Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Masterpieces by Richard Diebenkorn: Property Sold to Benefit the Donald and Barbara Zucker Family Foundation
Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)

Nude—Elbow on Knee

Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)
Nude—Elbow on Knee
signed with the artist's initials and dated 'RD 61' (lower right); signed again, titled and dated 'R. DIEBENKORN NUDEELBOW ON KNEE 1961.' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
24 x 17 1/4 in. (61 x 43.8 cm.)
Painted in 1961.
Poindexter Gallery, New York, 1963
Mr. and Mrs. Warren Tremaine, 1963
Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 05 May 1986, lot 7
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
J. Livingston and A. Liguori, eds., Richard Diebenkorn: The Catalogue Raisonné, Volume Three, Catalogue Entries 1535-3761, New Haven and London, 2016, p. 497, no. 3175 (illustrated in color).
San Francisco, M.D. de Young Memorial Museum, Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings, 1961-1963, September-October, 1963.
New York, Poindexter Gallery, Richard Diebenkorn, October-November, 1963.
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Lot Essay

Arguably one of the most innovative painters of the postwar period, Richard Diebenkorn dedicated ten prolific years to the study and pursuit of the human form. This comprehensive group of paintings and works on paper highlight the artist’s flair for figuration; tightly-cropped, small-scale works such as Portrait of N.S. offer a window into the sitter’s soul while larger, full-figure portrayals of the female nude act as lavish ruminations on the feminine form. In Nude—Elbow on Knee, a masterful painting of 1961, the viewer luxuriates in every stroke of Diebenkorn’s brush, from delicate areas of pink and peach-hued flesh to sparkling passages of shimmering green and blue. This particular work was included in a seminal show of Diebenkorn’s figurative style at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in 1963, an exhibition which Artforum magazine described as “undoubtedly the most completely satisfying one-man exhibit of contemporary painting to be seen this year” (J. Monte, “Richard Diebenkorn, de Young Museum,” Artforum, vol. II, No. 5, November 1964, p. 43). This work was one of only a handful of nude figures that the artist selected for the show (at least two of which are now owned by major American museums), where it was installed alongside such masterpieces as Girl on a Terrace (Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase) and Girl Looking at Landscape (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). In these and many other examples from this collection, his mastery over his subject is on full display, demonstrating his work as a tour-de-force, and earning him a prominent place among the upper echelons of the great Modern art masters.

Diebenkorn’s return to the figure was a controversial one, having taken place on the heels of a highly successful series of abstract landscapes that were applauded by critics. Sausalito, Albuquerque, Urbana, Berkeley; each of these fruitful bodies of work built upon the strength of the last with recognizable topographical features gradually dissolving with each stroke of the artist’s brush, thus making the artist’s abrupt cessation of such extraordinary work seem contradictory in nature. In reality, Diebenkorn’s relinquishment of the Abstract Expressionist style that had propelled him to fame was more gradual, developing organically over a period of several years. Having returned to the Bay Area in September of 1953, he often joined his friends and fellow artists David Park and Elmer Bischoff in drawing from life models. As he later recalled to critic Jan Butterfield: “David and Elmer had already been drawing from the figure in the evenings off and on, and then when I came back to the Bay Area that made the three of us, so the model was cheaper, and we could draw every week. Also, in 1953, 1954, 1955. I was drawing figuratively all of the time that I was doing abstract painting… [It was] sort of an exercise in seeing” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in Pentimenti: Seeing and then Seeing Again, a Dialogue between Richard Diebenkorn and Jan Butterfield, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1983, n.p.).

Toward the end of 1955, Diebenkorn relinquished the high-keyed coloration of the late Berkeley paintings in favor of a more restrained, though perhaps equally as luminous and jewel-toned, new series of figurative paintings. Together with Park and Bischoff, Diebenkorn became one of the most prominent members of an art movement that became known as Bay Area Figuration, and a watershed exhibition at the Oakland Art Museum in 1957 brought the group to the attention of critics. Looking back on the series of events that crystallized in those years, Diebenkorn recalled how he had felt “a little bit of resistance” in his Berkeley paintings toward the end, saying: “One day, I felt it was all done. There were things working on me...pressures causing me to change...I felt I could move on to something else. ...I said, ‘I can leave it all behind’” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in J. Gruen, “Richard Diebenkorn: The Idea is to Get Everything Right,” Art News, November 1985, p. 84).

Portrait of N.S. is an example of Diebenkorn’s first figurative portraits. Painted in 1957, it illustrates the intimate, tightly-cropped studies that Diebenkorn created during these formative years. As the preeminent Diebenkorn scholar Steven Nash has written, “1957 was a spectacularly productive year for [Diebenkorn]...[producing] a bounty of exceptional pictures” (S. Nash, “Figuring Space,” in J. Livingston and A. Liguori (eds.), Richard Diebenkorn: The Catalogue Raisonné, Volume One, New Haven and London, 2016, p. 75). Indeed, Portrait of N.S. is remarkably accomplished for such an early painting. It depicts Nancy Stromberg, a student at the California College of the Arts. Deceptively simplistic in its presentation, the force of Diebenkorn’s brushwork is unfurled in Portrait of N.S. while the prismatic effect of its brilliant palette of light blues, lavender and peachy flesh tones add richness and depth to this striking early work.

