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."

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  2. Jarmaine says:

    Since there is so many fields of spicealties that I have a choice of, I still really can’t choose one. So I am going base on my personal experiences. My original goal back in high school and maybe even before that, was to work in a Neonatal ICU! I had a brother that passed before he had his first birthday from heart complications, and that year I spent a lot of time at hospitals with my parents. My goal the first couple of years was to work with babies just like him. That was until I had my own children, I would of still loved to have worked in that career field but the heart ache I would most likely endure when one of those babies did not make it home. I could not have handled!On to more positive experiences, I have worked with the elderly and Geriatrics interests me very much. Being surrounded with people that have lived a fulfilled life is so much more rewarding. Even though at times it is the ending stages of their lives, and it is sad when someone does pass. It’s less of a heartache to know that most of the time they are ready to move on. They are still very dependent on you and when you are able to help them with their needs that’s the most rewarding of all, plus you form a special relationship with the patients and their families.

  3. Hadeer says:

    I couldn’t agree more about gterairics. I miss sitting with some of the elderly individuals I used to help and they would tell me stories for hours about the things that they witness when they were younger, and the lives that they lived up to the point that they needed care. I have always felt that the elderly know how to live their lives better than anyone, and they for sure never take it for granted! Sometimes the people taking care of them are not good people though, and it always breaks my heart to see someone talking badly to an elderly man or woman.I like how you made a switch from little tiny babies that have no real experience with life, to elderly men and women who have lived life to its fullest and still have more life to share with others. Such opposites!

  4. Andre says:

    Wow, I think you will be a great OB. It seems like you have a real love for children, famieils, and people in general. Sad to say that those qualities are rare traits in todays world. I believe not just anyone should be in just any job because you could be in a job that you hate and end up making everyone who comes in contact with you at work miserable. You have the joy and care to be great at your job and effect those you will be working around not only by your knowledge , but by your love for what you do.

  5. Jennifer says:

    Breakfast with Santa! Saturday, December 1st from 9-11AMOssian United Methodist Church201 W. Mill Street in Ossian, In 46777Come have pancakes, deilicous egg casseroles, smoky links, cereal, donuts, dutch crunch dessert, Coffee, milk and juice something for everyoneHave your children’s picture taken with Santa and then they can shop in the Elf Store for their family members. Elves will be available to help them shop so they can keep it a surprise! All gifts are $2 and gift wrapping is included. This is a fun, holiday event sponsored by the Norwell High School Show ChoirSee you there!

  6. great essay….saw the Diebenkorns at OCMA,important show

  7. Rhony Bhopla says:

    Thank you for this wonderful information. I have been searching for the connection between Diebenkorn and poetry. I see you have mentioned here, Ezra Pound, etal. Can you direct me to any other sources? I’m working on some lesson plans that teach writing and visual art. Thanks.

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