The present work will be included in the forthcoming Richard Diebenkorn Catalogue raisonné under number RD 1186.
From 1956, Landscape with Figure marks Diebenkorn's decision to transition from abstraction to representational painting (he would later return to abstraction in 1967, see the Ocean Park series). A master of complex expressive color, the scene in andscape with Figure was undoubtedly inspired by the backyard studio and surrounding areas near the artist's Berkeley residence.
Until 1955, Richard Diebenkorn was famously known in art circles as one of California's foremost abstract artists. However, while he used the same visual vocabulary as his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries in New York, Diebenkorn's works were never full retreats into emotive expressionism. The early works that brought him recognition were landscapes; (although barely perceptible) compositional exercises that melded line and color, executed with the amorphous brushstrokes of automatism. However inscrutable the wildly bold brushstrokes of his early works were, there are always clues to the locale he painted them in. For example, in his Albuquerque series, sandy, rust-colored blocks and the bold dark shadows are clues that they were painted in the sun-baked dunes of New Mexico. Because he depended on the geography around him for inspiration and natural light, Diebenkorn always retained at minimum, a vestige of representation. Therefore while it was surprising to his admirers when the artist transitioned to figuration in 1955 it could be considered a re-focusing rather than a shift.
In the summer of 1955, Diebenkorn began questioning the impulsive onanism of abstract expressionism. During this period, the artist had moved back to California, to Berkeley, and renewed his friendships with the figurative Bay Area artists Elmer Bischoff and David Park. He recalls humorously, "For someone who was intending to be an abstract painter I was clearly consorting with the wrong company," (G. Nordland Richard Diebenkorn: Revised and Expanded, New York, 2001 p.88). The three of them began attending Wednesday night live-figure drawing classes, and Diebenkorn discovered the virtues of disciplined painting. Landscape with Figure is one of the strongest works done by the artist during this transitional period; as it shows the artist's resolve to push his work in a more challenging direction. Painted at a cross-road in his career; this is one of the rare paintings that consolidates a variety of ideas and phases onto one canvas.
While it maintains the large swaths of color and the decisive brushwork of the earlier emotive style, thanks to the new limits Diebenkorn imposed on himself by working from life, the landscape of domesticated greenery benefits from a new clarity, and is one of the first attempts by the artist to welcome the viewer into a more realistic Californian world.. Matisse, who melded line and color to capture bits of light and cultivated gardens in his own landscapes, is a direct predecessor, and we know now that Diebenkorn aspired to that great artist's technique. Looking into a vista of what could be a neighborhood park, the painting is ruled by the laws of perspective, anchored by a central tree form and reigned in by what is ostensibly a narrowing garden path. In the upper portion, the colors of suburbia, the bits of white and burgundy paint that could be the roofs of houses or the beginning of parking lots, clash with a blazing sunset of magenta against a darkening sky. The leaves of the central tree are basked in the late afternoon light and, not yet submerged in night, they cast a deep olive shadow in the lawn to its left.
Landscape with Figure, however, resists being viewed as a true landscape per se, In the right hand corner, the black club and the small still-life illustration of a cut rose are symbols that at once echo the natural shapes of the landscape while also, in their distorted proportion, effect a collaged aesthetic The club motif and its heraldic associations fascinated Diebenkorn from childhood. In the 1950s and 1960s he occasionally included the motif in his work, but it was not until 1980 that he used them thematically; in his works on paper known as the Clubs and Spades drawings. The inclusion of the spade herein is a sort of self-mythologizing, as well as a means of mystifying the landscape. In notes written in 1955, he said, "what I paint often seems to pertain to landscape but I try to avoid any rationalization of this either in my painting or in later thinking about it. I'm not a landscape painter (at this time, at any rate) or I would paint landscape directly." (Livingston, he Art of Richard Diebenkorn, p. 46).
But where then, in this painting, is the figure, as the title suggests? Diebenkorn would often paint and re-paint a single canvas, and 1957 Art News article by Herschel B. Chipp sheds light on this mystery. An art historian at the University of California Berkeley, Chipp accompanied Diebenkorn for several days while he painted. In this article, he describes Diebenkorn's working habits with specific reference to the painting Women by the Ocean, 1956, which was painted the same year as Landscape with Figure. He noted that Diebenkorn approached this painting by directly working on the canvas using an improvisational trial and error technique. Diebenkorn did not plan these canvases; instead, he let them evolve. In reference to this, Diebenkorn wrote in a studio note, "I would like the colors, their shapes and positions to be arrived at in response to and dictated by the condition of the total space at the time they are considered" ( G. Nordland Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 1988, p.89 )
Chip continued to write that Diebenkorn did not try to mask or conceal his changes, he went with what he felt was correct. For example, Diebenkorn initially painted a man on the right side of the canvas, which later he painted over and turned into a woman on the left side of the canvas. The same could undeniably be said of Landscape with Figure. Though unseen, a figure may well have initially been incorporated into the landscape shown here, only to be painted over in later decisions. Diebenkorn said, "I keep plastering it until it comes around to what I want, in terms of all I know and think about painting now, as well as in terms of the initial observation. One wants to see the artifice of the thing as well as the subject. Reality has to be digested; it has to be transmuted by paint. It has to be given as twist of some kind."(Richard Diebenkorn interviewed by Paul Mills, Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting, exh. cat., Oakland Art Museum, 1957, p.12). This intuitive process produced dynamic and versatile paintings, and as demonstrated in the painting herein, Diebenkorn's ability to infuse in his paintings with variety of sources and influences is what makes him an exceptional artist.