The present work will be included in the forthcoming Richard Diebenkorn catalogue raisonné under number RD1104.
"At one time, the common device of using the super-emotional to get 'in gear' with a painting used to serve me to access to painting, too, but I mistrust that now. I think what is more important is a feeling of
strength in reserve--tension beneath calm." --Richard Diebenkorn
As much as any artist of the 20th century, Richard Diebenkorn is associated with color. A devotee of Matisse, Diebenkorn had an unparalleled ability to wrest an inexhaustible amount of expressive possibility from the colors generally associated the California coast: rich, verdant greens, sandy flesh tones and most of all the gorgeous, crystalline blues that evoke the bodies of water that were an omnipresent force in the artist's life.
Richard Diebenkorn's Berkeley #5 was acquired many decades ago from the venerable Felix Landau Gallery by the present owners. A quintessential example of the eponymous series, the artist's under-drawing creates a framework upon which he has painted a rich, mosaic-like composition of interlocking forms. In Diebenkorn's dextrous hand, line and color are on equal footing. Like his beloved Matisse, the pentimenti (what lies beneath) is intentionally visible and combines with the aqueous fluidity of the paint application to give the painting a freshness and spontaneity. The vivacity and luminosity of Berkeley #5 equals any paintings that precede or would come later, and in its sublime use of the color blue, presages the artist's later Ocean Park series.
The color and composition unmistakably references landscape, but its frontality and "overall" quality, mark it is as a classic Abstract Expressionist painting. "All paintings start out a mood, out of a relationship with things or people, out of a complete visual impression. To call this impression abstract seems to me often to confuse the issue. Abstract means literally to draw from or separate. In this sense every artist is abstract for he must create his own work from his visual impressions. A realistic or non-objective approach makes no difference. The result is what counts. But I've been content to accept the label of Abstract Expressionist because I do feel a kinship with the honest search of these painters" (R. Diebenkorn quoted in Modern Painting and Sculpture Collected by Louise and Joseph Pulitzer, Cambridge, 1958, p. 30-31).
Spanning the fall of 1953 through the end of 1955, the era of Diebenkorn's Berkeley abstractions was vital, resulting in creations of sustained virtuosity. A peripatetic start to his mature career had resulted in relocations from Sausalito to Albuquerque to Urbana and finally to Berkeley, where unencumbered from teaching assignments, he devoted himself completely to his art. Solidifying the formal lexicon of his abstract Albuquerque and Urbana paintings, the Berkeley abstractions fermented new compositional devices derived in measure by the light, atmosphere and scenery of his new residence.
Diebenkorn's early encounters with Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian were crucial in his development. The march towards abstraction that he witnessed from Cézanne's collapse and juxtaposition of foreground and background, Matisse's chromatic brilliance and organization of space within geometric scaffolds and Mondrian's relentlessly logical geometric reduction paved the course of his own non-objective works. He tempered the influence of European modernism with the Abstract Expressionist zeal of his fellow countrymen, being especially inspired by its rhetoric about the process of creation itself. Arshile Gorky's linear biomorphic evocations against luminous chromatic backdrops provided an early model that was followed by the agitated fragmentation of Willem de Kooning's emotionally and erotically charged abstractions. Bearing the evidence of their superimposed modifications, de Kooning's paintings were records of their gestation and this, along with their rough and buttery manner of paint application, had profound consequence for Diebenkorn's direction. Nonetheless, from his earliest works, Diebenkorn's work is always unquestionably his own-- his masterful painterly touch and unrivalled use of color distinguished him from his peers as well as his predecessors. Recalling these works, 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" (R. Diebenkorn cited in G. Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 2001, p. 63). The crowning achievement of his Abstract Expressionist works, the Berkeley paintings were acclaimed at Diebenkorn's first solo show in New York at the Poindexter Gallery in 1956. Dore Ashton hailed the young painter, stating, "In the best works--which are really splendid--the forms don't matter much, for Diebenkorn is able to sustain a flow which is far more important. He appears to me to be a born painter" (D. Ashton, "Art." Arts and Architecture, April 1956, p. 11).
Diebenkorn's perceptual breakthrough came from flying in an airplane. Traveling by air from Albuquerque to San Francisco in the spring of 1951, the bird's eye-view of the desert revealed an extreme visual economy to the artist. He stated: "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" (Ibid, p. 43). Such personal interpretations of landscape found new vistas for expression in the Berkeley paintings. Deriving their formal coordinates and emotional impetus from the light, warmth and undulating topography of the Berkeley hills, the Berkeley abstractions comprised verdant, colorful and luminous evocations.
Maurice Tuchman described the "moodlessness" of the Berkeley paintings and went on to explain: "In the Berkeley paintings the landscape format overwhelms the earlier fused themes-- of landscape with anatomy with still life. The ambiguity of pre-Berkeley pictures is now suffused into the most agitated and spontaneous painting Diebenkorn has ever made. The exhilarated gaiety is held in check by seriousness; the stroking is never excessively exuberant or perfervid, being restrained by strong architectonic structure... Diebenkorn opens up full throttle...and paints in his own lyrical and expansive way an inspired series of Abstract Expressionist canvases of the first importance" (M. Tuchman, Diebenkorn's Early Years, Richard Diebenkorn Paintings and Drawings, 1943-1980, Buffalo 1980, p. 23).