Refined over the course of four decades, Richard Diebenkorn’s body of work is distinguished by an effortless elegance that belies the complexity and sophistication of its creation. Shimmering planes of saturated color are infused with the heady atmosphere specific to the West Coast; crystalline blues, sun-drenched yellows and crisp, verdant greens are organized and corralled by the artist’s sinuous line, whether curving and organic or resolutely rectilinear, creating a self-contained universe of elegantly-poised harmonies. Beginning with his earliest work, Diebenkorn sustained virtuosity in not one, but many different styles, from the gestural Abstract Expressionist paintings of his Sausalito, Albuquerque and Berkeley series, to the Bay Area Figurative movement, and finally, the consummate splendor of Ocean Park. This unsurpassed collection of paintings and works on paper beautifully illustrates each of the artist’s distinct forays into a different pictorial vernacular. “To experience them,” as the scholar Sarah C. Bancroft has written, “how they seep out slowly and reveal the artist’s intensive process and capture an emotive quality--is the real goal” (S. C. Bancroft, “A View of Ocean Park” in Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, New York, 2011, p. 22).
Even as a young child, Diebenkorn gravitated toward the process of art-making. Early in his childhood, a set of postcards of the Bayeux Tapestries given to him by his grandmother enchanted the young artist, and he enjoyed drawing on leftover shirt boards because of their smooth, white surface. At Stanford, he pursued a liberal arts degree but his courses were brought to a halt by the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Marines and was stationed at Quantico, Virginia, and its close proximity to so many fine museums and collections allowed the artist to immerse himself in the art of the great French Modernists, with Matisse an early favorite. Sketches and watercolors continued to occupy him during the war effort, and in 1945 he was dispatched to Hawaii where he worked as a cartographer alongside Walt Disney-trained animators. Often traveling by air over endless miles of landscape, he developed an eye for compressing three-dimensional landscape into stunning, two-dimensional design. Years later, he would recall “One thing I know has influenced me a lot is looking at landscape from the air… Of course, the Earth’s skin itself had ‘presence’–I mean, it was all like a flat design–and everything was usually in the form of an irregular grid” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in D. Hofstadter, “Profiles: Almost Free of the Mirror, New Yorker, September 7, 1987, p. 61).
Diebenkorn’s first mature paintings were done in an Abstract Expressionist vein, a series that crystallized during the postwar years. In what proved to be a crucial moment in the history of the movement, Diebenkorn, along with countless other artists, took advantage of the G.I. Bill, and enrolled at California School of Fine Arts in 1946. He studied briefly with the artist Clyfford Still, who encouraged him toward a loose, gestural style. Other professors included David Park and Mark Rothko. A year later, Diebenkorn was promoted to faculty member and moved with his wife to Sausalito, where his son, Christopher, was born in 1947. In Sausalito, it can be said that his work truly began in earnest.
In Sausalito, painted in 1949, Diebenkorn lays out the foundation of a style that would sustain him for many years to come. Evocative of landscape though by no means a figurative depiction of it, this early canvas evokes the ruddy hue of that hillside town on the Bay, with wisps of cloud-like forms rolling in off the water. Large patches of pigment, in soft, distilled grays and thick, creamy whites, are brushed around the curving edges of an ovoid form that’s colored an earthy brown, and another rendered burnt orange. Nearby, linear strokes of a single color---limited to red, yellow, blue or black—enliven the heavily modulated segments of grey and white. Already in this remarkable prescient work, the architecture of Diebenkorn’s mature style has crystallized; its wide swathes of atmospheric color are bordered by a muscular yet graceful line amid bursts of bright color.
Over several years, from Sausalito to Albuquerque, then Urbana and finally Berkeley, Diebenkorn produced a striking series of paintings created in the Abstract Expressionist manner but distinctly informed by the environment in which they were created. In Berkeley #25, a triumphant example of the artist’s eponymous series painted in 1954, the strength of his line is in full effect, providing organizing structure while also independent of that which it contains. Executed with a gestural force that rivals even Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Diebenkorn’s thickly-loaded brush links together the loosely-geometric planes of brushy color. These areas are executed with an expressive gesture, in wide swathes and broad strokes, with the vestiges of his working method clearly visible in the thick impasto and pentimenti of its surface, at times even scraped with the blunt end of the brush. Passages of subtle grays are underpinned by warm yellows and enlivened by deep, rosy pinks. Touches of pale blue and mossy green hint at the luminous hues that would become his signature palette—evocative of sun-dappled vistas, leafy green hills and the pellucid waters of the San Francisco Bay. In this sophisticated arrangement of color, gesture and form, one is witness to Diebenkorn at full height of his Abstract Expressionist powers, while cognizant of the nascent structure of the Ocean Park series already taking shape.
