Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)
Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)
Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)
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Fields of Vision: The Private Collection of Artists Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason

Cups II

Cups II
signed with the artist’s initials and dated ‘RD 57’ (lower left); signed, titled and dated again ‘R DIEBENKORN CUPS II 1957’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
20 1⁄2 x 23 7⁄8 in. (52.1 x 60.6 cm.)
Painted in 1957.
Poindexter Gallery, New York
Winthrop Tuttle, Marlboro, Vermont, 1958
Acquired from the above by the late owners, 1977
B. Schneider, ed., Richard Diebenkorn: Still Lifes and Landscapes, Berkeley, 2014, pp. 36-37 (illustrated)
J. Livingston and A. Liguori, Richard Diebenkorn: The Catalogue Raisonné, Volume Three: Catalogue Entries 1535-3761, New Haven and London, 2016, p. 192, no. 2159 (illustrated).
New York, Poindexter Gallery, Richard Diebenkorn: Recent Paintings, February-March 1958.
San Francisco, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings, 1961-1963, September-October 1963.

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Lot Essay

Remarkably prescient of a new mode of seeing, yet steeped in abundant art history, Richard Diebenkorn’s Cups II (1957) is a masterful still life from the collection of artists Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason. The painting speaks both to Diebenkorn’s connection with the couple and to his unerring vision in blue. An artist’s table inasmuch as it is an artist’s palette, Diebenkorn’s canvas revels in the juxtaposition of complementary colors while simultaneously playing with perspective and line, anticipating his iconic Ocean Park series of the following decades.

Two blue mugs share the artist’s writing surface with a piece of stationery and writing instrument or paintbrush, suggestions of a dialogue that has happened or is about to transpire. A plate of leftover strudel, or possibly an ashtray, completes the tableau, inferring that the artist has just stood up for a stretch before sitting back down at his work station. With blue, yellow and white as the dominant hues, Cups II confers a pleasant calm upon the chaos surely reigning in the artist’s mind as he embarks on his creative process.

Diebenkorn’s Cups II spent one year with the artist prior to its debut exhibition at New York’s Poindexter Gallery in 1958, where it was initially acquired by Kahn and Mason’s Vermont friend, Winn Tuttle, a faculty member at Marlboro College. Kahn and Mason then acquired the painting after Tuttle's passing in the mid- to late-1970s. The painting adorned a wall next to Kahn’s desk at their New York City home for more than five decades. Diebenkorn himself re-encountered his “long-lost offspring” thanks to a November 1980 letter from Kahn, whom Diebenkorn had met in 1960 when Kahn taught for a semester at the University of California at Berkeley. Kahn’s letter inspired Diebenkorn to dig through the artist’s personal archives, having mistakenly recalled the number of cups included in his picture. In his response, Diebenkorn alludes to the feeling of revisiting a painting long laid dormant which undoubtedly resonated with Kahn: “I do have exactly the feelings you describe about early work. I find it eerie sometimes especially with pieces that left shortly after they were done (yours I had on my wall at home for a year before sending it away.)” (R. Diebenkorn, in a personal correspondence to Wolf Kahn, 14 November 1980)

While Diebenkorn may have struggled to remember the nuances of this particular work, he certainly did not forget its composition – a clear foundation for his now-iconic Ocean Park series of the late-1960s and onward. Novel in their open spaces of light, coupled with rigorous linear understanding, the Ocean Park canvases remain painterly and experimental in their selections of analogous and complimentary colors and shapes. In the same way, Cups II employs basic geometry and close tonal ranges, such as mauve shadows and canary yellow reflections, to elevate the image out of the quotidian and into the imaginary. Representational as many of Diebenkorn’s early works were, Cups II boldly sets the stage for the geometric dissection of the picture plane for which he would become known as he moved deeper into abstraction. With intentional passages of paint abutting one another, while equally emphasizing the gestural force of each brushstroke within through rich impasto, Diebenkorn’s canvas explores the technical considerations wrought by a visionary arrangement of forms with no physical referent. Though the table and its accoutrements anchor Diebenkorn’s subject in reality, their renderings as shapes of color rather than photorealist outlines signal a spirit of painting more fixated on expression than precise representation. Thus, the structural, geometric underpinning of the composition provides the foundation for thoughtful juxtapositions of complementary pigments, energetic brushstrokes and a vigorously worked surface of remarkable impasto, resulting in fulsome expression of color and form verging on abstraction.

With Cups II, Diebenkorn indelibly inscribed himself into the rich lineage of boundary-breaking artists who revitalized one of art history’s most recognizable tropes – the still life – in a subtle, masterful way. Still-life scenes that capture a moment in time-steeped stillness, preserving it for eternal viewing, were deemed worthy subjects as early as ancient Greece, with revivals throughout the Middle Ages, The Renaissance, and into the sixteenth century with the Dutch masters’ invention of the haunting vanitas genre. Recognizing the longevity of a still-life image devoid of human interference, yet inextricably connected to the man-made facets of existence, pioneering Modernists like Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso abandoned the notion of re-presenting an object in favor of encapsulating the essence of an object, still life included. In the same vein, Diebenkorn prefers the idea of “cups” to their actual appearance, the implication of a snack, rather than its specific crumbs. Thus, while participating in the age-old tradition of still-life painting, Diebenkorn simultaneously furthered the work of his earlier counterparts by pushing their interpretations one step closer to full-on abstraction. Kahn and Mason greatly admired Diebenkorn’s radical use of analogous and complimentary colors with surprising highlights of contrasting hues, sustained across the painting's surface, and employed some of the same painterly principles in their own work.

Truly an artist’s painting, Cups II references the creative process itself while depicting the studio space where such a process occurs, elegantly capturing a moment so still one could almost make out the artist’s quiet sigh as he rejoined his place at the easel to resume his work.

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