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In the '40s and early '50s, he forged an impressive abstract vocabulary -- and then suddenly abandoned it in 1955 for a representational mode that encompassed still lifes, landscapes, figures, and interiors. Along with painters David Park and Elmer Bischoff, he established what has come to be known as the Bay Area Figurative School. Twelve years later, in 1967, Diebenkorn moved back into abstraction, embarking on the renowned Ocean Park series of paintings and drawings that he continued to develop until the end of his life.
Two facts haunt much of the critical opinion on Richard Diebenkorn's work: that he lived most of his life in California; and that he progressed as an artist from a successful abstract mode to an equally successful representational one, followed by a long, much admired cycle of abstract painting and drawing. Anyone acquainted with Diebenkorn's art knows that he was a native of the West Coast who became firmly identified with the Bay Area and Los Angeles—even though from his early thirties on he exhibited widely and attained world recognition. Although it soon became evident that Diebenkorn was a painter of uncommon stature, and one planted firmly in the era and ethos of American modernism, which generally meant abstraction, there was scarcely a time in his maturity when he wasn't provincialized as a "California" artist—that is, one whose chosen place of residence conditioned, and somehow limited, both the palette and subject matter of his work.
For the first seven years of his mature professional life, Diebenkorn exercised his gifts in the manner of any independent-minded prodigy of the day—by forging a distinctive abstract vocabulary of forms. Thus many were shocked when, in1955, he made a sudden shift to a representational mode.
The artist worked in this unfashionable way, doing a great number of drawings from life, and a smaller number of still-life, landscape, interior, and figure paintings, until 1967. That year he returned to an abstract modality nearly as precipitately as he had abandoned it twelve years earlier. Although his audience came to embrace the so-called Ocean Park paintings and works on paper with even more enthusiasm than they had his figurative works, Diebenkorn paid a price for his double conversion. Along with his chosen residence in California (i.e., his refusal to move to New York), his equally elective figurative-abstract shifts became a stamp of identity from which he could not escape. These tacitly acknowledged "problems" dogged him, appearing predictably in written commentaries onhis work and, what was still more tiresome, in virtually every interview to which he submitted.
It is only now, more than four years after his death, that we may begin to balance the forces that shaped Diebenkorn's career and to appreciate more fully its singularity and importance. His forced reckonings with two (or actually three) abrupt shifts of vocabulary produced not only some searingly beautiful art, but also a series of verbal reflections on his own beliefs that can help us understand both his practical decisions and his higher intentions. Diebenkorn's own words attest that there were more fundamental, and far more complex, concerns in his life and work than geography and stylistic shifts.
Primary among these was the artist's underlying commitment to aspects of the modernist tradition forged decades earlier by European artists. Three painters in particular—Paul Cizanne, Henri Matisse, and Piet Mondrian—left their imprint on Diebenkorn. Another guiding concern was Diebenkorn's lifelong engagement with what he called a "rightness"—a kind of moral imperative in each of his endeavors. He strove tirelessly for an elusive quality of integrity, or singularity, that was difficult to articulate but unmistakably present when achieved.
Theoretically, the mature Richard Diebenkorn, a man born well after World War I, could have opted for a path leading into the post modern. Given the breadth of his talent and his exceptional intelligence, he might have experimented with the artistic alternatives emerging out of the Minimalist, Conceptualist, or otherwise Duchampian courses adopted by so many American artists of his generation. Some of the best artists of his age, or even older, seemed compelled to "progress," or to find paths out of the modernist stream, which by the 1960s was perceived to be drying up. Yet Diebenkorn deliberately stayed on his own course, acting as a protagonist in modernism's final episode, embracing the tradition at the moment it was nearly spent.
Richard Clifford Diebenkorn, Jr., was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1922. Within two years, his family relocated to San Francisco, where his father worked as a sales executive with Dohrmann Hotel Supplies, the leading West Coast company of its kind. Diebenkorn's great-grandfather, a German whose family had emigrated to the Hanseatic coast of Germany from Sweden after the Thirty Years War, had arrived in the United States during the American Civil War. (The name Diebenkorn is said by the family to have originated in the Swedish language and denotes "grain stacked in the shape of a house.") He died while traveling up the Mississippi River, having been diverted by the Civil War from his original intention of settling in Charleston, South Carolina. His one-year-old son was reared in Cincinnati by the child's mother and her second husband. But the boy (the artist's grandfather), kept his father's name; in due course he married and had two sons, Clarence and Richard. Clarence died in the influenza epidemic that followed World War I; Richard Clifford Diebenkorn, Sr., became a successful businessman on the West Coast. In 1917 he married Dorothy Stephens, a San Diego native he had met in Los Angeles, possibly while traveling on business; the two of them and their only child settled permanently in San Francisco in 1924 or 1925.
Richard Diebenkorn, Jr., grew up in a residential neighborhood west of the Twin Peaks area of San Francisco. From the age of four or five he was constantly drawing. Perhaps the most important influence on his early life was his maternal grandmother, Florence Stephens. According to Diebenkorn, she was "very lively; [had an] Irish-type disposition, since she was born in Dublin, [and] came to San Francisco in about 1870. She was very appreciative of [my early drawing.] I think I did it on my own, and . . . in a backhanded way, my father was important to the beginnings of my drawing because [to him], 'Richard was totally occupied, and no trouble at all when he had shirt cardboards to draw pictures of locomotives on'. . . . I really can't remember a time when I wasn't engaged in [drawing] for some partof the day. . . . I remember the [shirt cardboards] were a chipboard surface on one side, that I just hated, and the other side was a smooth white, that I liked to draw on."1 In his maturity, Diebenkorn continued to like to draw on shiny-surfaced paper. When he was too poor to buy first-quality art materials, he drew on recycled advertising posters that had a coated surface. And many of his later drawings are done on a gloss-coated paper seldom used for such purposes as his.
Florence Stephens was a socially conscious woman of many talents who, in her late forties, earned a law degree and used it successfully during World War I to defend some twenty-eight cases in which German-Americans' civil rights had been violated. She was also a published short-story writer amateur painter, and enthusiast of poetry and literature; in later life, she hosted a local book-review radio program. She lived in a small house in the rural Peninsula community of Woodside, where her grandson spent several summers. Florence Stephens made a point of introducing Richard to the work of such author-illustrators as Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth (Diebenkorn admired Wyeth's illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and Treasure Island ), the Arthurian legends, nineteenth-century French adventure stories, and American cowboy literature.2 Diebenkorn's daughter., Gretchen, recalls that in her own childhood her father hoped she would prize his long-treasured copy of Stevenson's The Black Arrow and L. Frank Baum's Oz books. Diebenkorn was also acquainted early on with the book illustrations of the Western painters Charles Russell, Frederic Remington, and Will James and emulated their subjects in his own youthful drawings.
Diebenkorn's lifelong fascination with heraldic imagery, including the quatrefoil clover and cross forms, and the insignia on decks of cards, began with his childhood exposure to the lore of European chivalry. He remembered spending hours carving swords and making emblazoned shields, especially when visiting his grandmother's house. Perhaps the most indelible visual impression imparted to him by Florence Stephens was the set of eighty cards she gave him illustrating the Bayeux Tapestries, a souvenir of a European visit. The horizontally three-banded composition of these elaborately narrative textiles would find its way into Diebenkorn's work for decades afterward—from the intricately detailed, but compositionally discrete, horizontal bands in a few of the Berkeley-period abstractions, to the banded compositions of such representational works as Horizon —Ocean View (1959; Fig. 102) and the astounding Yellow Porch (1961; Fig. 105). As late as the 1980s, Diebenkorn reminisced about what attracted him in the compositional structure of the medieval tapestries: "The main events are central and in flanking panels above and below, there are dead men and coats of arms: therefore, these dialogues paralleling one another, horizontally."3
As a boy, Richard several times accompanied his grandmother to local galleries and museums. Perhaps the most memorable event was an exhibition of Van Gogh paintings held at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in the early 1930s. Diebenkorn's memory of the occasion centered less on the art itself than on the fact that a group of visitors preceding him through the show with a museum guide laughed openly at the paintings, sometimes joined by the guide.4 (Not that the young Diebenkorn was necessarily carried away by the exhibition; recounting the anecdote, he later added, "It seems like no time at all before about ten paintings of Van Gogh in reproduction became almost clichis. I just got so tired of seeing them . . . in furniture stores or on somebody's wall."5 )
Diebenkorn first tasted the world of modern (albeit conservative) visual art during his high school years. Though he had little exposure to true Euro-American modernism until he was in college, during his teens he subscribed to Esquire magazine, which published articles on such relatively "undifficult" New York artists as Robert Henri, William Glackens, Bernard Karfiol, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, William Gropper, Henry VarnumPoor, Abraham Rattner, and Raphael Soyer. At Lowell High School, he recalled "standing in the doorway of the art studio . . . looking in, and seeing these people busily working, professionally, and what they were doing was not at all like the sort of cramped illustrative thing that I did at home. They were doing something broad and essentially meaningless to me, kind of oversimplified figure drawings, Diego Rivera influence. . . . It wasn't art that I was interested in; it was drawing and painting. . . . I had no real understanding of drawing and painting as art."6
2. Palo Alto Circle , 1943
Oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 16 1/4 (51.4 x 41.3)
Santa Cruz Island Foundation, Santa Barbara
In September 1940, Diebenkorn entered Stanford University, in part in acquiescence to his parents, who wanted him to prepare for a career in medicine, law, or business. "My father didn't think being an artist was a respectable or worthy goal for a man."7 His first two years at Stanford were "the longest time in my life that I didn't do any artwork, I mean drawing or painting. . . . It wasn't until I enlisted in the military, but still stayed in college, that I began to look around away from what I had been put in school for, which got to boring me quite a bit."8 Despite the artist's frustration during his early undergraduate years, he did fulfill academic requirements in areas that would enrich his later life. He developed a keen appreciation of serious music, especially that of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.9 He read all his life and became something of a connoisseur of the work of certain modern poets, including Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden, and, most enduringly, William Butler Yeats and Wallace Stevens. He also educated himself on the subject of modern history: Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant says that among the books he most admired was The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell, Jr.
