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Developing a Style — or Three

Richard Diebenkorn, an artist who embraced evolution in his work over the course of decades, surrounded himself with a constant barrage of inspiration.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #116, 1979, oil and charcoal on canvas

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #116, 1979, oil and charcoal on canvas

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Popular California modernist Richard Diebenkorn completely changed his style twice. After a decade of abstract expressionism (1946–56), he abandoned that style in favor of figuration (1955–67), and then, as if turning on a dime, went back to abstractionism for the remainder of his career (1967–93). But despite these dramatic shifts, there were quite a few artistic influences and experiences that crystallized within the artist at a young age, becoming and remaining a part of his work no matter the style he was subscribing to at the time.

The earliest of these included a preoccupation with Arthurian legends, spurred on by a gift of 80 cards depicting the Bayeux Tapestries from his grandmother, a published short story writer, amateur painter and lover of the arts. As Jane Livingston points out in her biographical essay in the 1997 book The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, the three-banded pictorial narrative of the cards, as well as the form of the cross, can be seen consistently as the basic structures of Diebenkorn’s compositions, whether abstract or representational, for example in 1959’s Horizon-Ocean View.

Diebenkorn, while working in his early abstractionist style, received his first solo show at the age of 26. It was the summer of 1948, and his work appeared at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, which is now a part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. This was a pretty quick upward trajectory for an artist who, as a teenager growing up in the Bay area, relied on his subscription to Esquire—which at the time published articles about mainly figurative artists such as Robert Henri, William Glackens, Bernard Karfiol and Yasuo Kuniyoshi—as his main artistic influence. Thus, before he was an exhibiting artist himself, Diebenkorn, who became an obsessive drawer at the age of 4 or 5 and who knew he wanted to be an artist, had had rather spotty exposure to the avant-garde.

For an artist who over the span of his 60-plus-year career became and stayed an unflappable force in the modernist movement, even as the movement seemed to grind to a halt, one almost imagines a seminal, ceremonial event happening during childhood, mapping out his fate. Diebenkorn recalled his artistic uncertainty while attending Lowell High School, “standing in the doorway of an art studio…looking in, and seeing these people busily working, professionally, and what they were doing was not at all like the sort of cramped illustrative thing that I did at home. They were doing something broad and essentially meaningless to me, kind of over-simplified figure drawings, Diego Rivera influence…It wasn’t art that I was interested in; it was drawing and painting…I had no real understanding of drawing and painting as art.”

In his 20s, however, Diebenkorn wholeheartedly immersed himself in artistic output—from classical music to modern poetry, to of course, visual art. It was while studying at Stanford and Berkeley in the early ’40s that he developed an eye for what attracted him to other artists’ work. An obsession with Edward Hopper—encouraged by his mentor Daniel Mendelowitz, a watercolorist who studied under Reginald Marsh—led to his 1943 painting Palo Alto Circle. Hopper’s influence here is heavy-handed—the slightly creamy texture of the pigments, the wide-angled compositions that seem like the perspective of a camera rather than a painter, and the preoccupation with the geometry of light and shadow are all out of the Hopper’s book, however, they would remain to some degree in Diebenkorn’s work throughout his career.

(Interestingly enough, a potential influence that was not taken up by Diebenkorn at this time was the work and teachings of Hans Hofmann, who became a presence at Berkeley during the young artist’s matriculation. Diebenkorn is said to have had little to no interest in Hofmann, though the fellow abstract expressionist’s style and theories seem to have a presence in the paintings of Diebenkorn’s Berkeley years.)

Another experience while at university seemed to have permanent bearing on Diebenkorn’s style. It was a visit to the home of Sarah Stein, wife of Michael Stein, Gertrude’s older brother, with Mendelowitz. Stein, a close friend of Matisse, had amassed what was at the time the second-largest collection of Matisse’s work in the world. Diebenkorn’s blues and greens, considered typically Californian, are really Matisse’s blues and greens, distilled from the landscape and seascape of southern France.

A few years later, while stationed with the Marines in Quantico, Va., and frequenting the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., Diebenkorn became enamored of Matisse’s 1916 work Studio, Quai St. Michel. About this painting, Diebenkorn said, “I noticed its special amplitude; one saw a marvelous hollow or room yet the surface is right there…right up front.” The Philadelphia Museum of Art housed another favorite Matisse, Interior, Nice (1918). Livingston points out that the Matisses of Diebenkorn’s preferred period, and also the works of Piet Mondrian, which captivated the artist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, showed signs of being reworked, a feature Diebenkorn later called a “transactional phenomenon.” Such a habit appeared later in Diebenkorn’s work, as he opted to present a slightly unfinished style and to promote the presence of chance happenings that occurred during his process. As a fellow graduate student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque (1950–51) recalled, Diebenkorn, wholly immersed in abstraction at the time, would say, “If you get an image destroy it.” Instead of covering an unwanted figure or erasing it, Diebenkorn advocated almost bombing the image, thus leaving little bits of shrapnel behind on the canvas.