Diebenkorn may have conceived his Portrait of N.S. based on a 1916 painting by Henri Matisse—a similarly intimate portrait titled Sarah Stein (1916). As the sister-in-law of Gertrude and Leo Stein, Sarah Stein was a notable collector of Matisse’s work, and while Diebenkorn was a student at Stanford University in 1943, he was taken by his professor to visit Sarah Stein herself, and she presented him with a mounted reproduction of a Matisse drawing. “Right there I made contact with Matisse,” he later said, “and it has just stuck with me all the way” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted by J.Bishop, “Making Matisse His Own: Richard Diebenkorn’s Early Abstractions and Figurative Paintings,” in J. Bishop and K. Rothkopf, Matisse/Diebenkorn, exh. cat., Baltimore Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2016, p. 21).

The legacy of the great French master thus influenced Diebenkorn from his earliest days. While stationed at Quantico in 1944 with the Marine Corps, the artist sought out the Matisse paintings in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and those at the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. He lingered over Matisse’s Studio, Quai Saint-Michel (1916) in the Phillips Collection, making several return trips. Nearly a decade later, Diebenkorn would again fall under the influence of Matisse, when he attended a traveling retrospective of the artist’s work in Los Angeles. Looking back, he said that this exhibition “absolutely turned my head around” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in S. Nash, op. cit., p. 70). There, Diebenkorn took in several masterworks, such as Goldfish and Palette (1914) and Interior at Nice (1919-1920). Clearly, the seeds of his figurative period had begun their germination. Diebenkorn absorbed many lessons from Matisse, especially his judicious use of color, his organization of perspectival space into flattened planes, and a certain ineffable elegance that captivates viewers still. His continued dialogue with Matisse culminated in a life-altering trip to Leningrad in 1964. There, Diebenkorn witnessed first-hand the visual power of several of Matisse’s greatest paintings at the State Hermitage Museum. Looking back, he reflected: “It was a real expanding experience for me” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in J. Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1997, p. 56).

Diebenkorn creates a shimmering network of flat planes of highly modulated color that coalesce to present a powerfully intimate portrait in the jewel-like watercolor and gouache Untitled of 1961, most likely a portrait of the artist’s wife, Phyllis. Capturing her essence in lavishly-painted and meticulously organized compositions that clearly reveal the influence of Matisse, Diebenkorn veils the face in a painterly haze as bejeweled prisms of color seep into the surface of the paper. “I had just put in over ten years of abstract painting behind me…. I wanted it both ways—a figure with a credible face—but also a painting wherein the shapes, including the face shape, worked with the overall power that I come to feel was a requirement of a total work… I knew why sometimes Matisse left the face blank” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted by J. Bishop, op. cit., p. 26). Indeed, Diebenkorn’s closely-cropped figure studies of this era are indebted to two stunning portraits of 1905 by Henri Matisse—Femme au Chapeau and Portrait of Madame Matisse (The Green Line).

As in many of his closely-cropped portrait studies, such as Portrait of N.S. and the jewel-like watercolor and gouache Untitled portrait of 1961, Diebenkorn creates a shimmering network of flat planes of highly modulated color, which coalesce into a nearly kaleidoscopic matrix to present a powerfully intimate portrait. Capturing its essence in lavishly-painted and meticulously organized compositions that rival the best of the European masters, Diebenkorn knits together complex arrangements that merge aspects of abstraction within his unique figurative style: “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). This sentiment is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Diebenkorn’s tender portrayal of the female nude in the 1961 painting Nude—Elbow on Knee. This lavishly-painted work is a brilliant fusion of abstraction and figuration. in which Diebenkorn evokes the beauty of the everyday while imbuing the work with a crackling energy despite the calmness of its facade.

Diebenkorn’s decade-long fascination with figuration and his subsequent involvement with the Bay Area Figurative Movement came to a close in 1967, the same year that he embarked upon his very first Ocean Park painting. As was often the case, working in one genre allowed Diebenkorn to solve problems associated with its opposite, which he had done while sketching from the live model alongside painting the Berkeley series. So too, did working figuratively guide Diebenkorn into the next step in his painterly evolution: “No sooner had he begun to arrive on the national stage...when a new—and, we now see, necessary—set of imperatives forced a huge departure. At the age of thirty-four, RD appears to have set out to learn a new language. In fact, though he did not experience the evolution from abstraction to figuration as an upheaval, or even as a disruption. He always worked both backward and forward, incorporating long-loved habits while pushing ever onward” (J. Livingston and A. Liguori, (eds.), op. cit. p. 595).

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