At Stanford, Diebenkorn encountered the first two of several early artistic mentors. One was a Russian imigri art and art history professor named Victor Arnautoff, with whom he studied oil painting in a spirit of classical formal discipline. Although Arnautoffemphasized strict representational accuracy rather than an improvisational approach to drawing or painting, Diebenkorn admired his advocacy of "unpopular [political] causes" and his "intellectual independence."10
Diebenkorn's closest student-teacher relationship at Stanford was with Daniel Mendelowitz, with whom he studied both studio art and art history. Mendelowitz was a practicing landscape painter and watercolorist who had studied with Reginald Marsh and, more significantly for his student, had cultivated a profound knowledge of the work of Edward Hopper. Diebenkorn already knew of Hopper's work through a book he had been given in high school, but it was at Stanford that he immersed himself in the great American painter's art and tried to emulate it: "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."11 One of Diebenkorn's first fully resolved oil paintings, Palo Alto Circle (1943; Fig. 2), was made under the conscious sway of Hopper's "mood-saturated" light and solidly organized compositional structure.
Mendelowitz also encouraged Diebenkorn to question other potential influences. "The American modernists were acceptable to [Mendelowitz]," he said. "At that time, European modernism was really a kind of thorn in Dan's side. He did marvelous lectures in his survey course, with slides—so astute—but when he'd come to modernism and show Picasso or Matisse . . . he couldn't resist making comments that would bring down the house in the little theater there. . . . He'd sincerely . . . defend Matisse and his patterns and what not. And then say, 'And you know there's nothing really wrong with this. It's like a nice necktie. A nicely patterned necktie.'"12 Mendelowitz provided the twenty-year-old Diebenkorn with a provocative educational experience by taking him to see the private collection of Sarah Stein in Palo Alto. Sarah's late husband, Michael, a successful San Francisco businessman, was the eldest brother of Gertrude Stein, who had introduced him to modern European art; he quickly became an enthusiastic collector. In 1906, Michael and Sarah Stein purchased the first works by Matisse to be brought to America; by 1914, they had amassed the largest collection of Matisses save for that of the Russian Sergei Shchukin. Diebenkorn and Mendelowitz spent an hour and a half at the Stein home. "It was not a big house, but it was ample," Diebenkorn recalled. "It had a large living room with paintings hung in at least three tiers. In addition there was a dining room or a study, which was similarly hung."13 Among other striking pictures, he saw Matisse's 1905 Fauvist Woman with Hat (now in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and La Baie de Nice (1918) and important works by Picasso and Cizanne.
In 1942, during his sophomore year at Stanford, Diebenkorn joined a Marine program that enabled him to continue his studies at Stanford and take up active service only after graduating. At about the same time, he met Phyllis Gilman, a fellow Californian and Stanford undergraduate majoring in history. In the spring of 1943, only a few months after signing up with the Marines, Diebenkorn was called into the active reserve. Within two weeks, he and Phyllis decided to get married.
Through an arrangement the Marine Corps had with the Navy V-12 program, Diebenkorn and other young enlistees were sent for a semester of academic study to the University of California at Berkeley. Because the V-12 guidelines included no academic major category called art or fine arts, Diebenkorn had the luxury of being allowed to select his own curriculum within his unusual major. (He was required to take physics, which he enjoyed.) Many members of the Berkeley art faculty of the time had been exposed to the exhilarating new teachings of the German painter and educator Hans Hofmann, who, even before he moved permanently to the United States in the 1930s, had taught for several semesters at the University of California. (Berkeley's University Art Museum later acquired a large number of important Hofmann works.) But thestudent Diebenkorn apparently evinced little direct interest either in the ongoing discussions of Hofmann's ideas or in his work. And even in later years, although one might argue that Hofmann's "oppositional energies" are inescapably present in some of Diebenkorn's Berkeley-period abstract paintings, he seems, at least philosophically, to have remained immune to Hofmann's seductions. He used neither the rhetoric nor the painterly vocabulary of Hofmann's famous "push-pull" doctrine; and Hofmann's assertion that the implicit antithesis of abstract and representational values in art was false went entirely against what Diebenkorn experienced through his own development as a painter.
It was at Berkeley, however, that he came up hard against Cizanne, and it was to this initially puzzling artist that he gravitated. Art history faculty member Erle Loran, who was completing his long-awaited book on Cizanne's theories and methods, taught the subject with the intensity of the convert.
When I [eventually] saw [Loran's] book, there were no surprises for me, because I'd had it in all his courses. . . . He had really ironclad theory, almost exclusively based on Cizanne. And there were things that I just had to challenge—small—when he'd make his sweeping pronouncements. . . . We had several almost-arguments. But I only remember the subject of one. . . . There was a Cizanne reproduction that he brought out . . . which had apples falling off the table. There was this tilted top, and there was something that he wanted me to do in my painting, he wanted me to show a rooftop or something or other and not have it move out into depth, where it would go off into a tunnel . . . and get lost to the surface. And he brought out this reproduction of this tabletop that came up [in] a kind of distortion. [To me] theoretically this was not right somehow, that one did this kind of tampering with the logic of gravity, and this was something I wasn't going to accept. 14
Despite his objection to Cizanne's "illogical" gravity, less than two years later Diebenkorn began to seek out original works by Cizanne in the museums of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and eventually came to regard Cizanne as one of the three or four painters whose contributions provided a crucial foundation for his own mature achievements as a painter.
After several months at Berkeley, during which Diebenkorn was barracked on campus and spent weekends with Phyllis at her modest San Francisco flat, he was finally assigned to active duty with the Marines. He did his basic training at Parris Island and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, before being sent to Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. The months that Richard and Phyllis Diebenkorn lived together near Washington, D.C., while he was at Quantico, marked the beginning of their shared, lifelong education in the museums of the United States and Europe. The two of them dedicated nearly every weekend to looking at art. They visited Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York at least once, but most weekends were spent at Washington institutions, primarily The Phillips Collection, whose Sunday afternoon chamber concerts they often attended. It was at the Phillips where Diebenkorn first had the experience of intensive, repeated exposure to art works in an environment conducive to virtual memorization. (He eventually developed an almost uncanny ability to memorize pictures without such prolonged exposure.)
Duncan and Marjorie Phillips had established the museum in 1921 in their large, nineteenth-century family home in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington. It displayed works of art acquired by the Phillipses during constant travels to Europe and New York and through close relationships with artists. The Phillips Collection was the first museum in the United States solely devoted to modern art. By the early 1940s, it housed most of the important works found there today, hung in an environment that encouraged relaxed and informal appreciation. The galleries were furnished so that visitors could sit, smoke, and talk about what they were seeing. "The Phillips was simply a . . . big oldhouse, furnished," Diebenkorn recalled years later, "and somehow it survived the public trooping through all the time. There were the original rugs on the floor, the original furniture, and hospitality was extended, especially to servicemen."15 The Diebenkorns would later come to know not only the collections, but members of the Phillips family, with whom they established lifelong relationships.
3. Henri Matisse
Studio, Quai St. Michel , 1916
Oil on canvas, 58 1/4 x 46 (148 x 116.8)
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Of the American artists he saw there, Diebenkorn remembered being interested in Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Charles Sheeler, Ralston Crawford, and particularly Albert Pinkham Ryder. Very little in the museum, including the large collection of Augustus Tack paintings, failed to intrigue him. But the two paintings that most impressed him were Pierre Bonnard's Open Window (1921) and Matisse's Studio, Quai St. Michel (1916; Fig. 3). Both these works deal with the problem of representing interior and exterior light in the same pictorial space; both are characterized by a paradoxical sense of receding planar space, combined with a distinctly material sense of disposition on a flat surface. The Matisse, in addition, introduces a nude figure, recumbent on a studio sofa—and a glimpse of the architecture of Paris through the window. Diebenkorn said in 1974: "I noticed its spatial amplitude; one saw a marvelous hollow or room yet the surface is right there . . . right up front."16 Another salient characteristic of this and contemporaneous Matisses is the presence of signs of reworking. Matisse, particularly in the years 191418, often left in the pentimenti created by over-painting when he repositioned objects or parts of objects. These visible traces become an indispensable part of the viewer's experience of immediacy and lend the work a kind of provisional (though never unfinished) quality.
