Richard Diebenkorn: Painter par excellence

An introduction to the American artist who sustained virtuosity in a range of styles, from gestural abstraction to figuration and back again

Born in Portland, Oregon, Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) moved with his family to San Francisco when he was two years old. Even as a child, he was curious about art-making. A set of postcards of the Bayeux Tapestries given to him by his grandmother enchanted him, and he enjoyed drawing on leftover shirt boards because of their smooth surface.

At Stanford University in California he pursued a liberal arts degree, but his courses were brought to a halt by the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Matisse — a lifelong influence

Enlisting in the Marines, he was stationed at Quantico, Virginia. While there, he sought out the Henri 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 Studio, Quai Saint-Michel  (1916) in the Phillips Collection, making several return trips.

Diebenkorn absorbed many lessons from Matisse, especially concerning his use of colour and the organisation of perspectival space into flattened planes. (Decades later, in 1964, his continued dialogue with Matisse would culminate in a life-altering trip to Leningrad, where Diebenkorn viewed several of Matisse’s greatest paintings at the State Hermitage Museum. He would later describe this visit as ‘a real marker... an expanding experience’.)

Sketches and watercolours continued to occupy him during the war effort. In 1945 Diebenkorn was dispatched to Hawaii, where he worked as a cartographer alongside Walt Disney-trained animators. Often travelling by air over endless miles of landscape, he developed an eye for compressing three-dimensional landscape into 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.’

The West Coast painter par excellence

Diebenkorn’s first mature paintings were done in an Abstract Expressionist vein, a series that crystallized during the post-war 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.

Perhaps no other painter is more synonymous with the West Coast than Diebenkorn. Over several years, from the Sausalito period through to his Berkeley  series painted between 1953 and 1955, Diebenkorn produced a striking series of works created in the Abstract Expressionist manner but distinctly informed by the California environment in which they were created.

‘In Diebenkorn’s work we see colours that remind us of the beach and the topography of the Bay Area, of the streets of Santa Monica,’ says Sara Friedlander, Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in New York. ‘No New York artists could paint light like Diebenkorn. He had a very different touch.’

Indeed, because he wasn't living in New York, Friedlander continues, ‘he wasn't influenced by critics or dealers or curators, all of whom had their own stake in Abstract Expressionism and the New York School. He was free to do what he wanted to do, working on his own terms. Being isolated from the New York scene really made him the artist that he is today.’

From abstraction to figuration — and back again

Towards the end of 1955, as the Berkeley  series reached its conclusion, Diebenkorn decided to switch to a strictly figurative mode. Later, he would recall, ‘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.’

Alongside many other artists who returned to the figure, Diebenkorn had come to feel that Abstract Expressionism had lost much of its verve. With David Park and Elmer Bischoff, Diebenkorn became associated with the Bay Area Figurative Movement, and would continue to work in a representational mode for the next decade.

In lush evocations of the female form, such as Nude — Elbow on Knee, painted in 1961, he continued many of the pictorial innovations of his previous series, but set them within an intimate portrayal of the human figure. ‘While Nude — Elbow on Knee  is clearly a figurative painting, we also see elements of the way in which Diebenkorn is breaking down the canvas into linear shapes,’ Friedlander says.

In late 1966 Diebenkorn took up a professorship at the University of California in Los Angeles, where he would teach until 1973, and moved into a studio in Santa Monica. There he began working on a series of paintings that would become some of the most celebrated of his career. Named after the suburb he now called home, the Ocean Park  paintings not only marked the final break with the artist’s more representational style, but also represented a considerable departure from the prevailing artistic developments in Southern California.

‘Maybe someone from the outside observing what I was doing would have known what was about to happen,’ he would later comment on his shift from figuration back to abstraction in 1966. ‘I didn’t see the signs. Then, one day, I was thinking about abstract painting again… Then, suddenly, I abandoned the figure altogether.’

A late work from this series, Ocean Park #126  (1984), is widely considered to be the greatest canvas Diebenkorn ever executed. Against a palette of warm golden and yellow tones, the artist lays out a series of diaphanous bands that bisect the canvas along horizontal and diagonal axes. The painting distills Diebenkorn’s search for a new form of expression between figuration and abstraction.

In his earlier Albuquerque, Urbana  and Berkeley  series, Diebenkorn used the landscape as inspiration for his reductive style of painting. But by the time he made his Ocean Park  paintings, he felt he had resolutely abandoned figuration in favour of something much more spiritual and contemplative.

Retrospectives and recognition

Diebenkorn’s first significant retrospective was held in 1976–77 at the Albright–Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York; the show then travelled to Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Oakland. Just two years later, in 1979, he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate member, and became a full Academician in 1982. In 1991, two years before his death, Diebenkorn was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

In 2013, Diebenkorn’s work was exhibited at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, in Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years. In 2015, London’s Royal Academy presented a broad survey of his career, while in 2017, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art mounted a major exhibition, Matisse/Diebenkorn, which explored the French artist’s influence on the American painter.

‘The Royal Academy show was key because it took Diebenkorn’s work out of the West Coast and to London and a European audience,’ notes Friedlander. ‘The response was quite incredible.’ 

On the secondary market, the specialist continues, ‘Diebenkorn doesn’t come up at auction as frequently as other artists of his generation,’ partly because West Coast artists never received as much critical attention as their New York counterparts. But in both the museum space and the collector space, Friedlander says, ‘recent years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in American postwar artists who were not based in New York  — with Diebenkorn chief among these.’