Painted in 1961, Richard Diebenkorn’s Corner of the Studio is an intimate window into the artist’s world, where the artifacts of his daily life are imbued with a quiet poetry. Created at the height of his figurative period, the work exemplifies the artist’s singular brand of representation, where the personal objects of the artist’s trade are used as vehicles for his masterful exploration of color, light and line. “Glimpses into quiet, personal spaces, whether imagined or observed, they provide an inventory of the everyday objects that Diebenkorn found visually interesting,” Steven Nash has written in the artist’s catalogue raisonné. “There is a raw beauty...that befits its humble subject” (S. Nash, “Figuring Space,” in J. Livingston and A. Liguori, eds., Richard Diebenkorn: The Catalogue Raisonné, Volume One, New Haven and London, 2016, pp. 68; 71).
Corner of Studio illustrates the studio that Diebenkorn had rented in an industrial section of Oakland, California in 1958, known as the “Triangle Building.” Its high ceilings, ample windows and distinctive checkerboard floor reappear in several important paintings from this period, along with the cane-backed chair positioned in the foreground, and the small brown desk in the center. In this, the artist’s first official studio space outside of his home, Diebenkorn delights in the small daily pleasures of the painter’s life, creating a self-portrait of sorts that offers a window into his world.
In this work, these inanimate objects are transformed, becoming vehicles for the interplay of light, color and the linear force of the artist’s line. A veritable rainbow can be seen along the arms of the chair, for instance, where strokes of bright yellow, orange, red and pale green convey the effect of bright light streaming into the scene. Sitting atop the desk near the center of the painting, the bric-a-brac of the artist’s routine forms a poignant vignette, conveyed by a sheaf of drawing paper and a piece of fruit. Diebenkorn has structured the composition around a series of repeating patterns, notably the square shape of the table and chair, which is echoed in the checkerboard floor, the hanging green fabric, and the walls of the studio itself (which in turn echo the square format of the canvas). Beginning in the lower right corner, the viewer is pulled diagonally upward into the action of the scene, as the 90-degree angle of the chair acts like an arrow, zooming toward the intersection of the desk and the v-shaped drape of the green fabric’s yellow fringe. This creates a lively tableau vivant that’s animated by the compositional devices the artist so shrewdly employs, a technique that’s further enlivened by his brilliant use of deep, rich colors, such as purple, green, red and pops of sparkling yellow and orange.
Some of Diebenkorn’s most important large-scale paintings were made in his Triangle Building studio. And he was fastidious about its contents; the revered art historian John Elderfield has written, “Diebenkorn insisted on maintaining his studio as a space that he alone could control. Nothing in it was to be changed or rearranged, or even cleaned. ‘He didn’t like anyone messing in his studio,’ his friend the painter William Brice observed. ‘He liked the look of his place in its continuity of his life in it. The defacement of that continuity was a violation” (J. Elderfield, “Allusions to Ocean Park,” in ibid., 2016, p. 107).
Arguably one of the greatest figurative painters of the 20th century, Diebenkorn dedicated ten productive years to the close observation of common objects, landscape and the human form. At the end of 1955, he officially abandoned abstraction altogether, just as his Berkeley paintings had brought him great acclaim as a leading Abstract Expressionist painter. Reversing course, Diebenkorn embarked upon the controversial practice of drawing from a life model. Together with David Park and Elmer Bischoff, he became one of the leading members of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, ushering in a bold new era.
Diebenkorn, like many others of his generation, had begun to feel that Abstract Expressionism had lost much of its emotional impact. Having felt “a little bit of resistance” in his Berkeley paintings, he famously 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).
Working from a life model opened up a powerful new range of possibilities for the artist, and over the course of the ten years, Diebenkorn amassed a stunning array of exquisite paintings. These are generally grouped into three distinct theme: landscape, still life and the human figure. Of these, the still lifes are perhaps the great, unsung heroes of the Figurative Period. And it has been generally acknowledged that Diebenkorn created some of the most extraordinary still lifes of the 20th century, unsurpassable except perhaps by the great Modern masters such as Bonnard, Manet, Cézanne and Matisse. These paintings range in scale from small, intimate portrayals of single objects, such as scissors, fruit or a cup of coffee, to the larger, more complex and masterful interior paintings, of which Corner of Studio is a prime example.
Of special importance in Corner of Studio is the chair that sits in the lower right corner, empty, along with the artist’s desk. These two pictorial conceits are the allegorical analogue to the artist and his sitter: “Even when his interior scenes are devoid of figures, their presence is implied and felt—they are ‘peopled’ or ‘figured’ spaces, even if vacant of humans... We can easily imagine that someone has recently left the room, having put down their book and coffee… The chair sits empty, waiting for the viewer to reappear, offering a platform for a missing participant.” Furthermore, the empty chair in the lower corner also provides a metaphorical seat for the viewer to fill. Again, Mr. Nash reminds us, “The paintings become metaphors for figural life--they assume human life and give evidence of its being--and their emptiness tugs at emotion” (S. Nash, ibid., p. 77).
For Diebenkorn, the arrangement of objects in Corner of Studio was a strategic one, where he explored the formal possibilities afforded by the confines of the room, the patterning of its floors and walls, and the essential geometry of its furnishings. As throughout the artist’s figurative period, he seems to commune with the underlying formal principles of line, color, light and shadow that are imbued by these otherwise ordinary objects. In hindsight, this might be understood as the deliberate and meticulous ramp up toward his next great phase that would emerge in 1967. With its emphasis on repeating geometric forms and exuberant color arranged in simplified, two-dimensional planes, Corner of Studio anticipates the refined color harmonies and taut, geometric design of the Ocean Park paintings that followed just six years later.