Besides Studio, Quai St. Michel , the Diebenkorns saw and especially admired Matisse's 1918 painting Interior, Nice in the A.E. Gallatin Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Matisses in NewYork's Museum of Modern Art, including the 1913 Blue Window. The paintings by Piet Mondrian in these two institutions were likewise eye-openers. At the Modern, Diebenkorn would have seen Mondrian's Pier and Ocean (1914; Fig. 4), Composition (1925), Composition in White, Black and Red (1936), and Broadway Boogie Woogie (194243); the Gallatin Collection in Philadelphia contained Mondrian's Composition with Blue (1926) and Composition with Blue and Yellow (1932). Like the Matisses of the teens, many of these paintings leave visible the signs of reworking as a record of the artist's compositional process. Diebenkorn later called this a "transactional" phenomenon in relation to Mondrian, referring to "the discoveries made in what appears to be a chance way when changes are made in the pictures. I can grasp and predict only a few of them—perhaps only the main consequences of altering the relationships of a painting."17
4. Piet Mondrian
Pier and Ocean , 1914
Charcoal and watercolor on paper, 34 5/8 x 44 (87.9 x 111.8)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Mrs. Simon
Diebenkorn's fascination with Mondrian led him a few years later to Mondrian's essays, published as Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art in 1947. But he could not subscribe to Mondrian's concept of "dynamic equilibrium," and he found the writings in general to be "dated, religious and naive; they never kept pace with Mondrian's paintings."18 These paintings, as Diebenkorn said decades later, were "not on his mind much" while he was painting in a figurative mode, but "more than any other artist [Mondrian] showed me the possibility of non-representational painting."19
Diebenkorn had a copy of the number 6 issue of Dyn magazine, which he had picked up shortly after it was published in 1944. Edited by Wolfgang Paalen, who at the time was based in Mexico City, Dyn was one of a handful of publications of the late 1930s and 1940s that facilitated the migration of European Surrealism and its many offshoots to North America. Each issue was lavish for its day, with high-quality reproductions and a sophisticated mix of European, Latin American, and North American contributors. The issue of Dyn that Diebenkorn studied, published in November 1944 andthe journal's final issue, included an article by Robert Motherwell titled "The Modern Painter's World." Examples of Motherwell's own work were illustrated, along with that of William Baziotes, Georges Braque (whose paintings Diebenkorn became well acquainted with at The Phillips Collection), William Stanley Hayter, Matta, Jackson Pollock, and David Smith. Diebenkorn later said about his attraction to this issue of Dyn: "It was these two [American artists], Mother-well and Baziotes. . . . They grabbed me. There was a new flavor, something I hadn't seen in French modernism, or in the Stieglitz American modern[s]. Something very fresh and compelling. . . . Within five years . . . it became Abstract Expressionism."20 From this moment, Diebenkorn began to rapidly assimilate the vanguard American art that would change forever the course of twentieth-century style.
5. Marine Jacket , 1943
Graphite on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 (27.9 x 21.6)
Collection of Gretchen and Richard Grant
Yet he was still involved in more traditional modes. He completed a number of small-scale drawings in 1943 and 1944, all of them "descriptive" (representational), which he later said established a habit that served him for a lifetime: owing to the constraints of life on a Marine base, he began to appreciate the virtues of drawing "as I go along," with the goal of "creating a visual description of an immediate and total impression."21 A pencil drawing done in 1943 (Fig. 5) resonated more than forty years later in a series of etchings inspired by the work of William Butler Yeats (Figs. 4750). Here Diebenkorn carefully depicted his own Marine uniform jacket on a hanger hooked over the top of a door. It is impossible, seeing this little drawing, not to sense its maker's prodigious powers to summon with ordinary means an extraordinarily replete "total impression."
At Quantico, Diebenkorn spent his days marking time. He had been "kicked out" of Officer Candidate School after a training exercise in which the platoon he led was supposed to capture an enemy position:I had my platoon be very careful, lay low, and I'm being very cautious about this thing, because I thought that it was probably booby-trapped. . . . Somebody sneaked in and tossed a grenade in and presumably blew up the thing, but . . . the position was taken very unspectacularly, and the sergeant was absolutely furious because I didn't show any Marine Corps spirit. . . . And then a week later I dropped my rifle at a parade in a ceremony where the commandant of the Marine Corps was present. And so I found myself kicked out.
The thing that bothered me the most was that I had been fitted for my officer's uniform. We all had gone to this tailor one day. And there were these marvelous short coats that the Marine Corps officers wore. They were camel's hair and . . . absolutely beautiful, a little short of the knee and really something. No enlisted man got close to one of those. . . . And I recall that this was my big sadness. 22
After his failure at OCS, Diebenkorn was transferred to the photographic section at Quantico, which was staffed primarily by Walt Disney animators who made maps and charts in a technically precise manner. He recalled that "Each big map wash I tried, there'd be a big bubble or blob in it every time and I just couldn't do that kind of thing. I would get fewer and fewer assignments, and finally I found myself with art materials and free time."23 Meanwhile, another outlet for precise draftsmanship opened up: "Around Christmas  I did a lot of drawings of a couple of officers and the sergeants. I did one drawing and so then they all wanted these drawings to send home for Christmas. . . . And so I did these very controlled, and I think pretty good portraits. I think they were kind of Holbein-derived."24
It was also during these months at Quantico, spurred by his stimulating experiences in the museums of Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, that Diebenkorn first experimented seriously with abstract painting, solely in the medium of watercolor. At this time, he seems to have been freely moving back and forth between representational and abstract modes, without the sense of mutual exclusivity he would subsequently come to feel.
In January 1945, Diebenkorn was transferred to Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. He recalled that "The photographic section there was kind of a boon-doggle. We made some training films. . . . And the next thing was my being transferred to the Hawaiian Islands, and presumably more training there, and then [we were supposed to be sent] to Japan. The idea, which kind of terrified me, was that there were to be three-man teams, a photographer, a writer, and a graphic artist. I'd be the graphic artist. The photographer carried his camera and pistol, and the writer I think carried a carbine and his writing pad, and the artist his art materials and pistol. . . . These teams were to be sent ahead of an invasion point and investigate the situation and send their report. . . . Their job was to bring back information about the forthcoming landing, and [also] to . . . make training films out of this material. . . . So that was looming in my future, and I have to admit when the news came and it came gradually—of the bomb, I looked at the whole bomb thing with immense relief."25
In the fall of 1945, just weeks after the US dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Diebenkorns and their five-month-old daughter, Gretchen, were reunited in Northern California, staying for a while with the artist's parents in Atherton. In January 1946, Diebenkorn enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts. The following semester he received the school's Albert Bender Grant of $1,500, allowing its recipient to travel and work independently for a year. It is a measure of Diebenkorn's precocity at CSFA that he was so immediately singled out in this way; and it is especially significant in light of the caliber of his teachers that year. The head of the school, Douglas MacAgy, and his wife, Jermayne, as well as Clay Spohn,John Grillo, Edward Corbett, and above all David Park, were individuals of unusual talent and sophistication.
With the Bender Grant money, the Diebenkorns decided to go to New York City. "Phyllis and I were going to live in New York," Diebenkorn said years later, "and New York was absolutely full and very expensive, and I guess I was at a small artists' party somewhere and I was saying . . . I had to go back home again because we had this rather little money that we wanted to last for a year, and we certainly couldn't make it. And [someone] said, 'Well, why not go up to Woodstock [New York]. The artists leave there in the winter, and there are lots of places to rent if you don't mind being snowbound.' So that's where we went."26
6. Untitled (Magician's Table) , 1947
Ink, gouache, and graphite on masonite, 14 1/2 x 15 (36.8 x 38.1)
The months in a small house/studio in Woodstock represented an intense period of both consolidation and experimentation for the artist. He characterized the interlude as one of "teaching myself to paint."27 It was one of the few moments in Diebenkorn's career when his work showed a keen awareness of Picasso, as in Advancer (194647) and Untitled (Magician s Table) (1947; Fig. 6). These works—quite small, as were all the drawings or panel paintings made in Woodstock—experiment with Cubist-like shifts in space and reflect a Surrealist-derived combination of shapes, shadows, and textures.
The Diebenkorns came to know three artists in particular in Woodstock—the sculptor Raoul Hague and the painters Mel Price and Judson Smith. During visits to New York City in that period, Diebenkorn sought out the works of Motherwell and Baziotes through the Sam Kootz Gallery. Kootz introduced him to Baziotes, who invited the Diebenkorns to dinner and showed them several pictures. Diebenkorn later said that seeing the work on that occasion was somewhat disappointing compared to the intense interest provoked by the illustrations in Dyn. He also made a point of meeting Bradley Walker Tomlin in New York.
