moved to Santa Monica in 1967, when he became a professor of art at UCLA, where he worked until he retired in 1973. During the late 1960s and early 1970s - along with the friends he had made at various teaching positions, including David Park - Diebenkorn became a central member of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, which rejected Abstract Expressionism in favor of a return to figural representation. Apparently, the freedom of gesture and composition in his Abstract Expressionist period was ultimately not to his liking. Eventually, however, Diebenkorn came to strike a balance between the use of abstract and figural elements in his work. His Ocean Park series (1967-88), for example, consisting of 140 paintings made over 21 years, catapulted the mature artist into the national spotlight. In 1988, Diebenkorn and his wife moved to Healdsburg, California, near the Russian River. Diebenkorn worked on many small-scale, but exquisite, drawings and paintings until falling ill in 1992, when the couple was forced to move into their Berkeley apartment to be nearer to medical treatment. The artist died on March 30, 1993, due to complications from emphysema at the age of 71.
The Legacy of Richard Diebenkorn
Immediately following Diebenkorn's death, The New Yorker Magazine's art critic Adam Gopnik wrote that he "had been, in an unpretentious way, one of the key figures in a great transformation that took place in American art over the past quarter century: the rise of California from a provincial backwater to an artmaking capital equal to New York." Although Diebenkorn did not reach the level of fame of the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School, major retrospectives in 1976 and 1997 helped vault his reputation to that of a major postwar American painter. His work is still studied and emulated by students of painting today. As the critic John Elderfield commented, he is admired "for the persistence and longevity of his achievement... he renews your belief in painting."