Richard Diebenkorn's sublime Berkeley #39 illustrates one of the artist's most sought after periods with its mosaic-like composition of interlocking forms. Diebenkorn filled the canvas's surface with a rich mix of visual elements; dexterous hand-drawn lines jostle with large areas of color, each vying for attention. Executed in a refreshingly modern style, the work also illustrates supremely well Diebenkorn's debt to his art history heroes, in particular, paying homage to his beloved Matisse. He leaves areas of pentimenti intentionally visible and combines this with the aqueous, fluidly applied paint, giving the painting a fresh yet subtle spontaneity.
This painting has been in the private collection of Chicago-born collector Nancy Epstein for almost 25 years. Ms. Epstein had a superb eye for exceptional, high quality, timeless artworks, often acquired long before the artist became established. This was particularly true for Post-War and Contemporary art and during her lifetime, she acquired significant examples by Alexander Calder, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell and Donald Judd, amongst others. A group of works from the Epstein family's collection will be offered in the morning session, including works by Lichtenstein, Nevelson, and Bertoia.
Following her passion and philanthropic focus, Nancy and her husband, Julius, founded the Stephen David Epstein Memorial Foundation in 1949 in memory of their son. The Foundation provided financial support for exceptional, young artists in the fine arts, and nurtured such masters as Emanuel Ax, the world renowned concert pianist, Earl Carlyss, first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, and George Richmond, a fine painter and muralist whose work hangs at Yale University. Following in this tradition, all proceeds from the sale of Dibenkorn's Berkeley #39 will be donated to two successor charitable foundations established to continue supporting the discovery, nurturing and education of exceptional young artists. Ms. Epstein also donated an exhibition room in honor of her four grandchildren at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Ms. Epstein's used her connoisseur's eye to develop a successful retail business in California. For several years in the mid 1980s she owned a gallery in Beverly Hills which specialized in artist-designed sculpture, glass and ceramics and during her tenure she introducing many exclusive lines to the west coast market. This talent for combining artistic flare with business acumen has been inherited by her daughter, whose company Kay Unger New York has been at the heart of the American fashion industry for over forty years. Ms. Epstein herself collected fabulous gowns, many created especially for her, by designers such as Chanel, Charles James, Balenciaga and Dior, becoming personal friends with many of them in the process.
In Berkeley #39, Diebenkorn responds to the landscape of the American West. For generations, the American countryside fascinated and inspired some of this country's greatest painters, holding an almost spiritual significance. Yet Diebenkorn, responding to the American landscape's emotional pull in an inherently modern way, comes from a generation of artists who rejected tradition. His Abstract Expressionist inclinations demanded that he find a way to invoke a new vision of American topography. His solution came after he flew from Albuquerque to San Francisco in 1951. He stated, "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." (Diebenkorn quoted in G. Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 2001, p.43). This flatness, which so enthralled Diebenkorn, is part of what makes Berkeley #39 such an exceptional example of this important series. He enclosed the painting's central portion - a swath of patchwork colors - with two bands of solid color, one bright and one dark, which excise all pretense of perception. By letting go of formal compositional elements, Diebenkorn focuses attention on what is important to him: the dynamic expressive possibilities of paint on canvas.
Diebenkorn kept Berkeley #39 remarkably free from the romantic vestiges of traditional landscape painting, despite a preponderance of pink fleshy tones and warm earthy hues interspersed with flashes of pastoral greens and sapphire blues. He celebrated the paint's fluidity, the patchwork of expressive brushstrokes - crisscrossed with impulsive, meandering lines - defining subtly biomorphic areas.
Diebenkorn began his Berkeley abstractions in 1953 after a peripatetic journey starting in Sausalito, continuing through Albuquerque, Urbana and ending in Berkeley. His journey was as much an artistic exploration as a geographical one, and once he settled in California, Diebenkorn embarked on a series of mature works. The resulting paintings, of which the present lot is a prime example, not only recapitulate his previous works' formal lexicons, but also intertwine them with conceptual devices derived from the light, atmosphere and scenery of his new surroundings.
Berkeley #39 finds Diebenkorn responding to a wide range of artists who fired his imagination. Diebenkorn early on encountered the work of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian, all crucial in his development. He witnessed the march towards abstraction: from Cézanne's collapse and juxtaposition of foreground and background, to Matisse's chromatic brilliance and organization of space within geometric scaffolds, to Mondrian's relentless, logical geometric reduction. They paved the way for his own non-objective works. European Modernism influenced Diebenkorn, and galvanized him with its rhetoric about the creative process. Arshile Gorky's linear biomorphic evocations against luminous chromatic backgrounds provided an early model, followed by the agitated fragmentation of Willem de Kooning's emotionally and erotically charged abstractions. Their works, bearing marks of how the artists made them, with paint applied in a rough and buttery manner, profoundly influenced Diebenkorn.
The Berkeley series, the crowning achievement of his early Abstract Expressionist works, soon became a byword for excitement and innovation. Berkeley #39's vivacity and energy place it among the highlights of this important series. He navigated an artistic direction very much his own, distinguishing himself from both peers and predecessors with a masterful painterly touch and unrivalled use of color.