Richard Diebenkorn Brought California Light to Abstract Expressionism

Surya Tubach
Jun 20, 2018 10:03PM

When Richard Diebenkorn got off a plane in San Francisco, California, he was not the same person who boarded in New Mexico. It was the 1950s, and the artist was then an MFA student in Albuquerque, taking his first flight in order to see an Arshile Gorky retrospective at SFMOMA. Diebenkorn peered out the window and found himself with an eye-opening vantage point so intense that later biographers would refer to the moment as an “epiphany”; the unusual aerial perspective from the low-flying plane created a flattened landscape and broad planes of color that would influence the painter’s work for the rest of his life.

Diebenkorn was an Abstract Expressionist. This is not, however, another story of a New York art world superhero, an enfant terrible, or a glamorous occupant of Greenwich Village or Andy Warhol’s Factory. There are no teetering skyscrapers or midnight bumps of amphetamine. Instead, there is prickly scrub brush, golden dust, and some slow-moving fog.

The artist’s canvases depicting afternoon shadow and slanted light, with swathes of ocean blue and sandy yellow, are a product of the West Coast. Born in 1922 in Portland, Oregon, Diebenkorn would spend most of his life moving up and down the coast of California, living and working in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. As an undergraduate studying studio art and art history at Stanford University, he was introduced to Sarah Stein, who shared her famous sister-in-law Gertrude’s love of collecting—her house boasted works by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Cézanne.

Richard Diebenkorn
Berkeley #44, 1955
Acquavella Galleries

From there, Diebenkorn’s engagement with art history (and the art of his own time) continued apace. He first encountered artists like Paul Klee, Joan Miró, and Mark Rothko during a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps in the early 1940s that put him in Virginia, an easy enough trek to institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (The Diebenkorn Foundation takes care to list when he saw which artists; it’s clear each museum visit set new painterly cogs turning.)

After his military service, Diebenkorn took advantage of the G.I. Bill to enroll in the California School of Fine Arts in 1946, where he met David Park. (Later, he, Park, Elmer Bischoff, and James Weeks would form the catalyst for the Bay Area Figurative Movement together.) Diebenkorn spent the next several years moving around the country with Phyllis, his wife. Without her, it’s unlikely we would know as much as we do about Richard; she catalogued all his work, helped mount exhibitions, and formed the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation after his death, all in addition to her position as a psychology professor. The pair settled in Berkeley in 1953, where he had a studio on Shattuck Avenue. Over the next 40 years, they would move from Berkeley to Santa Monica to the rural Northern California town of Healdsburg, with the artist’s painting style shifting at various points from Abstract Expressionism to figuration, and back to abstraction.

In the mid-1940s, however, Diebenkorn was firmly situated in Abstract Expressionism, influenced by a few months spent in New York and the prevailing art world trends of the day. This period in his career culminated in the “Berkeley” series: compositions where the titular city’s woody hills are vaguely recognizable among stacked green planes.

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.

When Diebenkorn shifted back to abstraction later in the 1960s, his interest in light shifted with him. This interest culminated in his “Ocean Park” series, depictions of Southern California that the artist worked on for 20 years after moving to Santa Monica in 1966. The abstract canvases don’t explicitly depict sun pouring through windows, but rather act more like the windows themselves—glowing with lavender, soft gray, and pale gold, they exhibit what Sarah Bancroft, who curated the 2012 exhibition “Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series,” calls “a riotous calm.”

The “Ocean Park” series is arguably Diebenkorn’s most famous—these works certainly fetch the highest prices at auction. Recently, Christie’s offered (and sold) 12 Diebenkorn works in a row, setting a new record of $21 million and signalling burgeoning market enthusiasm in his work. A recent show at Acquavella Galleries may have helped the sale—in March, the gallery put on a joint show between Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud called “California Landscapes,” where they paired—you guessed it—California landscapes, exploring the two friends’ usage of color, light, and perspective.

Those who know Diebenkorn love the way his work brings a space to life. During a 2015 show at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, the Financial Times remarked that “the Sackler Wing has seldom looked more seductively cool, or felt more keenly evocative of place.” Diebenkorn’s fans may be devoted, but they are small in number—one can only wonder if it’s because he eschewed the high-profile art world of New York for a decidedly calmer existence. With increasing attention at auction, along with recent and upcoming exhibitions—the exhibition “Beginnings,” exploring his early work, is in the midst of a year-and-a-half run across the country—this quiet California artist may finally be getting the recognition he deserves.

Surya Tubach