The Diebenkorns returned to the Bay Area in the spring of 1947, and, with financial help from the artist'sfather, they purchased a small house in Sausalito. It was constructed in tiers, set on a steep hillside with views of the bay; a studio was set up in the attic. The Diebenkorns' son, Christopher, was born in August; the next month, Diebenkorn became a faculty member at the California School of Fine Arts. The ensuing three years, the so-called Sausalito period, proved to be the true beginning of the artist's maturation as an important abstract painter. His vital collegial relationships with a few fellow artists—primarily David Park and Elmer Bischoff, as well as Frank Lobdell, Edward Corbett, John Hultberg, Hassel Smith, James Budd Dixon, George Stillman, and Walter Kuhlman—were forged in these years.
During this time, Diebenkorn became intensely interested in jazz, spurred on by his art world friends, several of whom played together regularly—David Park on piano, Elmer Bischoff on trumpet, and Douglas MacAgy on drums—and listened to the new recordings and old remasterings that were beginning to be available. Phyllis Diebenkorn remembers recordings of performances by Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong; she also recalls that her husband and his colleagues much preferred the classic New Orleans-and Chicago-style music to the more progressive styles. (Diebenkorn amassed a respectable collection of early jazz LPs, which he valued highly. In the early 1950s, when the Sausalito house was leased while the family lived in New Mexico, they were stolen from the attic.) Inspired by his friends' jam sessions, Diebenkorn briefly took up the trombone, practicing diligently until the youthful next-door neighbors began mimicking his efforts with tinny-sounding toy horns. Once he had quit, he never again attempted to play a musical instrument.
Literature and criticism were as important as music to Diebenkorn and most of his artist friends during this era. By the late 1940s, one of the most creative and influential chapters in the history of American art and literary criticism had been written, primarily by New York intellectuals publishing in New York-based journals such as The Nation , Commentary , and Partisan Review , the last of which the Diebenkorns subscribed to and saved for several years. Diebenkorn, like his peers, found himself reading and discussing everything available by certain critics, especially Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Two of Greenberg's essays, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" (1939) and "Towards a Newer Laocovn" (1940), both originally written for Partisan Review , remained influential until well into the 1960s, injecting a note of almost feverish morality into the arena of high art making.
Greenberg, building on a Marxist view of bourgeois culture, argued that "kitsch" (most forms of popular art) was not only a manifestation of bad taste and laziness, but had dangerously demoralizing effects on culture, whether in a socialist or capitalist system. Greenberg propounded for vanguard art the notion of quality, but a quality that could only spring from formal purity, or a vigilant effort to strip painting of spatial or representational illusionism. This principle, which he continued to explicate in his writings after 1940, motivated an entire generation of postwar American painters and brought with it a sense of the ethical obligation attached to one's commitment as a serious artist. The ethics of artistic commitment became and remained deeply ingrained in Richard Diebenkorn's consciousness.
Yet Diebenkorn, although he later formed a cordial personal relationship with the critic, never became one of Greenberg's disciples. The orthodox purveyors of the Greenbergian dictates of flatness and the primacy of the material, among them Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, and Kenneth Noland, dutifully expunged from their canvases all vestiges of window-like pictorial space. Somewhat ironically, in each case, their work became more decorative than that of the great pioneer of Greenbergian "literalness," Jackson Pollock—and more decorative than that of Richard Diebenkorn.
Willem de Kooning never comfortably fit Greenberg's theoretical mold—though Greenberg rarely acknowledged him as anything other than an artist to be reckoned with. Eventually, Diebenkorn came to esteem de Kooning above all the other American painters of his time. Decades later, he remarked to Tony Berlant that he thought de Kooning "had it all, could outpaint anybody, at least until the mid-sixties, when he began to lose it."28
As important to the formation of Diebenkorn's creative conscience as the critical theories of Greenberg or the work of de Kooning was the example of David Park, an artist who for a time served as mentor, but soon became one of Diebenkorn's closest friends.
David Park was born in 1911 in Boston's Back Bay, the son of a prominent Unitarian minister. Rather than follow the typical course of a brilliant youth from a solidly upper-middle-class New England family by continuing his education at an Ivy League college, Park, at age seventeen, enrolled at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. After only a year at that small and vocationally oriented school, Park moved to Berkeley to become a professional artist.
In 1934, like many American artists, Park became affiliated with the Work Projects Administration. For a few years in the late thirties he worked in a style related to the ascendant Social Realism of the time. But eventually he rejected the fashionable dictum that only large-scale, public art was truly the proper pursuit of conscientious and advanced artists and returned to painting. "Contrary to my colleagues," he said in 1935, "I don't think easel painting is doomed. In the long run art is not functional, at least in our society. . . . I do know that the isolated picture in its frame on the wall is as fitting to our day as any medium of artistic expression."29
In 1941, after spending five years in the Boston area, Park resettled in Berkeley, taking up teaching stints at the Oakland Art Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the California School of Fine Arts. The latter had been revitalized in 1945 by the hiring of the gifted Canadian art historian and administrator Douglas MacAgy. (Jermayne MacAgy also made a significant impact on Bay Area art in her position as curator at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.) One of MacAgy's first acts as director of CSFA was to take a sheet and cover the populist Diego Rivera mural that had been painted at the school in the 1930s. He proceeded to recruit a high-powered faculty, including Park himself as well as Hassel Smith and the highly gifted Elmer Bischoff—and most famously, in 1946, Clyfford Still and, for summer sessions, Mark Rothko.
Park immediately gravitated to the student Richard Diebenkorn. Even before Diebenkorn returned as a more mature artist from Woodstock, the two were becoming friends who tirelessly discussed current art. The student seems to have established an equal intellectual footing with the teacher. According to Richard Armstrong, "It was Diebenkorn who reinforced Park's enthusiasm for the work of Robert Motherwell, which Park had seen in the spring of 1946 at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Park seems to have begun his first non-objective paintings sometime late that year."30
In fact, almost every advanced Bay Area artist of the period, except those involved with the defiant messages of the embryonic Beat culture, was embracing the new abstraction. Park was led to it in part by the radically non-objective paintings of Clyfford Still, who had his first one-artist show at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1947. Nevertheless, Park struggled with the idea that advanced painting had to mean abstract painting. In 1949, after a couple of years' earnest labor, he not only renounced abstract painting, but destroyed the entire body of work he had made in that mode.
Diebenkorn recalled that when he returned to CSFA from Woodstock in the spring of 1947, "Things had really happened at the school. Clyfford Still had come. . . . It had become predominantly G.I. Bill. . . .
Things just got turned over and the place became much more active and Abstract Expressionism caught on. Park was a little bit left out at that point, because the G.I. Bill people were rebellious and set to turn things over, and didn't paint where they were supposed to paint in the school. They were painting out in the halls and somebody was making tar effigies out behind the school, and it was pretty chaotic."31
7. Mark Rothko
Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea , 1944
Oil on canvas, 75 3/8 x 84 3/4 (191.5 x 215.3)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Bequest of Mrs. Mark
Rothko through The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc.
Diebenkorn and Park continued to have analytical conversations about art in general and their respective painting, especially during the late 1940s. One senses that it was Park's famous morality as a painter, rather than his equally notable intellectuality, that was being passed on to the younger man. Yet Diebenkorn stopped short of some of Park's (and perhaps Greenberg's) extremes in equating the act of painting per se with a sort of ethical imperative. He remarked many years later that "Park encouraged heavy pigment as a proper use of oil paint. He was devoted to impasto and identified it with the morality of the artists. He didn't like thin paint, saying it 'reminded him of piss,' meaning it was trivial and showed a lack of commitment. He had an overdose of New England morality."32
Park espoused many unfashionable views about the new Abstract Expressionism. Unlike many of his colleagues in the Bay Area (including Frank Lobdell, Ernest Briggs, and Edward Dugmore) Park, though temporarily affected by Clyfford Still, never fell entirely under Clyfford Still's sway. Still expected a humble and even worshipful attitude from his students, many of whom seem to have succumbed unhesitatingly to his domination. His notorious grandiosity of manner, combined with a fanatical puritanism, must have struck Park and Diebenkorn, both of whom were inveterately unpretentious, or at least unshowmanlike, as hard to take. Moreover, David Park dared to question not only Still's airily metaphysical rhetoric, but also the hortatory writings of the New York intellectuals, who increasingly preached the Doctrine of Action Painting. Park distrusted what he perceived as the"egocentrism" he felt was implicit in Abstract Expressionism.33
Diebenkorn, despite temperamental differences, was nevertheless interested enough in the eccentric Clyfford Still to invite him to his studio. He and Phyllis arranged for Still to come to lunch. While Phyllis prepared the meal, the two artists climbed to the attic and spent half an hour or so looking at work; then, descending the stairs, Still gestured to a seemingly finished painting hanging on the wall and commented that he thought it was one of Diebenkorn's stronger works. Diebenkorn replied that he had come to have serious doubts about its palette, and was thinking of reworking it. Whereupon Still continued down the stairs, took his coat, and left without saying another word.34
Diebenkorn met Mark Rothko at CSFA during the summer of 1947. Rothko's Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea (Fig. 7) was on view at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1946; both Diebenkorn and Park saw the picture many times, and were excited by it. Slow Swirl straddles a tenuous line between flatness and the depiction of a prosceniumlike space; its curvilinear, seemingly rotating, elements are counterpoised with spiky lineation, and, as Diebenkorn would do again and again, it establishes strong horizontal segments that anchor the powerful surging rhythms that are its primary subject. Diebenkorn's habit of ordering his compositions in the banded or hierarchic manner he always identified with the Bayeux Tapestries is incipiently evident in this Rothko. And of course Rothko himself in his later abstract painting developed a vocabulary involving horizontal banding, albeit in a markedly different spirit from that of Diebenkorn. Diebenkorn remembers helping Rothko hang an exhibition of his work at the school, probably during the summer of 1947 while Rothko was teaching there (he returned in the summer of 1949), but the two men never developed more than a collegial relationship.35
The period Diebenkorn spent living in Sausalito and studying and teaching at CSFA, brief as it was, marked a critical step in his maturation as an abstract painter. Gradually his scale increased, though it stopped well short of the monumentality he later achieved. And it was at this moment that Diebenkorn suddenly broke through to a commanding grasp of the canvas as a field that was continuously in play from edge to edge, rather than being organized in terms of figure-ground relationships. The 1949 Untitled (Sausalito) (Fig. 8) marks a point of entry into the ambiguous and at the same time firmly articulated spatial approach that the artist evolved in variant directions for the rest of his first abstract period. In its extreme verticality, it also embodies the artist's occasional urge to explore offbeat sizes and formats, a tendency that gradually abated, disappearing altogether by the time of the Ocean Park paintings.
