Even though Richard Diebenkorn was 44 when he moved here in 1966 to teach at UCLA, his abstract paintings of the Ocean Park district, some of the best of his career, often lead him to be considered a Southern California artist. You may have seen the show of those terrific paintings at the Orange County Museum of Art in the spring of 2012.
Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966, on view at the De Young Museum in San Francisco through September 29 and organized with the Palm Springs Art Museum, where it opens on October 26, demonstrates the artist's radical evolution while living in Northern California. We see that the loose painterly appearance of his pictures was carefully constructed, that the hilly landscape of Berkeley became a model for the steep pitch of the later Ocean Park series. What's so radical? His determined, even methodical, move through the Abstract Expressionism that so dominated post-war American art. Along with David Park, Elmer Bischoff and others, who became known as Bay Area Figurative artists, he painted the figure, most often a single woman, clothed and not. Bonnard and Matisse were of as much interest to him as Pollock and De Kooning and all can be seen to have an influence during these important developmental years.
Though born in Portland, Diebenkorn's family moved to San Francisco when he was two. An amateur artist grandmother gave him his first paints. After a few years at Stanford, he married his wife Phyllis. (They had two children and remained together until his death in 1993.) In 1941, he enrolled in the Marine Corps and as part of his training, he attended classes at UC Berkeley where he studied with the Cezanne scholar Erle Loran. After the war, he enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts, now San Francisco Art Institute, though his bachelor of arts degree was awarded from Stanford. He studied with Park and Hassel Smith and learned about the abstract paintings coming out of New York, which prompted him to move there in 1946. He returned to CSFA when Mark Rothko was teaching there. Diebenkorn's first solo exhibition was held at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1948. He then moved to Albuquerque in 1950 to get a master of arts from the University of New Mexico.
He returned to New York in 1953 and met Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline but decided to come back to Berkeley. His friends Park and Bischoff were painting the figure and he joined them in drawing from the model.
The exhibition's first large paintings from 1953 to 1955 are characterized by planes of rich, brushy color and curving lines, such as Berkeley #22 (1954) but then he began rethinking his relationship to Abstract Expressionism. Instead of intense emotion, he sought a feeling of "strength in reserve -- tension beneath calm." He drove around Berkeley looking for a subject that would make a good painting. The landscape, the interior and the figure were brought into his compositions. Girl Looking at Landscape (1957) portrays the woman in a shirt the color of the sky and a skirt the color of the red floor. Seated on a stool, she stares out the window at a landscape divided into squares and rectangles.
Diebenkorn had devised a personal yet logical integration of abstract and figurative painting. Throughout this exhibition, we see the determined progress whether a small still life on a table or a view through a doorway to the land and sea in the distance.
It was in 1957 that the notable L.A. curator Walter Hopps included his work in the first group show held at Ferus Gallery. Three years later, Hopps organized the first retrospective of Diebenkorn's work at the Pasadena Art Museum. In the early 1950's, Diebenkorn had showed with the Paul Kantor Gallery. He also made prints in the early 1960's at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Hollywood. Diebenkorn was included with Park, Bischoff and others in Bay Area Figurative Painting at Oakland Art Museum, which traveled to the L.A. County Museum of History, Science and Art. All this to say that Diebenkorn came more frequently to L.A. until, in 1966, he accepted a professorship at UCLA, where he taught until 1973.
The show concludes there, with paintings influenced by the Matisse paintings he had seen on a trip to the Hermitage Museum as well as the large retrospective held at UCLA. He had gained the respect of Clement Greenberg, the critic who championed Pollock and de Kooning. But Diebenkorn said, "I'm really a traditional painter, not avant garde at all. I wanted to follow a tradition and extend it." His success in that endeavor is obvious in this rewarding and highly focused exhibition. For more information, go to deyoungmuseum.org.
Banner image: Detail from Richard Diebenkorn's Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1965; Oil on canvas; © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.