In the early 1950s, Richard Diebenkorn looked to the landscape of his surroundings to inspire his Abstract Expressionist painting. Filtered through his personal experience of the place where he lived and presented through an aerial perspective, Diebenkorn radically reoriented approaches to landscape, painting, color and form by forging a dialogue between representation and abstraction. The artist began his famed Berkeley period after moving to the college town in 1953 and following on from his Albuquerque paintings and his Urbana series, the specificity of light in each of these places and the great influence of the Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne are responsible for the rich coloration of Diebenkorn’s paintings and his exploration of landscape as the foundation of abstraction. As the artist himself has said, “Very often you go to the locale where an artist works and you’ll suddenly really know that you’re in that person’s area. If you go to Arles, you feel the Van Gogh around you (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in T. A. Burgard, “Landscape—A Sense of Place,” Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966, exh. cat., deYoung: Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, 2013, p. 17).
Berkeley #33 abstracts the terrace-like topography of the place for which it is named. Three bands of color subdivide the vertical canvas. In the bottom third, the creamy right corner is balanced by a patch of mottled greys, yellows, pinks, and a pop of bright orange that suggest an accumulation of subterranean sediments. In the middle of the canvas, the juxtaposition of grass, olive and Kelley greens showcase the range of the artist’s brushstroke. Alternating between a dry and loaded paintbrush, and the filament end and the blunt end of the handle, Diebenkorn achieved a variety of painterly effects. All of this is topped off by a purple-blue that could register equally as sea or sky in marks that offer the illusion of space or adhere to the surface of the canvas in a flattening gesture.
Timothy Anglin Burgard, curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and co-curator of an exhibition of Diebenkorn’s Berkeley paintings, offers a description of Berkeley’s unique landscape to compare with the paintings. “The presence of visible cross sections of geological strata that have been layered, twisted and folded is a distinctive characteristic of the Bay Area’s natural topography,” he says. “The gradual rise of the Berkeley hills up from the bay has the effect of creating a natural amphitheater for optimal viewing of the surrounding landscape. The shimmering surface of the bay can assume an astounding spectrum of color from blue to green to grey, or, alternately, a silver or gold mirror like state at sunrise and sunset. The cyclical arrival and departure of the Bay Area’s distinctive fog creates disorienting spatial effects, as when the narrow strip of land is visible between the low lying mist above the bay area below, creating a form of tripartite stratification…[and] prismatic effects of extraordinary subtlety” (T. A. Burgard, ibid.).
Set against this description, one is able to shift one’s view of the painting between an landscape in which its elements have been abstracted and abstract painting that is landscape-like, so precise is the balance between description and interpretation in Diebenkorn’s work. But the artist did not always maintain this equilibrium. In 1955, he declared “I’m not a landscape painter (at this time, at any rate).” Two years later, he would correct himself in a Life magazine article “Look of the West Inspires New Art,” in which Diebenkorn said, “Temperamentally, perhaps, I had always been a landscape painter but I was fighting the landscape feeling. For years I didn’t have the color blue on my palette because it reminded me too much of the conventional qualities in conventional landscapes. But in Albuquerque, I relaxed and began to think of natural forms in relation to my own feelings” (R. Diebenkorn, ibid, p. 22). The presence of blue in Berkeley No. 33 suggests his acceptance of landscape as itself into his repertoire, and conveys his interest in imbuing the grace of being in a place into the painting.
Rather than representative of the seriality that the numbered titles of Diebenkorn’s paintings suggest, each work presents a unique approach. Curator and art historian Gerald Nordland elaborates in his 1986 monograph on the artist: “Each new painting was sui generis, true only to itself, seeking to find a new approach to both form and color. ...Each formal innovation was pushed to its furthest possible extension. Color was exploited in the same fashion—brought into unanticipated relations, explored and searched for possibilities left undiscussed in color classes. There came to be an openness to freedom and search, to risk and inquiry that would have been inconceivable in earlier years. Academic ideas of laws and boundaries were rejected in favor of a personal, more subtle, and more intimate play with the painting experience. Every work of art had to have its own internal coherence and sense of wholeness, and the forms and colors chosen had to present an expressive unity through a powerful charge of feelings in the composition and the juxtaposition of painterly elements” (G. Nordland, “Richard Diebenkorn,” Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 1987, p. 63).