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Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1922, Richard Diebenkorn grew up in San Francisco, and went on to attend Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. After serving in the Marines between 1943 and 1945, Diebenkorn returned to the Bay Area and enrolled for a semester on the GI Bill at the San Francisco Art Institute (then the California School of Fine Arts) where he would become an instructor from 1947 to 1950, while living in Sausalito. After a few years elsewhere, by 1953 Diebenkorn, his wife, Phyllis, and their children arrived in Berkeley. Perhaps because of this biography as much as the nominal subjects—and titles—of his art, Diebenkorn has become synonymous with Bay Area Figuration; this makes the coincidence of two recent, but unrelated, exhibitions reframing the importance of place—and California in particular—in Diebenkorn’s abstract works all the more significant.
The large-scale Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953–1966 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco is the first exhibition to focus on this period. In its handsome catalogue, curator Timothy Anglin Burgard argues that the thirteen years Diebenkorn spent in the East Bay were a crucible in which the artist came into a mode of painting that defies categorization as either pure abstraction or figuration. In this, Burgard’s position comes close to Diebenkorn’s desire, formulated through the words of his friend Elmer Bischoff, “to transcend through all generalities to reach a particularly poignant feeling.” (Bischoff quoted by Diebenkorn in Timothy Anglin Burgard, “The Nature of Abstraction: Richard Diebenkorn’s Berkeley Period,” in the exhibition catalogue, 16. The original quote appeared in Alain Jouffroy and K. A. Jelenski, “Une grande enquête: Tendances de la jeune peinture,” Preuves 68 [October 1956]: 36.) While The Intimate Diebenkorn: Works on Paper, 1949–1992 surveyed four decades, its installation and the nature of these smaller-scale works was decidedly personal—perhaps the consequence of being the first exhibition organized by the recently formed Diebenkorn Foundation. (It also inaugurated the newly constructed College of Marin Fine Arts Gallery, just north of Diebenkorn’s brief home in Sausalito.) Importantly, because these thirty-eight works were made as studio studies and have never been exhibited before, The Intimate Diebenkorn offered a rich new perspective on the artist’s practice.
Nineteen of the fifty-eight extant paintings in The Berkeley Series (1953–56) were not so much the physical as the conceptual core of the de Young exhibition. Installed as a group in the first gallery, they functioned as a point of departure that documented the end of Diebenkorn’s Abstract Expressionist phase, while suggesting an approach to abstraction that additionally would structure his figurative works. From here, the exhibition extended through familiar examples of these—such as Woman by the Ocean (1956) and Woman in Profile (1958), which are known for their color blocks and palpable isolation—and onto his return to a slightly different, crisper abstraction that began in Berkeley, but would ultimately flourish after his move to Santa Monica in 1966. Importantly, while Diebenkorn’s representational paintings have long been identified with Northern California—and Bay Area Figuration, in particular—and his abstraction with Southern California, the exhibition shows how he continued to paint figures for another year after he relocated to Santa Monica. The exhibition’s focus on the artist’s intense representational period bracketed by early and late abstraction (his Berkeley and Ocean Park series, respectively), demonstrates that for Diebenkorn these were less oppositional categories than modulations of vision and feeling.
Indeed, even the titular works in the de Young’s show—each named “Berkeley” followed by a number—underscore the significance of place for the artist. However, location here does not refer to the subject matter of the paintings—it is “unlikely,” Burgard states in the exhibition catalogue, “that Diebenkorn ever painted a landscape motif directly from nature during his abstract Berkeley period” (22)—but to the physical site where they were painted. In other words, these are not landscapes of the East Bay, but rather abstract compositions made within Diebenkorn’s Berkeley studio that can be seen to summon the artist’s experience of space and place and time rather than as a visual record.
This complicates well-trodden histories of Bay Area Figuration, which typically set up the return to representation as a reaction to Abstract Expressionism. Diebenkorn’s turn toward the figure was never categorical, and his untidy transition is made physical in the exhibition by a group of smaller works in a space that was itself as much throughway as stand-alone gallery. Indeed, here, in paintings like Seawall (1957), Chabot Valley (1955), alongside a couple of small still lifes and a trio from the Berkeley series—46 (1955), 57 (1955) and 66 (1956)—a shift from a muddier palette and more muscular brushwork to delineated areas of brighter color and increasingly resolved forms attest not so much to a transition but to a new vocabulary that would give equal voice to, and equivocate between, representation and abstraction.
