A Path of His Own

There were few maps and many detours on artist Richard Diebenkorn's journey to greatness.

May/June 1998

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A Path of His Own

Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

While serving in the Marines during World War II, Richard Diebenkorn found himself assigned to a cartography unit. Although he was by then a gifted young painter, his maps and charts so lacked technical precision that he frequently was left to his own devices – and, more to the point, with plenty of access to "art materials and free time." Happily, Diebenkorn, '44, put them to good use. The grand retrospective of his work that opened last fall in New York and will arrive at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art on October 9 attests to Diebenkorn's ultimate achievement as one of America's finest modernists.

So does the exhibition's catalog, a fascinating study of the artist's development. More than half of The Art of Richard Diebenkorn (Whitney Museum of American Art/University of California Press, 1997; $60 hardcover/$39.95 paperback) is devoted to high-quality reproductions on thick, oversize stock. A generously illustrated critical biography by curator Jane Livingston makes up the major part of the text. Livingston, who organized the exhibition with the help of the artist's widow and two children, enlivens her discussion with anecdotes from interviews and studio notes. There are also two short essays: Ruth Fine discusses Diebenkorn's representational period, and John Elderfield explores the psychological resonance of his later work. (Elderfield curated a 1988 Diebenkorn retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art.)

Much has been made of Diebenkorn's lifelong association with the West Coast and his "abrupt" midcareer shift from abstract to figurative painting (he later returned to abstraction). As Livingston notes, the artist's path ran counter to the hegemony of the "New York School" of abstract expressionism, established almost singlehandedly in the '50s and '60s by critic Clement Greenberg. Robert Hughes, for one, has written that the "California artist" never received his due from the East Coast art establishment. But regardless of art-world identity politics, Diebenkorn followed his own artistic trajectory and emerged vindicated from the critical fray, as this widely acclaimed retrospective amply reveals.

Diebenkorn, who died in 1993 at age 71, began drawing during his boyhood in San Francisco. He was encouraged by a lively grandmother who took him to museums and galleries. Entering Stanford in 1940, he immersed himself in the work of American painter Edward Hopper. (He also met fellow undergrad Phyllis Gilman, '42; the two married in 1943).

Military service interrupted his studies and took him to Berkeley, Washington, D.C., and back again. In the Bay Area, he met and studied with mentors and fellow painters at Stanford, UC-Berkeley and the California School of Fine Arts. While on the East Coast, he visited museums and collections, gaining wide exposure to modern art, including the work of abstract expressionists Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning, among others. But three great modernists – Cézanne, Matisse and Mondrian – were to exert the greatest influence on Diebenkorn's vision.

From 1945 to the mid-'50s, the Diebenkorns relocated often, following jobs and study opportunities from the Bay Area to New York, New Mexico, Urbana, Ill., then back to Berkeley. With each move, Livingston writes, Diebenkorn's work changed drastically to reflect the tenor of his environment – from the Southwest's earthy colors and shapes, to the somber palette and linear structures of the industrial North. Developing and refining his painterly vocabulary, Diebenkorn established himself as a gifted abstractionist, and seemed to be firmly rooted in that mode.

But by 1955, Livingston says, he had "thoroughly solidified everything he had learned about abstract painting and was extending his knowledge in a number of directions." She skillfully traces the artist's defection toward a representational style – a shift tantamount to heresy in a period when abstraction was considered the only serious genre. His friendships with figurative painters David Park and Elmer Bischoff and his graphic facility were factors in this shift, but there are foreshadowings of representation in earlier works – the archer of Urbana No. 2, the evocation of landscape in some of the Berkeley series. Now, however, he took up the problems and challenges of this "new" path in earnest. Over the next 12 years, he produced powerful still lifes, interiors, figures and landscapes – all well represented in the book. The book's cover image, a striking painting of poppies in a glass on a Cézanne-esque tilted tabletop, illustrates the tension between figurative and abstract styles that characterizes his works of this period.

Diebenkorn spent 1963 as an artist-in-residence at Stanford and, shortly thereafter, began to move back toward abstraction. He was profoundly influenced by several rare Matisse works he saw in the Hermitage during a 1964 trip to the Soviet Union. He noted: "At about this time, the figure thing was running its course. Things really started to flatten out. . . . I'm relating this to Matisse, because of course [his] painting is much flatter in its conception than my own." In late 1966, the Diebenkorns moved to Southern California, where they lived for the next two decades. In a large, light-filled studio in the Ocean Park neighborhood near Venice, Diebenkorn was to produce his signature work.

Critics agree that the Ocean Park paintings represent the pinnacle of his career – his "culminating achievement," in the words of Robert Hughes. Even for a casual viewer, it's easy to see why. With combinations of simple elements – diagonal, horizontal and triangular lines, and planes of color – the artist achieved breathtaking visual variety, depth and luminosity.

These lyrical images took form only through sustained effort. For Diebenkorn, Livingston notes, painting was a "process of intense re-thinking." In his own words: "The more obstacles, obstructions, problems – if they don't overwhelm – the better. I would like to feel that I am involved at any stage of the painting with all its moments, not just this 'now' moment where a superficial grace is so available."

There is nothing superficial about the work of Richard Diebenkorn and much that is graceful. He was one of the last great modern painters, and in his best works the classical virtues of draftsmanship and coherent structure express a singular vision.

Marianne Dresser is a freelance writer and editor based in Oakland.

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