Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)
Property from an Important American Collection 
Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)

Untitled (Seated Nude with Painting of Seated Nude)

Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)
Untitled (Seated Nude with Painting of Seated Nude)
oil on canvas
50¾ x 48 in. (128 x 121 cm.)
Painted in 1966.
Estate of the artist
Artemis Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
Greenberg van Doren Gallery, St. Louis
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2006
New York, Artemis Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, Richard Diebenkorn: Figurative Drawings, Gouaches, and Oil Paintings, April-June 2002, pl. 40 (illustrated in color).
Dallas, Gerald Peters Gallery, Gerald Peters Modern: In Celebration of Twenty Years of Gerald Peters Gallery, Dallas, July-August 2006.
New York, Gerald Peters Gallery, Prewar/Postwar: Modernism to Modern, September-October 2007.

Lot Essay

The present work will be included in the forthcoming Richard Diebenkorn catalogue raisonné under number 1162.

"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).

Richard Diebenkorn's intimate drawings of the female form are among some of the most remarkable explorations of line and form that the artist undertook. Although often overshadowed by his celebrated abstract landscape forms, the artist never relinquished his love of the female form and its pivotal place within his oeuvre. Strong, expressive, and undeniably sensual, these works introduce a sense of dynamism into Diebenkorn's work that has been under-appreciated until recently and clearly demonstrates the importance of the figure in the rest of his artistic output during this period: "Because you don't have [the figure] in abstract painting... one can't deal with an object or person, a concentration of psychology, which a person is as opposed to where the figure isn't in the painting. And that's the one thing that's always missing for me in abstract painting, that I don't have this kind of dialogue between elements that can bewidely different and can be at war; or in extreme conflict" (R. Diebenkorn, quoted by J. Livingstone, "The Art of Richard Diebenkorn," in The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 1998, p. 50).

For an artist of Diebenkorn's generation, the ability to express on paper or canvas the human form was central to one's ability to develop as an artist: "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" (Ibid.). By the time he executed these works, Diebenkorn was already in the midst of developing his unique style of abstraction, but beginning in 1955, he shocked many in the art world by returning to landscapes and figures, which he used to explore his ever-expanding artistic view of the world. The flat, perspectiveless environment in which he locates these figures is typical of the tension between figuration and abstraction that he was exploring at this time. Eventually the abstract flatness would win out, but these three works clearly demonstrate that at this point in his career, each tradition was equally valid and that the eventual triumphant winner had yet to be anointed.

Not all of Diebenkorn's drawings of the female form contain this conflict or sense of tension. His drawings of nude women are frequently tender and affectionate depictions of the beauty of the female form. Often using his wife Phyllis as his model, Diebenkorn would execute these works either during formal sessions or, more typically, when a movement or a gesture would excite him or elicit a surge of artistic inspiration. Often, as in these works, the subject's face is obscured, turned away in a moment of coyness that amplifies the intimate nature of the scene and in Untitled (Seated Nude with Painting of Seated Nude), 1966 Diebenkorn goes a step further and omits the head altogether. This anonymity is enhanced by the fact that many of Diebenkorn's works of this type are in fact amalgams of the various women that the artist had encountered in his life. Not merely a depiction of his wife, these works become a symbol of the universal sense of the feminine.

With these three works Diebenkorn is following in an honorable tradition of updating the continuing importance of figurative painting in the modern age. Artists like Picasso had successfully established a new relevance for the human form, and these unique works demonstrate Diebenkorn's forensic mastery-of studying, dissecting, and capturing the intensity of the human psyche by using the briefest of means. Every mark that Diebenkorn makes on the canvas serves a specific purpose; no gesture is wasted and nothing superfluous is added. As the curator of Diebenkorn's landmark retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Jane Livingstone, points out, it is these renditions of the human form that mark Diebenkorn out as one of the most important artists of his generation: "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).

In his dealings with the nude Diebenkorn has, perhaps, only one equal, the French master painter Henri Matisse. Diebenkorn's earliest encounters with Matisse came in the early 1940s while a student at Stanford University. He visited the home of the collector, Sarah Stein (sister-in-law to Gertrude and Leo Stein) in Palo Alto, California, who had amassed a notable collection of works by the French artist, including La Baie de Nice, 1908, and the iconic Woman with the Hat, 1905, probably the most controversial and important work of Matisse's Fauve period. Sitting in Mrs. Stein's drawing room surrounded by such magnificent works had a huge impact on a young Diebenkorn, and he continued to seek out examples of Matisse's work throughout his life. Another of the master's works also held particular significance for the development of Diebenkorn's own style, and of painting the female form in particular. Diebenkorn first came across Matisse's The Studio, Quai Saint-Michel,1906, during his war-time visits to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. With its reclining nude surrounded by converging flat panes of ceiling, wall, and window, the compositional structure of the work impacted Diebenkorn greatly, and he began to appreciate Matisse's treatment of spatial relations even as he introduced a measured degree of abstraction. Diebenkorn's own struggles with the tensions between real space and abstraction are evident in this grouping, particularly Untitled (Seated Nude with Painting of Seated Nude) with its open brushwork delineating both a flat plane to the left of the figure and an abstract, biomorphic shape on which the figure itself is seated.

Richard Diebenkorn's nude depictions of the female form mark him out as one of the most expressive artists of the human body from the post-war period. Like Matisse and other master painters of the human form such as Gustav Courbet and Egon Schiele, Diebenkorn manages to successfully capture the often complex and intricate sense of the human spirit. With his delicate and intimate marks Diebenkorn is able to successfully straddle the often-opposed traditions of figuration and abstraction, two areas that few artists of his generation have dared to combine. By bringing these two contradictory traditions together so successfully, Diebenkorn represents a rare example of an artist who manages to merge these traditions into a compelling and masterful unity.

More from Post-War and Contemporary Art Session II

View All
View All