By the time 1955 rolled around, however, Diebenkorn broke with tradition (and the market) by returning to representational painting. His work from around this time is full of ordinary objects—scissors, end tables, some California poppies in a glass. These everyday displays are far from ordinary, however, imbued with a gentle beauty that might make you look twice at the scissors and half a lemon
lying on your own kitchen table. He also painted and sketched an endless array of nude women, suggesting, among other things, that Diebenkorn valued this staple of art history (even as his choice to employ live models placed him at odds with his Abstract Expressionist peers).
It’s his landscapes from the era that really captivate, though. Works like Marin Landscape
(1961–62) or Cityscape #1
(1963) both capture quiet, unpopulated locations whose broad planes of color—remnants of that earlier aerial “epiphany”—lend a sense of vastness and unhurried time to the paintings. They are representational, certainly, but feel as if they could easily slip back into abstraction.
Despite his ongoing stylistic evolution, the common thread throughout Diebenkorn’s career is the way he rendered light in both his figurative and abstract paintings. In 1962’s Interior with Doorway, for example, the contrast between the deep shadow hiding a plastic folding chair and the almost aggressive brightness streaming through an open door elevates the ordinary seat to an object of quiet, meditative glory.
Matisse was a particularly impactful and lifelong influence; “Matisse/Diebenkorn
,” a 2017 exhibition at SFMOMA, explored this visual lineage. Diebenkorn even made a trip
to Leningrad in 1964 to see the Matisses hidden from the non-Communist world in the State Hermitage Museum
. Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad
(1965) paints one of the more obvious connections: the organic, curving shapes echo the wallpaper from the French artist’s Harmony in Red
(1908), with the shade of blue bringing to mind his “Blue Nude
” series (1952), or perhaps his cut-outs. However, the intense strip of light on the wall in Diebenkorn’s work and the lawn meeting the ocean place the viewer firmly in California territory.