Richard Diebenkorn and the Magic of California Abstraction.

There have certainly been painters, and I think first, of Cezanne and Monet, whose work so intensely and specifically explores and expresses a particular place in all its physical attributes. But I have rarely seen an artist whose work so consistently and dramatically takes on and inhabits the terroir where he works as Richard Diebenkorn. That he does this while most often working abstractly, is even more amazing. He embued every canvas he ever did with the light, space, the wind, and the very air of the local atmosphere. I think he was hard wired to be unable to reflect anything but the physical world in front of him. He was a slave to the physical gestalt of his objective perceptions. Nor can I think of any ouevre where abstraction was so rooted in objective reality. Diebenkorn was also extremely rare among artists, in that he went from abstraction to representation, then back to abstraction. This path often put him in oppositon to the popular tide of serious contemporary painting and the critical establishment that ruled the art scene from Abstract Expressionism onward. I have always had a strong visceral response to Diebenkorn’s work, and I hope when you see it, you will understand why.

Diebenkorn’s career was quite unusual in several other respects. He was married to the same woman his whole life. He was not prone to wild alcoholism and multiple affairs. In fact, he was, basically, pretty boring in terms of the wild man, great artist mythos, and certainly the polar opposite to Pollock, deKooning and the frenetic bohemian scene that dominated New York and L.A. at the time. Born in 1922, Diebenkorn’s family moved when he was 2 to the San Francisco Bay area. Though he was to live and work in other places, that was always where he considered home. From the age of 5, young Richard started constantly drawing. He never stopped. In his early years he would use the white backside of cardboard that came home from the cleaners with his father’s shirts. It gave him a life long preferrence for drawing on coated surfaces. In 1940, Diebenkorn entered Stanford and was exposed to the work of one of his most profound influences, Edward Hopper. Left, is an early work of Diebenkorn. He said, ” I embraced Hopper completely…It was his use of light and shade and the atmosphere…kind of drenched, saturated with mood, and its kind of austerity…It was the kind of work that just seemed made for me. I looked at it and it was mine.” Stanford also gave him a deep love of classical music, particularly Mozart, Beethoven, Hayden, Bach, and of poetry, especially Pound, Eliot, Auden, Yeats, and Stevens. He was also, in his Los Angeles days, to develop a great love of jazz.

From childhood, Diebenkorn was always considered extremely intelligent, serious, and hard working. At Stanford he met his future wife, and they married in 1943, when he enlisted in the Marines. Diebenkorn was stationed in Virginia, and this allowed him easy access to the great museums in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York. He feasted on art that had not been available to him  in California. After the war, in 1946 , he enrolled in the California School of Art, and won a prize that allowed him to study in New York. The high price of life there curtailed his stay, but not before he became immersed in Absract Expressionism, and above all, the work of de Kooning. I find his admiration of the Dutchman completely understandable. They share a profound mastery of color, great draughtsmanship abilities, and an attraction to abstract form based on a synthesis of emotion and observation.

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Diebenkorn entered  graduate school in New Mexico, and the four paintings, above, show the influence of desert light and especially the ubiquitous adobe dwellings and clay. I think one can also see  Gorky in the work above, left, and deKooning in the piece on the right. In the early, mid- fifties, for a number of years, Diebenkorn continued with this kind of abstract work. Teaching took him first to Urbana, Illinois, then back to his beloved California, to Sausalito and then Berkeley.

  

These pieces, above, show the influence of the flat Illinois lansdcape and the sectioning of farm land. Back in Berkeley, Diebenkorn’s unique version of a landscape based, Abstract Expressionism continued, as we see, below.

       

Diebenkorn’s “Berkeley ” series was beginning to contain more and more recognizable, specific landscape elements. Soon, the view in front of his eyes became explicitedly reproduced on canvas.

               

Strong architectural elemments, both horizontal and vertical appeared.

          

He worked on paintings of indoor scenes, still life, and nudes, simultaneously

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In these pieces, above, it’s almost as if Diebenkorn was channeling Matisse, who, along with Hopper, was his most significant influence. He was to soon embark on a special trip to Europe, and gain rare access to the Hermitage and their horde of great Matisse paintings. In the mean time, Diebekorn had a become a leading voice in the resurgent, Bay Area Figurative Movement.

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This gorgeous painting on the left certainly has an almost ‘Fauvist” intensity and dramatic color palette. Yet, one can also see broad plains of color like his earlier, abstract work. There is a flowing, twisting aspect to his organization of forms and space, a sinuousness, that seems like a continuation of his earlier abstract landscape style to me.  I feel fields and rivers and roads, etc.                  

Diebenkorn’s still life work during this period shows the facility of his continual dedication to drawing.

     
  

The still life, above left, and one of his later abstractions, above, right, to me, show an incredibly seamless continuity of sensibility and style.  Below, are two self portraits and several photographs.