These more dynamic works foreshadowed Diebenkorn’s increased interest in painting the human figure in the late 1950s, which was inspired by fellow painter, friend, teacher, and Bay Area Figuration mainstay, David Park. Within the context of Diebenkorn’s early and late abstraction, the canvases that populated the first half of the exhibition’s central gallery are not so much “representational” as they are a hybrid of styles and a commingling of genres. The subjects—often women looking away—are set into a larger background that expands from private space into a deeper landscape behind. When applied to the almost human-scale figures, this abstraction—the minimal facial and personalizing detail of the often-isolated figures—sets off an acute psychological charge. As a result, portraits like Man and Woman, Seated (1958) remain ambiguous in their content and disquieting in their tension: Is this a conversation or interrogation?
Whether as backdrop to human figures or in landscapes per se, Diebenkorn’s stylized, flat, geometric planes coalesce—usually better at a distance—into tentative description. Without the figures to make them figurative and frontal, the landscapes easily disband into a multiplicity of readings, a point illustrated in the catalogue by Burgard via the three iterations of the well-known Cityscape: “In some respects th[e] representational [Cityscape #1 (1963)] seems more radical than the earlier semiabstract and abstract versions, as the viewer brings to it assumptions regarding the conventions of reality, perspective, and gravity. . . . The sharp, bladelike elements of the landscape introduce a disquieting note. The painting seems to convey the inherent tension between nature and culture at the edge of urban development” (24). In other words, Cityscape hovers between a frontal view or elevation of a place—the outline of buildings, the hint of a horizon line—and an aerial perspective or plan view in which blocks of color map against each other into a patchwork as if seen from an airplane. The tautness that results from these two competing systems of vision is echoed by the push and pull of the brush and trowel techniques used to paint them. Areas of dense impasto sit cheek by jowl with swathes of scraped and scumbled pigment. The resulting disruption and textural variation create compositional complexity riddled with perceptual sleights of hand: What initially appears as frontal, representational detail quickly dissolves into fields of patterned abstraction.
Even his most orthodox imagery and genres—like the still life, which here is represented in depth by an appropriately interior gallery of paintings and sketches hung salon style—resolutely refuse verisimilitude. Instead, the intimate subject matter and cropping of these works create familiarity by way of suggestive line and frank composition. If the Fauve palette and dynamism can be seen to charge Diebenkorn’s larger paintings, then it is the Nabis who scent these smaller sketches of homes, workplaces, and their everyday objects. The closeness and seeming casualness of works like Untitled (1955) and Corner of Studio—Sink (1963) recall Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard much in the way that other large canvases pay homage to Henri Matisse’s influence, nowhere more evident than in the exquisite arabesque grillwork and the stylized floral ornamentation of the grand Recollection of a Visit to Leningrad (1965).
If, for this viewer, the best aspects of the de Young exhibition were the lesser-known, more private works, then it follows that the exhibition at the College of Marin was all the more satisfying for its intimacy and surprise. Many of these works and more unseen pieces were published for the first time in two complementary books: From the Model and Abstractions on Paper (both Berkeley: Kelly’s Cove Press, 2013). The installation here felt more like an exploration of process and technique—a sampling or journal—rather than an asserted narrative of artistic “progress.” The rough texture and unexpected combination of collage, crayon, and gouache in works like Untitled (1988–92) are fresh and experimental despite coming so late in Diebenkorn’s career (he died in 1993). Rather than reveling in the greatest hits of Diebenkorn the art-historical icon, this grouping, curated by artist and painting instructor Chester Arnold, revealed a day in the life of Diebenkorn the “artists’ artist.” In their uniform size and unselfconscious execution, the paper pieces in The Intimate Diebenkorn draw out the very diaristic engagement behind the larger canvases so well illustrated in the de Young exhibition and its catalogue.
Laura M. Richard
PhD candidate, History of Art Department, University of California, Berkeley