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Divided Street

Divided Street
signed with the artist's initials and dated 'RD 61' (lower right)
oil on canvas
24 7/8 x 32 1/4 in. (63.2 x 81.9 cm.)
Painted in 1961.
Waddington Galleries, London, 1969
William Zierler, Inc., New York
Allan Stone Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1972
A. Howie, ed., "A Gallery Report", Kansas City Art Institute News, June 1964, n.p.
J. Livingston and A. Liguori, eds., Richard Diebenkorn: The Catalogue Raisonné, Volume Three, Catalogue Entries 1535-3761, New Haven and London, 2016, p. 486, no. 3161 (illustrated).
San Francisco, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings, 1961-1963, September-October 1963.
New York, Poindexter Gallery, Richard Diebenkorn, October-November 1963.
New York, Osborne Gallery, The Contemporary American Landscape: A Selected Exhibition of American Landscape Painting by Twenty Artists, December 1963.
Waltham, Massachusetts, Grover Cronin Gallery, Richard Diebenkorn, June-July 1964.
London, Waddington Galleries, Richard Diebenkorn, September-October 1964, n.p., no. 12.
Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Sam Francis, Richard Diebenkorn: Two American Painters, Abstract and Figurative, May-June 1965, n.p., no. 25.

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Lot Essay

Painted in the midst of Richard Diebenkorn’s ten year representational period, Divided Street exemplifies the lively energy for which the artist is beloved. A rare artist renowned for both his abstract and representational work, Diebenkorn distanced his output from abstraction in 1955, embracing his new favor for figural painting. Diebenkorn spent the following decade exploring figure and space. On his stylistic evolution, Diebenkorn explained, “I came to distrust my desire to explode the picture and supercharge it in some way. At one time, the common device of using the super emotional to get “in gear” with a painting used to serve me for access to painting, but I mistrust that now. I think what is more important is a feeling of strength in reserve—tension beneath calm,” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in J. Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, p. 24). To many of his contemporaries this shift was drastic and unimaginable, though most came to recognize the merits of both his modes of making.

The quintessential Californian painter, Diebenkorn’s art often took inspiration from the places and spaces he was working within. Many of his series - Berkley, Albuquerque, Ocean Park, etc. - are given names after locations where the artist lived and worked. Landscape and place became an ever-present element of his work, from abstract to figural. Diebenkorn labeled himself, “ temperamentally… a landscape painter,” underscoring the “tension” he considered so vital. (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in J. Flam, Richard Diebenkorn: Ocean Park, Gagosian Gallery, Rizzoli, New York, 1992, p. 21).

Divided Street demonstrates the artist’s masterful brushwork and incomparable use of line. A low gray sky meeting a busy landscape of fragmented homes creates a suburban atmosphere, with the viewer’s gaze cut off from the landscape by an angular barrier in the foreground, perhaps an elevated bridge or balcony. This barrier creates distance from the landscape and emphasizes the difference between the geometric, manmade structures that dominate the composition and the curving, organic shapes that comprise the titular attribute. The abrupt end of these curved lines where they meet the multi-layered barrier creates the impression of movement toward the viewer. The jumble of buildings in the middle-ground contrasts with the empty street, pale gray sky, and clean lines of the foreground. Confident, erratic brushstrokes brings the energy and movement within the buildings to the more flat, simplified elements of the landscape. The canvas simultaneously feels alive and entirely abandoned. The contrast created by these elements as well as the clear presence of the artists hand gives a palpable energy to the scene.

As with many Diebenkorn landscapes, Divided Street positions the viewer at a bird’s eye view. The artist’s inclination to elevate the line of sight may be considered a nod to the artist’s frequent air travel while in the military, stating, “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” (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in D. Hofstadter, “Profiles: Almost Free of the Mirror, New Yorker, September 7, 1987, p. 61). This perception of land and space explains his ability to break scenes into flat panes of color and tension-filled passages. Much like Cézanne, Diebenkorn breaks down three dimensional space into its bare geometric components and reconfigures it in a two dimensional design. This can be seen in a multitude of the artist’s landscapes such as the earlier Berkley #23 (1955) or the later Cityscape #1 (1963). Diebenkorn revisited the composition of Divided Street four times in the same year - experimenting with painting, watercolor, charcoal drawing – then returning two years later to capture the composition in ink and graphite drawings.

Diebenkorn’s 1955 shift to figurative painting was largely catalyzed by a 1952 retrospective of Henri Matisse in San Francisco – an artist whose influence can be traced in Diebenkorn’s inspiration throughout the entirety of his career. Matisse’s work particularly informed his use of color and organization in space, though Diebenkorn’s images are far more honest and grounded. Even in moments of abstraction, Diebenkorn maintains an edge of realism and battles his subject in their own creation (or recreation). This gives a sense of nostalgia and sentimentality to every work. In Divided Street, cool grays absorb most of the canvas with quick moments of black, blue, and pink to delineate the countless buildings. The warm browns in the foreground are more vivid and opaque, as if tangible in their close proximity. The stunningly bright green of the grass on the center median is unnatural in this muted world, grabbing ones attention. The ephemeral nature of the palette lends to a sentimental, momentary glimpse of the world in movement. Diebenkorn paints in such a way that the presence of the tangible object is felt but cannot be held onto. It is as if, in his quick and sure brushstrokes, we can see the artist battling with both the subject and the feeling he wishes to evoke. What Divided Street reaches is a buzzing energized compromise.

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