Finding Functions of the Figure: Richard Diebenkorn's Figurative Years

Richard Diebenkorn Foundation
Mar 22, 2023 9:07PM

I can’t give a reason that I trust for employing the human image in my work. I can indicate that I am strongly compelled to use it or think that the painting will be better or maybe simply possible with it or that the painting process seems more crucial with it.

—Richard Diebenkorn (1)

In 1955 Richard Diebenkorn began to break from the trend of Abstract Expressionism that captivated most of his peers in the San Francisco Bay Area, instead preferring to focus on figuration. He began painting and drawing landscapes and still lifes, using his signature command of color and composition to tease out vague but recognizable images. Throughout his Berkeley figurative period (1955–1966), the artist incorporated the human form into his landscape and interior scenes, making them just as much a part of the natural world as the constructed one.

When discussing Diebenkorn’s Berkeley figurative paintings, John Gruen wrote in ARTNews, “A single woman, seated or standing, and usually lost in thought, becomes the focal point in interiors or landscapes drenched in a diffused light. Color is intense, sensuous, specific…The whole of the painting, not its single passages, achieves psychological impact” (2). This formula is fully visible in Girl in a Room (1958). An armchair sits directly in the center of the composition and divides the work into quadrants, which are further defined by a thick horizontal baseboard. There is some clutter to the left of the center chair, including a table covered in papers, another chair, and a short vertical object that appears to be a lamp. This clutter is balanced on the right side by a tall but faceless female figure and the dark baseboard extending perpendicularly from her lower half.

Girl in a Room, 1958, oil on canvas, 27 1/8 x 26 in. (68.9 x 66 cm), Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Corcoran Collection (Gift of the Woodward Foundation)

Blues and yellows stream in from the windows and flow through the wall and floor, seeping into the chairs, table, and figure. The yellows exaggerate the light on top of the chair and the reflective nature of the lamp, while the blues create cool shadows around the windows, under the furniture, and on the woman’s feet. The shadows face viewers, so they feel the sun on their face as they observe the room. Blues also make up the woman’s clothes, both defining her shape and creating a conversation between her form and her surroundings. The navy in her skirt and the cerulean in her blouse match some of the shades in the shadows of the armchair, anchoring her further into the scene. Her in-motion feet emphasize the dynamic colors that dance around the painting, breaking through the static of the inanimate scene. Whether or not she is even aware of the viewer is irrelevant, since merely her presence breathes life into the work.

Diebenkorn also found a need for a figure in Man Drawing (1956). This is one of the relatively few times in which the artist chose to focus on a male subject, possibly one of his contemporaries, such as David Park, who also participated in the contemporaneous weekly drawing sessions (3). The subject sits in the bottom right corner of the composition, peering over a drawing board through thick glasses that obscure his eyes from the viewer. Behind his head, yellow, orange, and a soft pink make up what appears to be interior flooring, although the lack of walls, prominent central window, and flattening of three-dimensional space make the exact layout of the room slightly ambiguous. The scene continues into what appears to be a curbed sidewalk, or perhaps a road bleached by sunlight, or even a short concrete wall. This strip of white flows through the composition, interrupted on the right by a dark purple shadow. Farthest from view is a lush green block of color, perhaps a lawn or patches of weeds, contrasting against a grove of bare trees that dot the space. Adding to the ambiguity is a brown vertical stripe in the center of the composition, which could be the trunk of another bare tree, or possibly a telephone pole or support beam.

Man Drawing, 1956, oil on canvas, 65 3/4 x 58 1/4 in. (167 x 148 cm)

The figure in Man Drawing serves a very different role from the one in Girl in a Room. Rather than functioning as a conductor that energizes the work, the man in the corner is a still, stoic figure who grounds the image and cuts through temporal and spatial ambiguity. In this work the man is less of a warm, inviting presence in the scene, and more of a detached, objective observer. He analyzes the viewer from behind his drawing board, as if they are his subject, creating an air of stillness within the work. This is reinforced by the solitary blocks of colors. Instead of flowing through each other, the different colors only overlap a few times and otherwise are separate entities. These factors create a conflict in this work between cold and warm, dynamic and static, life and decay. Diebenkorn’s “tension beneath calm” (4) is built largely through the existence of the figure in his paintings of the time.

Given the nuanced differences between these works, both created and exemplified by the presence of the human form, it is easier to understand why the artist could not give explicit reasons for his utilization of the figure in his work. It seems likely that he, a master of his craft, could use the human form in such a variety of ways and imbue it with so many layers of different meaning that it was a necessity and perhaps a tool to interject into his compositions.

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1. Richard Diebenkorn, Studio note, undated, Richard Diebenkorn Foundation Archives © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation, https://diebenkorn.org/objects/10794/.

2. John Gruen, “Richard Diebenkorn: The Idea is to Get Everything Right,” ArtNews, November 1968, 84.

3. Diebenkorn was involved in these drawing sessions from 1955 until he moved to Santa Monica in 1966. These groups included Elmer Bischoff, William Theophilus Brown, David Park, Paul Wonner, and eventually Frank Lobdell. For more information on the drawing sessions, see the “Berkeley Abstraction” and “Berkeley Figurative Years” in the artist’s online chronology.

4. Paul Mills, Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting, exh. cat. (Oakland, Calif.: Oakland Art Museum, 1957), 12.

Richard Diebenkorn Foundation