Gradually, as the Berkeley series reached their conclusion, Diebenkorn managed the confidence to switch over to a strictly figurative mode toward the end of 1955. Alongside many other artists who returned to the figure after working in an abstract vein, Diebenkorn had noticed a palpable vacuity in the work of many second-generation Abstract Expressionists, feeling that the movement had lost much of its verve. “I came to distrust my desire to explode the picture and supercharge it in some way,” Diebenkorn explained. “At one time, the common device of using the super emotional to get “in gear” with a painting used to serve me for access to painting, but I mistrust that now. I think what is more important is a feeling of strength in reserve—tension beneath calm” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in J. Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, p. 24).
Together with David Park and Elmer Bischoff, Diebenkorn became associated with the Bay Area Figurative Movement, and he would continue to work in a representational mode for the next ten years. In lush evocations of the female form, such as Nude—Elbow on Knee, painted in 1961, he continued many of the pictorial innovations of the prior series but nestled them within an intimate portrayal of the human figure. This important painting was recognized early on as a significant one within the artist’s newly developed oeuvre. It was included in a watershed exhibition of the artist’s work at the de Young museum in San Francisco in 1963, where it featured alongside such masterpieces as Girl Looking at Landscape (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Girl on a Terrace (Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase). In Nude—Elbow on Knee, the viewer luxuriates in the softly-dappled light as it caresses the figure’s skin, rendered in patches of pink and peach with shadows of rose and lavender, and its shimmering green background accented in sparkling blue exerts a strong pull on the viewer, with the striated stack of colors making the background as captivating as the nude itself. The graceful, sinuous curves of the figure’s limbs function as autonomous entities, in curving, organic arcs that are offset by the horizontal banding of that which supports it.
The linear structure that buttresses the organic curvature of the nude in Nude—Elbow on Knee opened up and blossomed several years later, when the artist again switched course in the midst of a successful series to begin his most beloved body of work, the Ocean Park paintings, with Ocean Park of 1984 the definitive example. “By the time that he embarked on the Ocean Park series his journey from abstraction to representation and back again had given him such a rich and deep understanding of the language of painting and drawing that he was able to unify the two approaches in fluent expression…” wrote Edith Devaney” (E. Devaney, “Richard Diebenkorn’s Drawings,” in S. C. Bancroft, ibid.) Indeed, refined and polished over several decades, Diebenkorn’s work reached a glorious denouement with the Ocean Park series he began in 1967 and continued, more or less, until his death in 1993.
Flawless, light-filled passages of shimmering color are given full rein in the monumentally-scaled Ocean Park painting of 1984. In this spectacular painting—arguably the best of his career—the viewer is engulfed by its immense scale and broad passages of luminous color. Standing before the painting, one has the uncanny sensation of being warmed; its inner light has a radiating effect. Raking diagonals evoke the sparkling view of the ocean as seen through the window on a sun-filled California afternoon. Coming as it did on the heels of two decades of refinement, the three predominate hues of crystalline blue, orange-tinged yellow and delicate pink play off each other like a beautiful melodic chord. “One of the greatest things about [his] work is his use of color, which is spectral or prismatic,” the artist Wayne Thiebaud has said of Diebenkorn’s work. “There are always at least two yellows, two reds, two blues, so that the warm and cool alternation or juxtaposition of the colors enlivens the work. ...and they tend to develop what’s called color chords, much like the three notes on a piano” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in “Wayne Thiebaud Examines a Still Life,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2013).
The organizer of Diebenkorn’s major retrospective at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1976, the curator Robert T. Buck, has described the artist’s work as “transcending natural cause and effect. …an original approach to landscape paintings wherein horizontal lines and formal elements fuse and split into a dynamic, yet delicate linear networks, reinforced by subtle tonal modulations. The ensuing drama, though less mystically inclined, recalls the work of Turner a century before.” There is no other painter more synonymous with the West Coast than Richard Diebenkorn, whose dazzling work is a careful balance between delicate precision and unfettered joy. “Each day when Diebenkorn drives from his home to his studio down the coast,” Buck went on to say, “he follows the Pacific Coast Highway in West Los Angeles along the wide stretch of Santa Monica beachfront below the earthen cliffs. The mellow sparkle and soft golden richness of tone bestowed upon this landscape by the California sun are unique” (R. T. Buck, Jr. quoted in Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings and Drawings, 1943-1980, exh. cat., Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1976, pp. 46; 47).