Please note this work will be included in the forthcoming Richard Diebenkorn Catalogue Raisonné as number 1151.
Richard Diebenkorn's majestic Berkeley #59, with its Baroque-like complexity and painterly richness, is one of the most self-assured examples from the artist's eponymous series. With its distinguished provenance from the collection of the esteemed California connoisseur Evelyn D. Haas, this large canvas combines Diebenkorn's sumptuous use of vibrant color together with his rich gestural technique to produce an extraordinary portrait of his beloved California landscape. By capturing the subtle nuances of the topography in such a newly telling and striking manner, Diebenkorn ensured the continuing relevance of one of the most distinguished of artistic genres. Berkeley #59 updated landscape painting for the Abstract Expressionist age, and in the process created one of the post-war period's most vibrant and visually exciting works.
Of all the paintings from this series, Berkeley #59 is often regarded as one of the finest examples of Diebenkorn's unique artistic vocabulary. Ignoring the constraints imposed on him by the conventions of easel painting, Diebenkorn weaves together a complex tapestry of dynamic surface impasto and areas of subtle opacity resulting in a painting that is a dramatic reinterpretation of the classic genre. These dramatic planes of color interspersed with thin striations of dark paint are Diebenkorn's response to the compositional dilemma of reinterpreting three dimensional phenomena within the context of a two dimensional painting. Rather than trying to produce an illusion of perspective, Diebenkorn takes the innovative approach of dispensing with it altogether. The central diagonal line that traverses the canvas, takes on the traditional role of the horizon line, acting as something of a focal point and anchoring his discrete forms and vivid coloration within his allover depiction. Warm reds and golden yellows intermingled with flashes of bright green, make up the rich palette which in turn is separated by bold ribbons of inky black pigment that act as gatekeepers between the various segments of the canvas. In addition to the planar arrangements of color, Diebenkorn also stacks layers in a vertical manner creating a field of contrasting hues. Not only does this create the illusion of depth without having to resort to the traditional use of perspective, it calls up the rich variety of textures that can be found in the natural landscape. Diebenkorn's striking use of color also recalls the dramatic use of color that was pioneered by the Fauves and Post-Impressionist artists like Paul Gauguin for whom color was not necessarily a representational device but something used to convey spirit and emotion.
With Berkeley #59, Diebenkorn follows a long and honored tradition of artists responding to landscapes of the American west. For generations of painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Church, the landscape of the American interior held a unique fascination, which brought forth spectacular representations of near-spiritual significance. Yet Diebenkorn's inherently modern response to the emotional pull of the American landscape comes out of a generation of artists who rejected the figurative and exalted tradition of painting a vast panorama. His abstract expressionist inclinations demand that he found a way of invoking a new vision of topography. His solution came after he took a plane journey from Albuquerque to San Francisco in 1951. The vast aerial view of the countryside this trip provided revealed to the artist a new way of seeing: "The aerial view showed me a rich variety of ways of treating a flat plane-like flattened mud or paint. Forms operating in shallow depth reveal a huge range of possibilities for the painter" (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in G. Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 2001, p. 43). The quality of flatness that so enthralled Diebenkorn is what makes Berkeley #59 such an exceptional example from this important series. The all-over composition, defined by the amalgam of colorful patches, excludes all pretense of depth perception. By rejecting traditional compositional elements, Diebenkorn focuses attention on what is most important to him-the act of laying down paint on canvas.
Although born on the West Coast, Diebenkorn's early work is undoubtedly rooted in the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School. But in addition to its fluid lines and planes of color, Berkeley #59 is the artist's response to a wide range of artists who fired his imagination. Diebenkorn's early encounters with the work of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Piet Mondrian were crucial. The march towards abstraction that he witnessed from Cézanne's collapse and juxtaposition of foreground and background, Matisse's chromatic brilliance and organization of space within geometric scaffolds, and Mondrian's relentless, logical geometric reduction paved the course of his own non-objective works. Diebenkorn was particularly inspired by the modernist visual rhetoric. Arshille Gorky's linear biomorphic evocations against luminous chromatic backgrounds provided an early model that was then followed by the influence of the agitated fragmentation of Willem de Kooning's emotionally and erotically charged abstractions. Along with these artists' rough and buttery manner of paint application, Diebenkorn's work from these early years bears the evidence of this period of gestation.
Berkeley #59 was a highlight of Diebenkorn's first one-person show in New York, which took place at the Poindexter Gallery in 1956. Dore Ashton, the influential art critic who helped define Abstract Expressionism, wrote in her review of the exhibition in Art and Architecture magazine that, "In the best works-which are really splendid-the forms don't matter much, for Diebenkorn is able to sustain a flow which is far more important. He appears to me to be a born painter" (D. Ashton, quoted in G. Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 1987, p. 88). This exhibition marked the beginning of a period of considerable consolidation of Diebenkorn's reputation as an influential force in modern painting on both the East and West Coasts. As well as being a financial success, his Poindexter show resulted in his work being selected for inclusion in the 1956 Whitney Museum of American Art's annual exhibition of emerging American artists and its inclusion in a major exhibition that same year at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Other Berkeley paintings from this period are in the permanent collections of major American museums, such as the Albright-Know Gallery, Buffalo, New York (Berkeley #54, 1955) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Berkeley #57, 1957).
Berkeley #59 has remained in the stewardship of one of the most influential West Coast collectors for over thirty years. Evelyn D. Haas was a consummate connoisseur who, during her long association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, developed a discerning eye for modern and contemporary art. She was deeply committed to promoting California artists and purchased mainly from galleries in and around San Francisco. In the process, she helped to support and encourage the flourishing West Coast artistic community. Berkeley #59 formed the centerpiece of her impressive collection, and speaking in 1995, she expressed the sheer joy and excitement that the work gave her over the years: "Now that's my pride, my love, my joy, my Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley series, 1956. It was a great moment when we bought it, because it's something so different from anything I'd ever had, and I just love it. I fell in love with the painting right away. If this house ever catches fire, this is the painting I'd grab" (E. Haas, quoted in S. Riess, Fine Arts and Family: Oral History Transcript: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Philanthropy, Writing, and the Haas Family Memories, Berkeley, 1997, p. 155).
The crowning achievement of his early Abstract Expressionist works, the Berkeley series soon became a byword for excitement and innovation. Although the genre of landscape treads a well-worn path, it is testament to Diebenkorn's skill that he was able to navigate a direction in its realization that was very much his own. His masterful painterly touch and unrivalled use of color distinguished him both from his peers and his predecessors, and the color, vivacity and energy of Berkeley #59 place it among the highlights of this important series.