The American painter Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) was a member of the California school of abstract expressionism. His paintings move back and forth between representational and nonrepresentational imagery in his quest to translate his visual experience into painterly form.
Richard Clifford Diebenkorn, Jr. was born in Portland, Oregon, on April 22, 1922. Two years later his father, a sales executive, moved the family to San Francisco. Diebenkorn was particularly close to his grandmother, Florence Stephens, who supported his artistic interests and encouraged him to paint. She also stimulated his imagination with gifts of books illustrated by Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth.
In 1940 Diebenkorn enrolled at Stanford University. His father hoped that Stanford might lead his son to a more respectable career in medicine or law. Although Diebenkorn majored in art at Stanford, he also took courses in music, literature, and history. His teacher, Daniel Mendelowitz, took him to visit Sarah Stein's collection of the early European modernists Matisse, Picasso, and Cézanne. The early contact with Matisse's work, reinforced later by visits to the Phillips collection in Washington, D.C., and the Shchukin collection in Leningrad and Moscow, profoundly influenced Diebenkorn's artistic development.
From Realism to Abstraction
Diebenkorn's paintings of this early period are realistic in nature. Palo Alto Circle (1943) reflects his interest in Edward Hopper even as it looks forward to a more personal style. Strong shadows and the representation of a particular time and place suggest the distinctly American scene so memorialized by Hopper, while attention to flattened surface planes and a rectilinear pictorial structure reveals Diebenkorn's underlying tendency toward abstraction.
In 1943 Diebenkorn enlisted in the Marine Corps. As part of his training he attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied with Erle Loran, Worth Ryder, and Eugene Neuhaus. He was then assigned to the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. As the resident artist there he drew portraits and animated maps. Diebenkorn visited the Phillips collection several times and was particularly impressed by Matisse's The Studio, Quai St. Michel (1916). Like Matisse, Diebenkorn was interested in the re-examination of pictorial vision. He wished to explore, as the French artist had done earlier, the evocative possibilities to be found in the combination of indoor and outdoor space, in the tension between spatial illusion and surface flatness, and in the relation of figures to abstract form. Other artists who held Diebenkorn's attention at this time included Cézanne, Paul Klee, and contemporary abstract expressionists Robert Motherwell and William Baziotes.
After his discharge from the Marines in 1945, Diebenkorn attended the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Here he met David Park, who became his teacher and good friend; Elmer Bischoff; Clyfford Still; and Mark Rothko. Stimulated by these contacts as well as by the work of the surrealist painters Joan Miro and Archille Gorky (whose work he saw in New York City in 1946 while living briefly in Woodstock, New York), Diebenkorn began to paint more abstractly. His canvases were filled with organic, non-representational shapes that either floated in a shallow space or were covered by a thick textured brushstroke in the manner of Clyfford Still. In 1948 Diebenkorn had his first one man show at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.
Moving Toward Representational Imagery
In 1950 Diebenkorn moved to Albuquerque to obtain his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of New Mexico. During this period his paintings took on a spaciousness and a linear organization reminiscent of the sweeping desert and sharp sunlight of his surroundings. While abstract, many of these works resemble aerial landscapes with their expansive lateral flattened forms. At the same time a quirky, meandering line entered into his work, often linking forms within a shallow surface space. It has been suggested that some of the lines and forms in these paintings can be traced to the "all-purpose" symbols found in George Herriman's Krazy Kat comic strip, also set in New Mexico.
Diebenkorn taught one semester at the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1952, and in the fall of 1953 he moved briefly to New York where he became friends with Franz Kline. The following year he returned to Berkeley. With the aid of a Rosenberg Fellowship, Diebenkorn was then able to paint full time. His paintings took on a pink tonality and a tripartite division of form. A landscape format began to emerge, overshadowing the earlier works, which had fused images of landscape, anatomy, and still life.
With his return to the Bay Area, Diebenkorn resumed close contact with Park and Bischoff. Since 1950-1951 Park had been painting a series of genre scenes, broadly modeled with a direct and forceful brushstroke. Bischoff's paintings, characterized by their atmospheric space and strong color, were also figurative in nature. By the summer of 1955 Diebenkorn began to experiment with representational imagery. At first he painted a series of table top still lifes, simply composed of a few objects placed in a flattened space with a strong color pattern.
Diebenkorn had always worked from experience, merging the impression of his immediate environment with his own feelings into an image whose allusive space and gestured surface evoked the artist's expressive intent. He continued this direction with his representational work in still life, interior scenes, city and landscapes, and compositions with one or more figures. Girl on a Terrace (1956) typifies this period of Diebenkorn's work. Here a woman stands between indoors and outdoors, her body the focal point for both composition and pictorial mood. Large planes of color executed with a loose brush stroke create a structured tension that asserts the artist's underlying abstract arrangement of form. This tension is then augmented by the figure, whose presence defines and enframes space even as it enhances the contemplative mood of the work. Diebenkorn's interiors and landscapes, with their reductive simplification of form and contradictory space, assert a similar investigation of the expressive possibilities of representational imagery.
The "Ocean Park" Series
In 1966 Diebenkorn moved to Santa Monica, California, and soon began a series of paintings that occupied his attention for the next 20 years. Entitled "Ocean Park" after an amusement park near his studio, these large format reductivist paintings returned Diebenkorn to his earlier non-objective abstraction, now combined with the lessons learned from his ten years of figurative work. In these paintings he joined broad planes of color with a superimposed linear structure. Organized on a vertical horizontal, the viewpoint is often that of looking upward or suggestive of a great distance below. Space is defined and re-defined through the relationship of line to tonal plane, a plane that is simultaneously flat and spatial due to Diebenkorn's energetic brushstroke. Warm yellows and ochres combine with azur blue to evoke the sunny atmosphere of southern California. Diebenkorn left the process of making the image visible, integrating his earlier investigations into the final painting. Through this Ocean Park series, which numbers more than 100 paintings, Diebenkorn established a dialogue between airy spatial illusion and flat surface, between spontaneity and control, between inside and outside, between rational order and evocative mood in order to represent abstractly what he called the "tension beneath the calm."
Throughout his career, Diebenkorn continued to explore the evocative potential of his visual experiences. Whether abstract or representational, his paintings unite formal concerns with a meditative and emotive mood.
Further Reading on Richard Diebenkorn
An excellent summary of Diebenkorn's art can be found in an exhibition catalogue published by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Rizzoli press, Richard Diebenkorn, Paintings and Drawings, 1943-1980 (1980), with essays by Maurice Tuchman, Gerald Nordland, Robert T. Buck, and Linda Cathcart. Also recommended is a catalogue published by the Marlborough Gallery: Richard Diebenkorn—The Ocean Park Series; Recent Work, with an introduction by John Russell (London, 1973).