One of the foremost American painters of the last century, Richard Diebenkorn consciously embraced representation and placed it in critical conversation with the East Coast Abstract Expressionists and the history of painting. Untitled is a bold example of the artist’s depiction of the human form that progresses seamlessly from his earlier forays into landscape and abstraction. Along with his contemporaries David Park and Elmer Bischoff, Diebenkorn was responsible for founding the Bay Area Figurative School and was at the forefront of representative painting on the West Coast while Abstract Expressionism was in its heyday. By merging formalist color fields with more traditional subjects, Diebenkorn revived a legacy of figurative depictions championed by the likes of Henri Matisse and continued by a new generation of representative painters.
The central female figure, perched at the edge of a large yellow and ochre chair, reaches down to pick something up off of the floor. Her body contorted and her gaze directed downward, her form dissolves into planes of color and blends with the surroundings. A wash of aqua blue presses down on the composition while the blue of the floor and yellow of the chair work to encapsulate the human form. Although clearly a figurative work, it is easy to draw comparisons to Diebenkorn’s earlier landscape works like Berkeley #53 that effectively dissolved and divided the Californian vistas into competing patchworks of painterly color separated by crisp edges and the occasional line. Landscape by its very nature is more apt to incite thoughts of pure abstraction, but Untitled clearly brings the figure to the fore. Functioning as a spatial activator, the woman’s presence invigorates the artist’s colorfields into hints of three-dimensional form. Diebenkorn, speaking about his turn from abstraction, noted, “It may seem momentarily magical that shapes, colors, and variously applied paint can have the power autonomously that they do. The human image functions for me as a kind of key to the painting” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted by J. Livingstone, “The Art of Richard Diebenkorn,” in The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 1998, p. 50). By actively distancing himself from non-representational painting while still employing gestural techniques, the artist was able to bring a newly critical eye to the long-maligned figure painting.
Like his East Coast contemporary, Willem de Kooning, Diebenkorn approached the representative figure as someone interested in gestural painting and abstraction. Whereas de Kooning embraced active, dynamic brushwork in such milestones as Woman I, 1950-52, Diebenkorn’s compositions bring together soft planes of color that undulate and flow within the frame. Rather than become the focal point, the people in his paintings become part of a greater conversation on the interactions of color and the depiction of space. “As soon as I started using the figure my whole idea of painting changed. Maybe not in the most obvious structured sense, but these figures distorted my sense of interior or environment, or the painting itself-in a way that I welcomed” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted by J. Livingstone, “The Art of Richard Diebenkorn,” in The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 1998, p. 50). This interest in the play of space and form hints at the intense influence Henri Matisse’s works had on Diebenkorn. Following a visit to Russia in 1965, during which he had the opportunity to see many works held in Soviet collections, Diebenkorn’s figurative practice was reinvigorated. Untitled was painted as a direct result of this renewal and is exemplary of the artist’s ability to transcend the Color Field aesthetic and merge with representative subjects.
Diebenkorn often anchored his figures within the composition by placing them in a chair. Janet Bishop, curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art argues that this interest in concrete placement came as a reaction to the flatness of Abstract Expressionism. Whereas East Coast Abstract artists created compositions with little to no illusionary depth, much less a solid groundline, painters reacting to the movement sought the weight and balance that such painterly tropes provide. “Figures had to be situated solidly in [their] environment” and a chair is an extremely effective visual anchor (J. Bishop, “Making Matisse His Own: Richard Diebenkorn’s Early Abstractions and Figurative Paintings,” in J. Bishop & K. Rothkopf, Matisse/Diebenkorn, exh. cat., Baltimore Museum of Art, 2016, p. 25). Diebenkorn’s practice is unique in that he deftly marries the flat color and planes of brushwork so lauded by the Abstract Expressionists with representational subjects that are influenced by some of Matisse’s visual tropes and his dynamic creation of space through form and color rather than perspective. The Fauve’s later nudes, like Odalisque with a Tambourine,1925-26, held in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, is especially prescient in the context of Diebenkorn’s figures and draws a distinct visual link between the two artists. At the same time, curator Jane Livingstone notes “His searching, inventive attacks on the ancient problem of capturing (or posing) the figure, and the figure’s relationship to architecture and furniture and draperies, suggest a discipline worthy of Ingres or Degas” (J. Livingstone, “Richard Diebenkorn: Modernist Humanist,” in Richard Diebenkorn: Figurative Works on Paper, exh. cat., San Francisco, 2003, p. 13). Diebenkorn pulled from the time-honored traditions of art history and recast them in an age of abstraction.
Diebenkorn’s figurative work came during a particularly active twelve-year period on the heels of his earlier Abstract Expressionist phase. Beginning around 1955 and supplanted with the Ocean Park works in 1966-67, the representative compositions set the stage for his later abstractions. While these subsequent pieces still evoke the landscape of California, they are not readily discernible as being representative of an actual place. Works like Untitled set the stage for the Ocean Park series by focusing on large areas of color and hinting at the artist’s painstaking process. The occasional line or glimpse of underpainting is noticeable and alludes to the way in which the artist would later highlight these elements. As Diebenkorn transitioned into the style that would last until shortly before his death in 1993, he became more and more interested in displaying the marks and missteps that his working conditions created. Although his paintings exhibit a commanding energy and impressive visual weight inherited from Abstract Expressionism, Diebenkorn was a methodical painter who placed emphasis on planning and structure to create striking compositions like Untitled and set the stage for the resurgence of figure painting.