It was Mondrian, Diebenkorn said, who “more than any other artist showed me the possibility of non-representational painting.” After a period of travel and familiarizing himself with the paintings of the burgeoning New York School, Diebenkorn found himself working in an abstract-expressionist style—but one that was specifically his own—while attending graduate school in Albuquerque in 1950. His works, though certainly abstract, had a distinct splash of landscape to them. During the previous three years—his so-called “Sausalito Period,” when he was a faculty member at the California School of Fine Arts—Diebenkorn became fascinated with jazz, collecting records by Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, and even briefly taking up the trombone. He read the critical theories of Clement Greenberg, though he didn’t agree with them all, developed a fascination with de Kooning, and met Clyfford Still, who had come to CSFA and had his first solo show in 1947 at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. Always balancing a mixture of influences, Diebenkorn’s work was going through a period of evolution. Livingston notes, “It was at this moment that Diebenkorn suddenly broke through to a commanding grasp of the canvas as a field that was continuously in play from edge to edge, rather than being organized in terms of figure-ground relationships. The 1949 Untitled (Sausalito) marks a point of entry into the ambiguous and the same time firmly articulated spatial approach that the artist evolved in variant directions for the rest of his first abstract period.”

Though Still and his contemporaries pushed for a completely non-representational style, when Diebenkorn began creating work in Albuquerque, he found himself flirting slightly with figures. In the de Young Museum’s catalogue for their exhibition opening this month, “Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953–1966” (June 22–September 29), the artist is quoted as saying, “I’d left my influences in San Francisco. I left my mentors. I think I was saying to myself in Albuquerque that, OK, I’m going to damn well paint what I want. I’m not going to do this qualifying of my intuitive responses…If grass green and sky blue and desert tan, if these associations come into the work that’s part of my experience.”

At the time he found himself developing a distinctive language of abstraction influenced by the aerial landscapes he viewed in a low-flying plane and by a retrospective of Arshile Gorky at the San Francisco Museum of Art. The “Albuquerque Period” that took shape over the course of two and a half years produced works such as Albuquerque No. 9 (1952), a grouping of polymorphous shapes in a Matisse-inspired palette, fused with blacks, off-whites,and the “transactional phenomena” Diebenkorn admired in Mondrian’s works. Of the period’s inclination for landscape-like forms, Diebenkorn acknowledged, “Temperamentally, perhaps, I had always been a landscape painter but I was fighting the landscape feeling. For years I didn’t have the color blue in my palette because it reminded me too much of the spatial qualities in conventional landscapes. But in Albuquerque I relaxed and began to think of natural forms in relation to my own feelings.”

Diebenkorn’s feeling for natural forms seemed to grow substantially when he returned to Berkeley in 1953. Even though the artist was being lauded at the time for abstractions such as Berkeley No. 57 (1955)—a busy assemblage of non-shape shapes that somehow seems like multi-colored socks in a washing machine and a wheat field at the same time—he forcibly changed his style to a representational one within two years.

Of his mindset leading up to the shift, the painter said, “I thought I was being non-objective—absolutely non-figurative—and I would spoil so many canvases because I found a representational fragment, a Mickey Mouse…back it would go to be re-done…It was impossible to imagine doing a picture without it being a landscape; to try to make a painting space, a pure painting space, but always end up with a figure against a ground.”

What followed was the second half of his “Berkeley period,” which incorporated landscapes, figure studies and still lifes. At this time, Diebenkorn put an emphasis on drawing, creating an extensive body of figurative drawings from sittings with models and monochromatic charcoal, gouache or graphite works on paper depicting Braque-esque still lifes and table scenes. He painted his self-portrait (1956), a crude representation of a yellowy-gold-tinged male head bathed in red shadow on the left. Paintings like Seated Nude, Black Background (1961) seem again to point straight to Matisse, with the figure’s position, proportion, and painterly strokes mimicking those of the painter’s models.

Diebenkorn’s late figurative works, painted during the latter part of the 1960s were heavily geometric and architectural. His 1963 painting Cityscape 1 shows an elevated view down a street, with the roofs of houses rising to the left. The projecting shadows that almost reach over to the green fields to the right are a preoccupation not unlike Hopper’s. This painting foreshadows Diebenkorn’s upcoming series—a pared-down, yet architectural body of work.

In 1967, Diebenkorn moved to Santa Monica and became a professor at UCLA. It was during this time that he created his most celebrated and well-recognized group of work, the “Ocean Park” series, 135 paintings done over the course of a decade. The series marked his return to abstraction—but not the Ab-Ex style of his earliest period. Instead, the large-scale “Ocean Park” works had a distinct geometric style that approached Color Field painting. Their precise forms, coupled with a striking yet natural palette, mimic the view of a California landscape from an airplane window. If one were to zoom in on a Hopper painting, blowing up one detail to a hulking proportion (without pixilation, of course) and dipped it in Matisse’s colors, it would look a great deal like an “Ocean Park” painting.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Developing a Style – or Three”

Author: Sarah E. Fensom | Publish Date: June 2013

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