Diebenkorn's art always mirrored the tenor of the environment in which he worked, both physically and emotionally. The paintings from this period are characterized by vivid reds and ochers, with a judicious use of blacks, used mostly to accent or delineate. Moreover, Diebenkorn was already employing unusually multifarious gradations of a single hue even in quite small canvases. The grassy, oak-strewn hillsides of Berkeley and Sausalito, and the contrast among earth, water, and sky, do not appear as literally as they would later, but the intensity of Northern California light and its high-pitched urban color is clearly present.
However, Diebenkorn's palette and other formal devices also owe much to the work of his peers. The Sausalito paintings patently reflect the atmosphere of other art , in a way that would rarely again occur in Diebenkorn's career. One simply cannot escape the fact that David Park, Hassel Smith, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko all relied heavily on blacks, reds, and ochers in their own work during the late 1940s. As for the question of drawing, in the best of the Sausalito works one detects the seeds of Diebenkorn's distinctive brand of
8. Untitled (Sausalito) , 1949
Oil on canvas, 54 x 31 1/2 (137.2 x 80)
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Gifford Phillips
9. Untitled (Sausalito) , 1949
Oil, gouache, and ink on paper, 22 1/8 x 17 3/4 (56.2 x 45.1)
Private collectioncalligraphic line. Like so many of his fellow American abstract painters, Diebenkorn was plainly looking hard at Willem de Kooning's brilliant juxtapositions of boldly fluid and hesitant, spidery lines, which often demarcate broad, interlocking color areas. He was also looking carefully at Krazy Kat cartoons, an interest Elmer Bischoff characterized as part of Diebenkorn's "cultivating a deliberate awkwardness."36 Until the last few years of his life, Diebenkorn would periodically go out of his way to subvert his own graphic facility by inventing ways to appear awkward—occasionally even clumsy—in his painted locutions.
As gauges of Diebenkorn's unique predilections and talents, the drawings of this period are more telling than the paintings (Fig. 9). It was already evident that Diebenkorn had an almost preternatural "wrist": the sheer inventiveness and variety of linear effect he could achieve, seemingly without effort, could be attributed to a Surrealist-inspired automatism, or to the spirit of uncensored abandon that lay at the heart of the Beat generation aesthetic. Diebenkorn, however, never shared in the openly subversive Beat ethos, even though he was living in its birthplace and breathing its atmosphere. As he would demonstrate again and again, whatever came too easily—whatever was too readily admired, or too faddish, or too cultish—was not for him. Both his high artistic seriousness and his capacity for clear-eyed self-examination confined him to an excruciatingly narrow path whose precursory travelers were, for him, few and firmly identified.
Diebenkorn taught at the California School of Fine Arts until the end of 1949. It seems to have taken less than two years in the heated and paradoxically doctrinaire environment of the school before he began to chafe at its constraints: "I could sort of sense that it wasn't long for me. . . . There was a sense that certain things were acceptable, certain things were out, and it was like there was a way. You in some sense toed a line, and this bugged me a little bit. I wanted to get away and look at it by myself and do my own assimilation."37 So ready was Diebenkorn to leave the Bay Area that he didn't even wait a few weeks to see his work exhibited with that of Hassel Smith at the Lucien Labaudt Gallery in 1950.
Taking advantage of his GI Bill eligibility, Diebenkorn enrolled as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico (even though he hadn't technically graduated from Stanford owing to his wartime service, he was granted a bachelor's degree based on credits at Berkeley and CSFA). In January 1950, he and Phyllis, with the two children, headed for Albuquerque. "I didn't know who was there. I had no idea. I knew I wanted New Mexico. Phyllis and I arrived at the Hand Motel on the outskirts of town, and—oh boy!—was that a hairy place. . . . [But] things really started to come together for me there. It was a very good situation for me, because there was none of this fear of painting. . . . It was a pretty cut and dried art school. People did proper still lifes, etc. . . . And to make a long story short, they gave me a studio, a quonset hut. . . . I was almost never at the art department. The instructors would come to the quonset hut maybe once or twice in three months."38
During their time in Albuquerque, Phyllis completed her college education at the University of New Mexico, graduating as a psychology major in 1952; for the last year, she was a teaching assistant. Diebenkorn established the working patterns he would adhere to for the rest of his life, spending long hours alone in his studio during the day and often returning there after dinner. However, perhaps to balance the self-enforced solitude, the artist made a few new friends and cultivated some of the old ones. He got to know and respect the painter Raymond Jonson, who became a member of Diebenkorn's master's thesis committee. The sculptor Paul Harris, who became a close friend, was a fellow graduate student at the university; and the writer Kenneth Lash entered Diebenkorn's life when Diebenkorn signed up for Lash's classes in creative writing and contemporary poetry. Lash subsequently became head of the San Francisco Art Institute (formerly CSFA) humanities department, and the two remained good friends until Lash died in 1985.
Another relationship that ripened during the Albuquerque years was that with the painter Edward Corbett, who had been a fellow faculty member at CSFA, and, on being dismissed from the school in early 1950, came to visit the Diebenkorns and subsequently settled in Taos, New Mexico. "When Ed Corbett moved there," Diebenkorn recounted later, "we went fishing and he took us into the famous mountains and the Taos area. . . . I had been right along interested in the [Southwest Indian] rugs. But the folklore is something that's easy for me to procrastinate. I tell myself I'm very interested and it doesn't prove out that way, really. We never, the whole two-and-a-half years Phyllis and I were in Albuquerque, went to an Indian dance. We were always about to."39 If Diebenkorn resisted some of the attractions New Mexico offered, he nevertheless thrived in an atmosphere of freedom and expansiveness that he had lost in the Bay Area. Years later, he mentioned the anxiety he and Phyllis had felt when they first settled on the outskirts of Albuquerque: "We both had thought that we couldn't really live away from the water, and sea, for too long. That was our apprehension when we moved there. And, well, the sky took the place of the ocean."40
Corbett's painting of the time, like Diebenkorn's, seemed to take direct inspiration from New Mexico's high desert light and the shapes and hues of its landscape. Certainly his style was markedly different from the more "radical" abstraction that was being attempted by Still and Rothko, or by such New York painters as Barnett Newman. Apparently, the question of choosing between abstract and representational vocabularies—or, at least, the admissibility of allowing "nature" to dictate form—was emerging as a vital issue among the Diebenkorns and a few of their painter friends. Corbett discussed with them the revolutionary upheavals at CSFA, recounting in a highly opinionated manner David Park's inexplicable repudiation of abstraction. Diebenkorn quoted Corbett as saying to him, "You know what Park is doing? He's doing these kids on bikes!"41 Although Diebenkorn remained loyal to Park—whatever Park was doing, he said, it was "something really quite radical at the time"42 —in 1950 he was himself firmly propelled in the direction of abstraction.
Each time Diebenkorn relocated, his work changed drastically to reflect his new environment. In the Southwest, his palette immediately shifted from deep reds, blacks, and ochers to a severely chastened range of whites, grays, pale yellows, and bleached pinks. The infinitely nuanced earth tones and topographic anomalies of New Mexico's landscape began to pour into his paintings and drawings. During his first year in Albuquerque, when the family lived in a ranch caretaker's house, Diebenkorn made some humorous drawings inspired by farm animals; he also constructed what, to judge from photographs, seem to be some remarkably successful scrap-metal sculptures. All this would suggest that he was experimenting with the representation of objects. But the structure of the quasi-literal depictions of cows or pigs soon was transposed into such clearly abstract paintings as Untitled "M" or Miller 22 (1951; Figs. 10, 68).
More fundamentally, Diebenkorn was solidifying an essentially abstract mode that took much of its structural and chromatic impetus from landscape—though rarely in a literal or monolithic sense. Some of the earlier Albuquerque paintings, such as Untitled "M" or Albuquerque No. 3 (Fig. 65), seem to operate on two spatial levels: they can be read as walls (adobe walls?) on whose surfaces the artist placed a web of obscurely significant symbols; or, conversely, their surfaces can be imagined as macrocosmic fields, whose forms are like organisms that have created themselves through a process of cellular growth. And in some of the most important Albuquerque paintings it is difficult to seelandscape at all. Albuquerque No. 4 (Fig. 11) incorporates at least two symbols or insignia associated with heraldry, the black cross pattie near the top and the distinctive red-outlined oval emblem below. These and the bold emblematic elements at the bottom of the canvas bring the composition sharply forward and introduce odd interruptions into its overall chromatic and compositional abstractness. In the sheer eccentricity of its palette, with manufactured juxtapositions of hues deliberately counteracting any association with natural landscape colors, Albuquerque No. 4 is an early example of the shifts and surprises Diebenkorn produced periodically throughout his career.
10. Untitled "M" , 1951
Oil on canvas, 43 x 52 7/8 (109.2 x 134.3)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Gift of Rena Bransten in
memory of Mason Wells
Several of the techniques used in the Albuquerque paintings remained with Diebenkorn. For instance, he began to use charcoal not only as a drawing-on-paper medium, but as an element in his full-scale oils on canvas. The textural and tonal qualities of charcoal—of a half-erased charcoal passage or line—had a tangible effect on the painting. Not that the finished surfaces necessarily bore the traces of graphite or charcoal: the Albuquerque paintings often show black and gray paint laid down in a charcoal-like manner. Even more assertively, Diebenkorn began to wrestle with the always tricky use of white, or near-white, both with confidently deployed pigment (Untitled "M" ) and by aggressively composing with blank canvas (Albuquerque No. 9 ; Fig. 73).
In the spring of 1951, about a year and a half after settling in Albuquerque, Diebenkorn's work was shown at the University Art Museum as the successful culmination of his work toward the MFA. The occasion also marked the artist's triumphant emergence as one of the finest abstract painters of his generation. That summer, Miller 22 was included in the Los Angeles County Museum's exhibition "Contemporary Painting in the United States."
At the time of his master's exhibition, Diebenkorn traveled to San Francisco to see an Arshile Gorky show
11. Albuquerque No. 4 , 1951
Oil on canvas, 50 1/4 x 45 1/4 (127.6 x 114.9)
The Saint Louis Art Museum; Gift of Joseph Pulitzer, Jr.
organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and subsequently presented at the San Francisco Museum of Art. That journey turned out to be pivotal for two reasons. First, the exposure to Gorky's paintings and drawings seems to have produced an immediate reverberation in Diebenkorn's work. The small, staccato-li ke black shapes and expressively gradated lineation in a painting such as Untitled "M" suggest that Diebenkorn had already been looking at Gorky (as well as Mirs). But after seeing the Gorky exhibition, the Armenian artist's characteristic use of broad, forceful linearity became discernibly evident in Diebenkorn's work, lasting well into the later Urbana period and beyond. The "second period" paintings done at Albuquerque diverged from the landscape palette, becoming at the same time more polymorphous and more arbitrary in color. In these later Albuquerque works, structural relationships emerge from an internally derived, rather than landscape-inspired, set of forms. They are, in short, more obviously invented in a trial-and-error process and less determined by naturalistic phenomena. It is not improbable to ascribe this quality to Gorky's authoritative "neo-Surrealist" vocabulary, which often seems paradoxically embedded in observation and imagination.
12. Lower Colorado No. 2 , 1970
Acrylic and pasted paper on paper, 25 1/8 x 18 3/4 (63.8 x 47.6)
Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Denver
13. Lower Colorado No. 6 , 1970
Acrylic and pasted paper on paper, 26 1/4 x 17 3/4 (66.7 x 45.1)
Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Denver
At least as important as Gorky's example for the gradual shift in Diebenkorn's work was a visual phenomenon the artist observed while flying between Albuquerque and San Francisco. Crossing the desert at relatively low altitudes in a propeller-driven aircraft, Diebenkorn suddenly experienced the topography below in a sort of epiphanic enlightenment. Something about the possibility of seeing spatial organization as a pattern created incrementally and macro-organized by the high vantage suggested a new set of possibilities. Both Albuquerque No. 3 and Albuquerque No. 4 , different as they are from each other, reflect the artist's recent observation of the earth's surface from several thousand feet above the Southwestern United States. (This fascination with aerially viewed landscape stayedwith Diebenkorn and continued to inform his work. In 1970 he accepted an invitation from the Department of the Interior to accompany technicians documenting a water-reclamation project at Salt River Canyon, Arizona. The series of drawings he completed [Figs. 12, 13] display with exceptional frankness his methods for incorporating aerial perspective in the development of painterly composition.)
In June 1952 Diebenkorn, ready to close the New Mexico chapter, accepted a teaching position at the University of Illinois at Urbana. During the summer interval, he and his family stayed with Phyllis Diebenkorn's parents at their ranch in Southern California's Pomona Valley. In those months, he saw the great Matisse retrospective organized by The Museum of Modern Art and shown at the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery, which included eight paintings from Matisse's so-called heroic period (c. 191418). He revisited Matisse's 1916 Piano Lesson and remembers being especially struck by Woman on a High Stool and Goldfish (1916).
During that summer, Diebenkorn met with Paul Kantor, a Los Angeles dealer of modern and contemporary art in Los Angeles whose gallery would become one of the most important commercial venues on the West Coast through the seventies. Kantor arranged to present a show of Diebenkorn's work in the late fall of 1952.43
In September, the family settled in Urbana, and Diebenkorn recollected that
I had positive responses to this real mid-America college town, with elms and its kind of gem|tlich social thing. We lived in Urbana, not Champaign, in a house like anybody else on the faculty, in one of those houses on those midwest streets, and we had a professor [Stanley Fletcher] in the music department living next door. There was a strong music program, so twice a week we'd go to concerts. . . . And through the Fletchers we met a man who was in the physics department, and his wife, who was a painter. The name was Quastler. . . . [They were] significant people in our lives. Gertrude was . . . I think if I hadn't known her so well and loved her so, I might have dismissed her work as being a little craftsy, a little bit decorative. But it was also very knowing and elegant. . . . He was one of these people who is very important in his profession and his discipline, and yet extremely quiet, shy, retiring—absolutely low profile. He actually was a famous physicist, and he wrote a book called Information Theory. He presented it to me with a little inscription. I couldn't read the first paragraph. 44
Diebenkorn seems to have been less than satisfied with his teaching at the University of Illinois: "I found myself teaching drawing and painting to architects. . . . It was a losing game because I began finding if I would encourage this other [non-architectural drawing] thing in the drawing, . . . then [other faculty and I] would have to sit in these grading sessions, chopping these people. I'd find the people I'd pushed in a certain way, I was pushing from a C to a D, and that was very bad of me."45 (Neverthless, true to his pattern, at least one student at Urbana, the painter Don Weigand, became a friend with whom Diebenkorn never lost touch.)
One of the first major paintings completed at Urbana was Urbana No. 2 (The Archer) (Fig. 14). This painting is singular in Diebenkorn's production in its ambiguous, or obfuscatory, blending of abstraction and representation. It is one of the first of his large-scale paintings to employ black, blue, and dark green as primary hues, and is probably the only painting that unmistakably recalls Franz Kline's signature handling of rugged black line against white grounds. (The palette is also reminiscent of Kline.) But even more important are Urbana No. 2 (The Archer) 's peculiar traits of tangled clumsiness and almost violent undertone. Figure and ground in both senses—protagonist against background and abstract spatial dualism—are the subject of the picture. The passages deployed against white focus areas of psychological action or
14. Urbana No. 2 (The Archer) , 1953
Oil on canvas, 64 1/2 x 47 1/2 (163.8 x 120.7)
Private collectiontension; the blue and green passages establish both gravity and landscape references. Only the title clarifies the subject: a figure, seated in left profile, sights along an unreleased arrow to the fulcrum of the flexed bow that is drawn back with a curving, upraised arm. The archer's sight line is triangulated with heavy, ruled strokes; red paint spatters its trajectory. The arced bow crosses the boundary between "action-figure" and "background" areas, thrusting the scene into a unified space.