       

In 1966, Diebenkorn moved down to Los Angeles, to take a teaching post at UCLA. He also moved into Sam Francis’ old studio in the Ocean Park area of  Santa Monica. What began then, is Diebenkorn’s full fledged return to abstraction, and the beginning of perhaps the longest continuous series of paintings in the history of art, the world famous and eponymous, Ocean Park series. It continued for over 25 years and encomposed over 140 paintings and many large works on paper. These paintings often consisted of what seemed, a collage like construction of flat form, that is worked and reworked, over and over, creating layer upon layer of color. These works were a combination of improvisation and discipline, and possess, every one of them, the intractable and irresistable aura of landscape. The critic, Robert Hughes, called them, “…surely one of the most distinguished mediations on landscape in painting since Monet’s waterlillies.” Tony Berlant, a neighbor and fellow artist said,” Everbody talks about the character of the light, which is very specific and beautiful there…he told me that when he was flying back and forth across the U. S. looking at landscapes from the air, the fields and the grids, and the circles, that was the thing that pushed him back into abstraction.” Andy Moses, the painter Ed Moses’s son, said, ” The Ocean Park paintings are resolutely abstract, but there is always a sense of horizon, nature, and very much architecture. A lot of the paintings feel to me like they have a topographical and street-level view at the same time, with water, sky, and architecture all jumbled up. His work was an interesting battleground between abstraction and figuration.”

                                  

    

Having seen many of these paintings in person, it is hard to convey the lyric majesty and open joyfulness they emanate . They exude such a pervasive feeling of light, horizon, water, beach, trees, space, the very feel of the air on your skin. It is hard to express or understate the evocativeness of these paintings. Also, they are just totally gorgeous. Diebenkorn often talked about ” realizing his sensations.”  It is the same expression Cezanne used about his landscapes. Diebenkorn talked about trying compress the complete totality of his reactions to nature, and to do so in simpler and simpler form. These flat, abstract works seem exquisitely attuned  to their physical environment. He captures the vibrancy of the southern California light  and ambience more fully than any representational landscapes I can think of. Dienbenkorn’s achievment is that he did this in work after work of the highest quality, over a long career. I have never seen a painting of his, from any period, that is less than beautiful. He saw the magic and put it on canvas for all of us to share and luxuriate in.

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40 Comments on "Richard Diebenkorn and the Magic of California Abstraction."

  1. in both his figurative work and his abstract works the feeling of air floating across the canvass is there, his bold rich colors and great composition created beauty in every work.

  2. sulky kitten says:

    I really enjoyed this David, thanks for the introduction !

  3. Ulf Skei says:

    Great article on a painter I only heard of previously, very interesting!

  4. Nan Kane says:

    A gem! Your love of his work comes thru and I appreciate all you’ve written so beautifully. Thank you. Hope this reaches many more of the uninitiated. Diebenkorn’s a genius and I easily grasp his passion and yours for the work.

  5. Helen says:

    Thank you so much for this article. Diebenkorn has been a hero of mine since I first saw one of his works decades ago in NYC. Your last paragraph says it all and says it perfectly. I so love this work. Thank you for so many paintings gathered together! What a pleasant surprise!

    • David Leeds says:

      Helen, it’s so nice to hear from a fellow enthusiast. The first time I saw his work was in NYC as well, at MoMA, while I was in college, studying art history. At that time, there weren’t any that I knew of in Boston, where I was.

  6. Sue W. says:

    Diebenkorn is a new name to me. I simply LOVE his Ocean Park series. Thank you so much for sharing this. I will be looking at more of his work and sharing it (and your SO informative blog) with others.

    • David Leeds says:

      Thanks Sue, I really appreciate your enthusiasm. Run, if you have to, but see his work in person. The pictures, as nice as they are, don’t do it justice. Some people’s art looks better in photographs. His, is far more powerful and beautiful in the flesh.

  7. carol ross says:

    Wonderful writing, sometimes it’s difficult for people to understand and love abstraction. But your choice of what to say, how to say it, and the images you’ve selected make it all so clear. I got inside his creative process. Such a wonderful artist, work so calm and deep. Thanks for your writing.
    Carol

  8. I think he may be my favorite painter of all time. Many times I have thought that, and then thought, “how can that be?” which prompts me to think of someone whose work I love more, and I never can. Maybe Vermeer, but I don’t think so. Good that you put that fu%7#ng cigarette photo in there to remind us that he might still be with us if not for nicotine-induced lung cancer. I will read your post tomorrow on the plane and perhaps comment accordingly, but wrote this after looking and not reading–sorry about that.

    • David Leeds says:

      Mark, he’s certainly right up there for me, but then as you mentioned it, Vermeer, Cezanne…there are others too. When I saw the big de Kooning retrospective in NYC last year, I thought…can it really get any better than this…

  9. David…really enjoyed your Diebenkorn overview…..saw his Ocean Park exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art,and loved it! His earlier more colorful oils in the OP series,and his exquisite “cigar box” covers…many of which he gave to his friends and family…are worth the trip to OCMA…the exhibit is there through May,27,2012…if you”re in So.Cal… you shouldn’t miss it!

  10. Edmund Sullivan says:

    Excellent piece — the man and his art. Really a great lecture that I won’t forget. Makes me want to drive through Ocean Park someday when I am on the west coast. (I learned that the artist died of emphysema at 70 [I think that is young!] — probably due to his generation’s curse — enjoying cigarettes before warnings.)

    • David Leeds says:

      His premature death was absolutely tied to a life-long cigarette habit. 70 is beginning to look very young, indeed. The new 50…???!!! Driving around that part of Santa Monica or Venice is like being inside one of his paintings.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard