This work will be included in the forthcoming Richard Diebenkorn Catalogue Raisonné under number 1123.
A chromatic tour de force, Berkeley is a luminous example of Richard Diebenkorn's translation of Abstract Expressionist methods through vivid, saturated color. Painted in 1955--the year dubbed by Diebenkorn the most "explosive" of his career--Berkeley's bold brushwork and coloration typify the artist's later works of the series. Executed during the last months of his abstract period, the work reflects Diebenkorn's absorption of color, gestural strokes and calligraphic line compacted into one jewel-like work. According to curator Jane Livingston, "By 1955, Diebenkorn had thoroughly solidified everything he had learned about abstract painting and was extending his knowledge in a number of directions. In this period, he seemed capable both of new invention and sustained virtuosity" (J. Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1998, p. 24).
Raised in San Francisco, Diebenkorn celebrates the familiar landscape of his youth in Berkeley. The artist lays down smooth bands of blue and sea green above a network of polychrome impasto. Short, emphatic strokes of orange, taupe, pink and yellow find their structure within dark, calligraphic lines. Diebenkorn grounds the composition in thick white paint which reveals layered color underneath. The upper bands of sky blue and turquoise suggest sky and sea, while the work's keyed-up, urban hues perfectly suit those of Northern California. Its evocation of coastal views recalls its localized provenance: before Andy Williams, it belonged to Michael and Dorothy Blankfort, the progressive collectors who co-founded the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Contemporary Art Council and endowed the museum with its most significant bequest to date of over four hundred works by artists like Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston and Yves Klein.
Diebenkorn's aesthetic of collapsed planes and built-up paint was first inspired by the artist's unique views of Western topography. The artist's flight from Albuquerque to San Francisco in 1951 provided the birds-eye view of the countryside that led to a new way of depicting space and color: according to Diebenkorn, "The aerial view showed me a rich variety of ways of treating a flat plane like flattened mud or paint...Forms operating in shallow depth reveal a huge range of possibilities for the painter" (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in G. Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 2001, p. 43). While he explored this method in the Urbana series, it was not until the Berkeley paintings that he understood the format's expressive potential. Though perhaps inspired by coastal hues, Berkeley is resolutely abstract. Diebenkorn wrote of the series, "What I paint often seems to pertain to landscape but I try to avoid any rationalization of this either in my painting or in later thinking about it. I'm not a landscape painter (at this time, at any rate) or I would paint landscape directly" (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in J. Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1998, p. 24).
The explosive, super-charged aesthetic reflects the crucial influence of the New York School painters, especially the calligraphic line and flesh tones of Willem de Kooning. Diebenkorn once declared, "de Kooning had it all, [he] could out-paint anyone" (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in ibid, p. 29). Diebenkorn renders his 1955 work in thick, polychrome impasto that swells out in high relief. He folds blues, greens, pinks and reds in one seamless stroke--giving color its own material presence. With its raised, textural surface and lush pigmentation, Berkeley is a worthy punctuation to Diebenkorn's period of abstract painterly expression, modified to his West Coast sensibility. Upon seeing the late Berkeley paintings, the California artist Manuel Neri stated, "God damn it, it was pretty strong stuff. It was a type of painting we hadn't seen on the West Coast before. Diebenkorn had a wildness...Those were urgent times, wild times. He brought us a new language to talk in" (M. Neri, quoted in G. Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 2001, p. 63).
The work's mosaic of interlocking jewel-tones recalls the essential influence of the Fauvist and Post-Impressionist artists like Paul Gauguin and André Derain, for whom color was used to convey spirit and emotion. Diebenkorn's first in-depth exposure to Henri Matisse's work came in 1952, when he visited the Museum of Modern Art's travelling Matisse retrospective in Los Angeles. Matisse's pictures of the 1900s and 1910s revitalized Diebenkorn's enthusiasm for varied, saturated hues and exposed traces of underlying paint or pentimenti. In Berkeley, Diebenkorn's pictorial inconsistencies add a delicate, human element that tempers the bravura of his vigorous brushwork.
On an intimate scale, the artist achieves a pictorial clarity and chromatic harmony rarely seen in his abstracts. According to Diebenkorn, Berkeley's overall structure was influenced by Mondrian's Composition V and other "pictures of around 1914, [that] illustrate a gathering of forms and an opening up and the sort of breathing" (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in "Oral history interview with Richard Diebenkorn," 1 May 1985-15 Dec 1987, Archives of American Art, www.aaa.org). The work's organization also recalls the iconic Bayeux Tapestry, which had fascinated the artist since childhood. In Berkeley, Diebenkorn's intricately-detailed yet compositionally discrete chromatic bands parallel the historic textile's embroidered imagery.