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.


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


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.

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. Started actually reading with The Vineyard visible from the left side of the plane. Great post. He brings together the elements of so many painters who I just love: Neal, Dine, Rothko, Cezanne, Gorky, early Mondrian landscapes ( and many more.

  2. Beautifully written essay on Diebenkorn. I loved all the images and getting to know the man and his art. It’s exciting to think what a California artist he was and to appreciate all the beauty he gave to the world. Thank you for this tribute to an amazing artist!

    • Davd says:

      Sunday, this post got me thinking about California Plein Air painters from the first third of the 20th century. There are many painters I love, like Payne, Bischoff, Ritchel, and Wendt from this period. It seems natural to follow Diebenkorn with a history of this earlier, representational artists whose work reflects the same quality of California light, etc. I’m turning into a California fan page.

  3. Susan Tiner says:

    Reading your blog is more fun than visiting museums because you provide narrative along with the images in a smaller, more intimate space. Diebenkorn is one of my favorite artists. I can definitely see the Hopper influence. The paintings I love best are the ones with the strong architectural elements. A few of those are in the SFMOMA permanent collection. I would love to see some of the Ocean series paintings in person.

    By the way, we loved the Lucien Freud exhibit in London, although standing in front of them for a long time was also a bit disturbing. The fleshiness. It is kind of overwhelming. The paintings are very large.

  4. Dear David,

    How nice that you have written about Diebenkorn. As a student of Art History I wrote a paper regarding his work as I had, in the 70′s, on first sight, been so taken with it. What I had seen at that time was his Ocean Park paintings and having loved them on the spot, I sure wish that I would have purchased one!

    His paint handling, the soft and gentle layering of color draws us in and comes out to greet us as well. The painterliness which encompasses most of the canvas lives without being amorphous because of the rigorous geometric forms that are overlaid upon them. If not for the titles and the history I believe a viewer would see these as pure abstraction, made available to us through a heart that could feel and a mind that could think. He was an emotional painter who controlled his work with the geometry of which I speak.

    The introduction that I wrote for my paper was as follows:

    “There is a sense of majesty; there is a sense of humanism. There is boldness and there is delicacy. There is flatness; there is allusion to shallow depth. There are touches and strokes of pure intense color; there is a soft veiled layering of evanescent tone. There are shapes that proclaim themselves loudly, and there are those we have to search for beneath the immediate surface. There is the force of intellectual control and there is spontaneity and inventiveness. The Ocean Park paintings speak in dualitites.”

    I am pleased to say that I had the honor of speaking with Mr. Diebenkorn on the telephone as he was kind enough to call me. He had a deep and mellow voice and was not above answering a student’s questions.

  5. Anna says:

    Very artistic work of art. Some may really think its something with malicious content but I think its not as long as you don’t think of something bad with this works. Thumbs up for this!

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  6. Jane Pellicciotto says:

    This was very interesting. I have always loved Diebenkorn. My favorite quality is the multilayered aspect as though you could just peel up layer after layer revealing something underneath.

  7. Mahira says:

    What a delight to read this on a crisp clear morning on my dect in the middle of the a sunny clear blue morning. Informative and thoughtful. Thanks.

    I am not a painter but have just registered for a two day workshop where i am going to paint two paintings in his style in textural collage!!! I love his work for all the reasons you listed and just have to do it. Wish me luck :)

  8. dinahmow says:

    I was tagged to say something about him in a light-hearted game.Trawling the web brought me here.You had the best-presented information, plus good pictures so I’ve shared this page.Thank you. (I have also bookmarked you.)

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