This work will be included as cat. no. 3250 in the forthcoming publication, Richard Diebenkorn: The Catalogue Raisonné (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
“One of the greatest things about [his] work is his use of color, which is spectral or prismatic. There are always at least two yellows, two reds, two blues, so that the warm and cool alternation or juxtaposition of the colors enlivens the work. He uses a warm reddish blue and then a greenish blue and a purplish one, and they tend to develop what's called color chords, much like the three notes on a piano. His color is quite marvelously connected to a tradition of color.” Wayne Thiebaud
(Wayne Thiebaud, quoted in “Wayne Thiebaud Examines a Still Life,” The Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2013).
Scissors is an intimate painting, executed midway through Richard Diebenkorn’s figurative phase, a ten-year period that earned him a prominent place within the Bay Area Figurative School. The ostensible subject of Scissors, an ordinary household object, becomes an occasion for the artist to display his remarkable talents as a colorist, expressing in oil paint a thickly impastoed palette of luscious blues, greens, pinks, reds, and yellows, the colors evocative of landscapes where the artist had lived, in particular the sky, sea, and landscapes of California. Scissors (among various other everyday items) were one of the recurring motifs of Diebenkorn’s still life work and revisiting these familiar choices allowed him to concentrate on color and line. Here Diebenkorn presents a pair of scissors in close-up, perhaps as a way of inviting the viewer to take in the brushwork that constitutes the object. Unlike other still lifes he created, this one affords little room for the viewer to (visually) step back, thus not allowing the brushwork to lose its presence, not entirely allowing the image to resolve as representation.
Scissors is divided almost in half into two tonally opposed light and dark sections. The bottom portion is suggestive of land and sky, the upper, merging dark green, inky blue and black tonalities, reminiscent of night. An insistent diagonal line of red paint crosses behind the scissors, hinting at depth and dimension within the pictorial space. Although clearly discernable as a pair of scissors, one blade brightly glinting in the light, the space where the scissors rest takes on a highly abstract nature, with a flattened painterly surface rather than the more typical three-dimensional desk or table top location of a still life object. Notwithstanding the abstract handling of the background space, the subject is rendered as a tangible, realistic object. In Scissors, expressive brushwork defines the strong diagonal lines of the scissor blades, dramatically setting them off against the background. The shapes of the scissor handles, in particular, demonstrate Diebenkorn’s fluid line, the liquid sweep of the brushwork evident in the formation of the oval and circular forms of the handles, the shapes almost but not quite merging with the abstract background. “[T]he interplay of imagery and how it is painted [in Diebenkorn’s still lifes] is open to a range of expressive treatment, from barely recognizable to trompe l’oeil” (G. Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 1987 p. 94).
This painting was accomplished during a significant phase occurring between Diebenkorn’s brilliant, early-1950s “Berkeley Period” abstractions and his late career “Ocean Park” masterpieces. The body of work he created during this phase—strongly influenced by Matisse—included numerous figure studies, landscapes, and still lifes and the works share with Diebenkorn’s abstract pieces his brilliant sense of color and fluid, expressive line. By the mid-1950s Richard Diebenkorn had already worked through three highly accomplished phases, establishing himself as an extraordinary artist working in the abstract expressionist language. It’s remarkable, then, and much to his credit that he began to investigate a creative impasse in the abstract paintings he had been producing, choosing, for a time, to change course and explore figurative painting. “He began his new work in representation with what might be thought of as exercises—painting directly and objectively from still life. The painter took a subject that was simple and complete in itself and one that he felt able to handle without invention or imaginative investment…He pushed ahead into the figurative work with an increasing excitement and a new sense of powerful purpose...Abstract expressionist paint and direct handling adapted to figurative imagery gave him a rewarding freshness and stimulation” (R. Diebenkorn, Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings and Drawings, 1943-1976, Buffalo, NY, 1976, p. 27). The work of Diebenkorn and the other artists of the Bay Area Figurative school defined an important step in the evolution of Modernism in America, and has helped to shape debates regarding representation and abstraction, Modernism and Postmodernism.
No less an authority than Wayne Thiebaud (an exceptional still life painter in his own right, and fellow Californian) observed of Diebenkorn’s still lifes “One of the greatest things about [his] work is his use of color, which is spectral or prismatic. There are always at least two yellows, two reds, two blues, so that the warm and cool alternation or juxtaposition of the colors enlivens the work. He uses a warm reddish blue and then a greenish blue and a purplish one, and they tend to develop what's called color chords, much like the three notes on a piano. His color is quite marvelously connected to a tradition of color. That's why he collected things like Indian miniatures and makes you think of painters like Matisse and Bonnard” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in “Wayne Thiebaud Examines a Still Life,” The Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2013).