15. Albuquerque No. 20 , 1952
Oil on canvas, 54 1/2 x 57 (138.4 x 144.8)
Collection of Byron R. Meyer
Diebenkorn described Urbana No. 2 (The Archer) as "the only painting [of the period] that was intentionally representational. . . . In Urbana the color things kind of came forth. In Albuquerque [my color] was subdued, austere, black, gray and white. . . . [The Urbana color] is something that a very different kind of environment produced"46 According to Maurice Tuchman, Diebenkorn told him in 1975 that the work was inspired by a color reproduction of a cave painting from Altamira. The artist spoke of "a kind of tension that would involve a large flex," a sense that "potentially, something was to happen," and the attraction of "something that spring[s], a cocking apparatus, armlike fulcrum mechanisms."47 A similar visceral feeling, of the "tension of something about to happen," recurs years later in some of Diebenkorn's earlier Ocean Park paintings, and then—with the important exception of some of the later so-called clubs-and-spades works on paper—seems to be almost wholly subjugated to a higher, ordered calm. Although this sense of painterly stress, or of flexings across the field of the canvas, gradually became so subdued as to be barely felt, it never entirely disappeared in Diebenkorn's work.
From late 1951 through about 1954, Diebenkorn's abstract style became more structurally complex and chromatically diverse; he seemed to alternate between works apparently grounded in landscape structure and those that introduced audaciously gratuitous formal and tonal elements. For the most part, the artist eschewed directly representational references, but therewere exceptions, such as Urbana No. 2 (The Archer) , which exemplifies his occasional willingness to use both literary and object-referent imagery in the midst of a single-minded exploration of abstract form and color. But neither this painting nor any others in Diebenkorn's early abstract period can be said to partake of the self-consciously mythologizing tendency of Abstract Expressionism, or the "Moby Dickism" associated with such painters as Pollock, Newman, and Rothko. Indeed, Diebenkorn seems to have deliberately avoided a self-heroizing mode. He never saw the act of painting itself as theater, even in the metaphorical sense encouraged by critics such as Harold Rosenberg; the "one-shot" painting would have been inconceivable to him. The scale of his pictures never overran his own physical extension; and certainly he shied away from titling his paintings with literary allusions, as so many of the New York School painters did. In this striving for modesty, Diebenkorn was consciously reining in his own nature. Among his studio notes is a scrap of paper on which he wrote: "I seem to have to do it elaborately wrong and with many conceits first. Then maybe I can attack and deflate my pomposity and arrive at something straight and simple."48
In the major Urbana-period paintings, Diebenkorn both elaborated and refined the abstract vocabulary worked out in Albuquerque. As usual, the atmosphere and chroma of his environment find their way into the work: some of the Urbana pictures use blacks to an extent that is new, reflecting both the winter darkness and the industrial nature of the Midwest (Fig. 74). A few of the Urbana pictures seem to express gravitational flow in a sort of scaffolded organization of space, as though their elements were being supported by crosspieces (Figs. 75, 76). Diebenkorn made a large number of works on paper at Urbana, gradually strengthening the density both of lineation and of internal structure. A few of them, such as Untitled (Urbana) , experiment with a new, exhilaratingly high-pitched palette. Indeed, the changes that would emerge in Diebenkorn's work following the Urbana period are heralded more conclusively in the drawings than in the paintings.
In the summer of 1953, the Diebenkorns decided to give New York another try. It must have made sense to Richard Diebenkorn, whose acclaim was growing by the day, to settle in the center of the action. By the middle of June, the Diebenkorns (without their children, who were with Phyllis' parents in Southern California) were settled in a primitive—and illegal—apartment-studio above an Automat on East 10th Street, near their acquaintance Franz Kline. They reestablished contact with John Hultberg, Ray Parker, and John Grillo, whom they had known in California, and met a number of other artists, critics, and dealers. They socialized frequently and got to know the gallery scene. But it was an oppressively hot season, their financial footing was precarious, and no teaching job was in the offing. The New York foray had in fact started inauspiciously: the first morning after they arrived, Diebenkorn found that their automobile had been broken into and some of their belongings—including a typewriter—stolen. After three months, he made an on-the-spot and irrevocable decision to return to California.
By September 1953, the family was once again back in the Bay Area. Phyllis Diebenkorn decided to attend graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, drawn by its distinguished psychology faculty. So the family settled in Berkeley rather than Sausalito or San Francisco, first renting a railroad-style apartment with Diebenkorn's studio in the center. (While the painter was in the studio, which was most of the time, other family members got from bedroom to kitchen or living room by going outside; a year later the Diebenkorns moved half a block away to a rented house.)
Since it was too late to arrange for an immediate teaching position, Diebenkorn turned his complete attention to painting and drawing. Gradually, theBerkeley light and hilly landscape were incorporated into his work; but a markedly different series of ideas was developing at the same time. At first, Diebenkorn seems to have reverted back to his Albuquerque style; Berkeley No. 3 (Fig. 78) summons the composition and drawing style of some of the desert-inspired works, almost as though the intervening darker and more muscular pictures had never been executed. But soon a gamut of new chromatic moods and compositional devices began to appear; at least one of the important early Berkeley pictures, Berkeley No. 8 , is decidedly not a reference to outdoor space, but seems closer to an imaginary still life. Here, objectlike shapes are compressed into a confining space at the lower part of the canvas, as though piled on a table; the upper space suggests an ambiguous realm somewhere between a dark wall and a nighttime sky.
By 1955, Diebenkorn had thoroughly solidified everything he had learned about abstract painting and was extending his knowledge in a number of directions. In this period, which the artist himself later termed "explosive," he seemed capable both of new invention and sustained virtuosity. One of the patterns that had emerged embryonically in Albuquerque and Urbana was a tendency every once in a while to produce a peculiarly brooding and expressly uningratiating picture. But these earlier "dark" paintings, such as Albuquerque No. 20 (Fig. 15) were generally duskier in palette than in mood, remaining consonant with the other paintings of the same time. Now, in this more mature phase, Diebenkorn was suddenly able to create a work such as Berkeley No. 36 (Fig. 16), which not only contrasts starkly with others of its moment—such as the rich and lyrical Berkeley No. 32 and Berkeley No. 38 (Figs. 84, 85)—but in its own right is a work of extraordinary emotional depth. One can only characterize Berkeley No. 36 as a profound painting. Its mystery is as much in its unyielding physical opacity as in its incontrovertibly spiritual quality. It is as though its creator were willfully denying his own highly evolved decorative skills in the name of making an entirely different kind of object. This is one of several somber, opaque, and inward works Diebenkorn created at intervals in his career, each one anomalous in relation to other contemporaneous works and in relation to one another.
Diebenkorn's fellow artists plainly recognized the powerful force that was suddenly in their midst. Recalling Diebenkorn's work of this era, Bay Area painter and sculptor Manuel Neri later commented, "God damn it, it was pretty strong stuff. It was a type of painting we hadn't seen on the West Coast before. Diebenkorn had a wildness—not the controlled wildness of Hassel Smith but an out-of-control feeling. Those were urgent times, wild times. He brought us a new language to talk in."49
Diebenkorn resumed his close relationships with David Park and Elmer Bischoff, both of whom were by now figure painters—Park since 1950, Bischoff since 1952. The three of them began to get together for weekly (usually Wednesday-night) sessions, meeting in one another's studios, sharing models' fees and drawing from life. Park's stubborn puritanism hadn't softened in the intervening years, and it would hardly be surprising if he conveyed some ambivalence in the face of Diebenkorn's brilliance as an abstract painter, which never compromised his great facility in drawing from the nude. Park judged the younger artist's new paintings " performances" or "improvisations," and he apparently criticized Diebenkorn slightly for his worldly success, which was taking the form of increasing national recognition. In 1954, the young painter showed again at the Paul Kantor Gallery in Los Angeles, as well as with the Allan Frumkin Gallery in Chicago, and was included in the Guggenheim Museum's "Younger American Painters" exhibition, which traveled to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Diebenkorn indicated to Gerald Nordland that "Park looked upon success as being received in response to an individual's need, implying that to be successful was somehow a weakness and irrelevant to the practice of serious art."50
Not that the Diebenkorns enjoyed much financial
16. Berkeley No. 36 , 1955
Oil on canvas, 73 1/2 x 71 (186.7 x 180.3)
Collection of Thomas W. Weisel
17. Berkeley No. 66 , 1956
Oil on canvas, 41 1/4 x 36 1/4 (104.8 x 92.1)
Collection of Elizabeth and L.J. Cellaremuneration when they returned to the Bay Area. Shortly after moving into their rented house in Berkeley, the artist was about to take up taxicab driving when he learned that he had been awarded the Abraham Rosenberg Traveling Fellowship for the Advanced Study in Art, which, like the Bender Grant in 1946, was designed to enable artists to pursue their work full-time for a year.
