Among America’s most beloved painters, Richard Diebenkorn’s highly gestural and layered abstractions, richly-hued landscapes, and sensual figures earned him the official position as the United States representative at the 1978 Venice Biennale and the attention of an international audience. Artsy’s Christine Kuan spoke with the late artist’s son-in-law and The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation Executive Director, Richard Grant, to talk about the Foundation’s mission to bring the artist’s work to a greater public, the collection of Diebenkorn artworks on Artsy, and the extensive Catalogue Raisonné that the Foundation is near completing.
Christine Kuan: What is the Foundation primarily focused on in the coming year?
Richard Grant: The primary activity of the Foundation continues to be the Catalogue Raisonné (CR) of paintings and works on paper. The family began work on the catalogue shortly after Diebenkorn's death in 1993, and it has gradually grown to four volumes, 2,000 pages and 5,000 color illustrations. A publishing agreement has been reached with Yale University Press, and the catalogue will be printed at Trifolio Press in Verona, Italy in 2015. In addition, the Foundation has begun making grants for a small number of projects. For example, a grant was made to the National Gallery of Art to help fund a study of the condition of the Ocean Park paintings to determine the best approach to conserve those with condition issues.
CK: How does the Foundation work with museums to make Diebenkorn exhibitions possible?
RG: We make information available to the museum community about planned exhibitions in order mitigate the problem of competition for the same works at the same time and to minimize "lender burnout." The family and Foundation have considerable holdings of works and we make every effort to make them available for loans. We also routinely forward loan requests to any owner listed as "Private Collection" and send their responses back to the requesting institutions. The Foundation facilities, archives, and extensive database are available to scholars and museum personnel on an appointment basis. Finally, the Foundation has undertaken the daunting task of re-photographing all 5,000 objects to be documented in the CR. These images are made available at no charge to anyone producing a scholarly publication. We had three people on press in Verona for the printing of the catalogue for the Berkeley Period show that opens at the de Young in June.
CK: The Foundation selected a beautiful range of works from Diebenkorn's oeuvre for Artsy. How did you approach the selection process?
RG: When Artsy requested images, we puzzled over how to make the selection. Everyone on the staff and family members had their opinions, so we decided to make use of the diversity. While there was some overlap, the range of recommendations was surprisingly broad. We then culled it down a bit based on which works had publication-quality images ready, for a reasonable balance of paintings, drawing and prints, and to have a balance of chronological periods and styles.
CK: Diebenkorn spent many years teaching at UCLA. How do you think he might view art education today with the emergence of digital technologies?
RG: I think it would have created a difficult conundrum for him. He was rather outspoken about the negative aspects of technology and how it permeated our lives in ways that impaired creativity. But on the other hand it drove him crazy when images of his works were printed with inaccurate color. I remember when in the late '60s I began to experiment with color printing in the darkroom. I started experimenting to see if I could make a print of one of his works with accurate color. He was quite intrigued with the experiments, and we talked about it a lot. We never did very well, however. With the tools that are now available we are able to produce proofs of astonishing accuracy, and I think he would have been thrilled with that narrow slice of technology. I doubt, however, that he would have been very patient with using technology as an artistic medium or tool. Maybe he could have gotten enthusiastic about a drawing created by his great-granddaughter on her iPad, but I think he would have had to swallow pretty hard.
CK: So many people are passionate about his paintings. What do you hope the Foundation will help future generations appreciate about Diebenkorn?
RG: Something we have come to understand is the close interconnectedness of all his stylistic periods. Not everyone sees this, as many people express a strong preference for, say, the Berkeley figurative works or the Ocean Parks. We see a continuum from the Sausalito works of the late ’40s through Albuquerque and Urbana and Berkeley all the way to Healdsburg. In fact, we feel that the last works he made at Healdsburg were showing increasing references to his earliest abstractions. Everything he did was directly influenced by what came before.
CK: What are the initiatives the Foundation will undertake to further the public's understanding of his work?
RG: One of the missions of the Foundation is to introduce his work in areas where he is less known. Surprisingly, there are many areas of Western Europe where his work is practically unknown. In France, we have been able to locate one drawing. In Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Spain there are just a handful. In the United Kingdom there are a couple of dozen works. European museums are beginning to express interest in having Diebenkorn exhibitions, and the Foundation will assist in any way possible. Another important emphasis of our activities will be in art education. We would like to create shows of Foundation-owned works designed specifically to travel to colleges to be shown in conjunction with classes that will use the exhibition as an integral part of the curriculum.
Richard Diebenkorn in his Triangle Studio, Berkeley, CA, 1962. Photograph by Phyllis Diebenkorn. Courtesy of the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.