The era of the Berkeley abstractions was an immensely vital time in Diebenkorn's creative life. He remembers that in 1954 he formed a habit he would continue for many years, that of listening to music in his studio and using it to focus his work. He became impressively knowledgeable about certain composers and the various interpretations of their work, gravitating to different ones at different times. "1954 was really a pretty exciting time," he said. "In the evenings I listened to lots and lots of music, mostly Mozart. And I felt that music was feeding right into the work. It was nothing I tried to push. Curiously there hadn't been that much recorded. There were a few of the big symphonies and maybe three of the late concertos, and one could hear sonatas, but we were starting to get recordings from Europe so there was much more to hear all of a sudden, where Mozart was concerned."51
The year 1956 was one of the most seminal and prolific of the artist's life. That summer Diebenkorn began to paint in a studio he built in the backyard of a house in Berkeley, which he and Phyllis had bought in late 1955. There he completed a stunning body of work that would be shown and enthusiastically received at the Poindexter Gallery in New York in the fall of 1956. By this time, Diebenkorn had thoroughly mastered the painterly lexicon he had begun to develop in Albuquerque in 1950. It had evolved into a heroic style, capable of producing such chromatic tours de force as Berkeley No. 54 , Berkeley No. 57 , and Berkeley No. 66 (Figs. 87, 88, 17), whose distinctive palette established their author as among the most intrepid colorists of the time. Moreover, in their ever-inventive compositional structures, which support passages of bravura brushwork, the later Berkeley pictures rival the highest achievements of classic Abstract Expressionist painting.
Like most of his peers, Diebenkorn during the early 1950s resented, or at least resisted, the description of his work as being anything but "purely abstract." He especially disliked having critics equate his paintings with landscape-derived structure. In notes written in 1955, he said, "What I paint often seems to pertain to landscape but I try to avoid any rationalization of this either in my painting or in later thinking about it. I'm not a landscape painter (at this time, at any rate) or I would paint landscape directly" (italics added).52
Yet, ironically, by the year this was written, Diebenkorn had in fact begun to question the abstract style, or styles, he had so patently mastered. Not only was he finding the work of the so-called second-generation Abstract Expressionist painters inadequate, but he was seriously wondering about his own direction. In an often-quoted statement, he articulated this doubt to Paul Mills in 1957: "I came to mistrust my desire to explode the picture and supercharge it in some way. At one time the common device of using the super emotional to get 'in gear' with a painting used to serve me for access to painting, but I mistrust that now. I think what is more important is a feeling of strength in reserve—tension beneath calm."53
Diebenkorn was here questioning the facile dynamism and gesturalism he had been developing since 1948. Whereas some of the painters who adopted an especially active form of Abstract Expressionism, such as de Kooning, Kline, Sam Francis, and Joan Mitchell, were able to sustain it for many years, Diebenkorn could not, or did not want to. One signal of his dissatisfaction with gesturalism for its own sake is that, as noted, he periodically made pictures during his early abstract period that are essentially static or meditative. But the relatively simple solution of toning down his painterly dynamics did not seem workable to Diebenkorn. By the mid-1950s, he was proving himself temperamentally closer to Cizanne, Mondrian, and Matisse than to Picasso, Gorky, and Pollock, even though every "tough" and "serious" painter of the day was being practically bullied by certain critics and artists to tackle the heroical, self-mythologizing imperatives established by the latter three figures. The intensity of the pressure must have created a sense of crisis in Diebenkorn. Though he never precisely acknowledged experiencing "existential doubt" over the issue, his actions testify to the magnitude of his misgivings.
One day at the end of 1955, as he describes it, "I went outside, and I know the impetus for the first [representational painting] was landscape [rather than still life]. Essentially what I did was what I had done at Stanford, get in the car and go out and look for something that might make a good painting."54 That little cityscape, called Chabot Valley (Fig. 18), measures only 19 1/2 by 18 3/4 inches, but is crisply structured and chromatically deft. From that moment, Diebenkorn never turned back: "After doing this landscape—and this all probably happened in a week—the landscape and several still lifes—I approached a big canvas with a figure."55
Painting representationally required Diebenkorn to thoroughly reassess his approach. For one thing, quick or bold gesture across the canvas surface became more and more useless. And a different kind of observation was needed. The lifelong habit Diebenkorn had developed of working in a trial-and-error manner, correcting as he went along, erasing, painting over, scraping and layering, took on a new dimension when he was composing carefully locked-together compositions depicting either constructed cityscapes or objects and figures in interior space.
Partly as a result of these new exigencies and partly because he was feeling the isolation of working at home, in 1958 Diebenkorn decided to look for a new studio. He found a space behind a popular working-class bar in a peculiar, triangle-shaped industrial building in Oakland, close to the Berkeley city limits. It was a large, irregular parallelogram space with a door capacious enough for whatever he needed to bring in and out. This door, with its transom windows, as well as the studio's checkered linoleum floor and corner sink, are depicted in a number of his paintings (Figs. 117, 121, 131). Diebenkorn would work at the Triangle Building studio until moving to Southern California nearly a decade later. It was here that most of his representational paintings were executed, and he always considered it one of his best working environments.
During his figurative period, Diebenkorn forged new working methods and entered new conceptual territory. His approach, different in some respects from his earlier, abstract episode, was also markedly different from that of other figurative painters. For one thing, he almost never worked directly from drawings or studies in composing paintings. The activity of drawing was at every turn indispensable to his painting, but not because he produced studies or sketches. In his process of invention, drawing and painting were almost always parallel endeavors. Although it was not unusual for drawings to suggest ideas for paintings, major alterations usually occurred in the process of transposition. One rarely finds a drawing relating so literally to a painting that the two works are causally related. (There are a few interesting exceptions, notably Nude on Blue Ground of 1966 [Figs. 28, 29] and Seated Figure with Hat of 1967 [Figs. 145, 146]. Yet even here, one doesn't sense that the sketches were truly preparatory, or made as guidelines for the large works, because only one sketch exists in each case. It is more likely that Diebenkorn remembered the drawings, and used them as catalysts for the far more ambitious figure paintings.)
The second characteristic revealed by a study of the figurative paintings is that, almost from the outset, Diebenkorn's representational style was hierarchically segmented. His emphasis on the fact that it was landscape (or, rather, cityscape), not still life, which got him into representational work signifies his own mild surprise, for it reverses the artist's usual process. He repeat
18. Chabot Valley , 1955
Oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 18 3/4 (49.5 x 47.6)
Collection of Christopher Diebenkorn
19. Bottles , 1960
Oil on canvas, 34 x 26 (86.4 x 66)
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena; Gift of the Artistedly said that the still-life subject tended to be his departure point, enabling him to move into, and then to evolve within, a vocabulary of form whose highest aim was always the rendering of the human figure. The progression would be: still life to either landscape or an unpeopled interior; then, usually within an interior matrix, the single-, then double-figure painting. The still-life object firmly anchored him in concrete reality; the observed landscape could be more freely interpreted; figure painting held the highest and most challenging set of psychological and methodological imperatives.
Diebenkorn proclaimed still-life painting as the elementary rung on the ladder of difficulty and synthetic complexity. For the viewer, his still lifes are perhaps the most concrete and in some ways the most intense of all his work. They tend to be small in size and one quickly notices that their subjects are limited. (This is less true in the still-life works on paper.) The artist has explained this in a way, remarking that only certain objects suited him as subject matter: "Almost always, with a group of forms, they would be familiar things. There'd be an ink bottle, and glasses and a pipe ashtray, cigarette butts, . . . a jar of brushes. . . . I worked with this group of objects and I got to realize that in the process of painting I could find out which objects were real to me, were viable, by whether or not they stayed in the picture. So I worked with a lot of the same objects that consistently stayed."56 Probably in 1955 or 1956, Diebenkorn had written, "I find curious what things I pass on as subjects in my painting. I can paint coffee pots and cups to my satisfaction, [yet] if I think of the pot as a tea pot I can't—bottles are out altogether."57 (This was written before Diebenkorn painted the wonderful 1960 study in blue, Bottles ; Fig. 19).
Yet such statements do not truly satisfy our curiosity about the arresting discrepancy between the quality of literal verisimilitude in the small paintings (and also the drawings) of humble objects, and the somehow metaphoric, even allegorical, character of the more ambitiously scaled interiors, especially the interiors with figures. Part of the answer lies in the nature of the act of depicting the human figure, which Diebenkorn always treated as a completely sovereign enterprise, not comparable to the rendering of any other subject. "It may seem momentarily magical," he wrote, "that shapes, colors and variously applied paint can have the power autonomously that they do but for power and magic man's painted image is supreme"; and, elsewhere, "The human image functions for me as a kind of key to the painting."58
Diebenkorn was always "mightily" (his word) annoyed when critics would say, or imply, that ultimately he was an abstract painter who was simply using representational images in the service of "non-objective" form. Still wrestling with this question in 1987, he said:
Ultimately a figure survived [in my work] in terms of the successful dealing with [its] psychology. So again, I think of that criticism which irritated me so about my figures being pawns. As soon as I started using the figure my whole idea of my painting changed. Maybe not in the most obvious structural sense, but these figures distorted my sense of interior or environment, or the painting itself—in a way that I welcomed. Because you don't have this in abstract painting. . . . In abstract painting one can't deal with . . . an object or person, a concentration of psychology which a person is as opposed to where the figure isn't in the painting. . . . And that's the one thing that's always missing for me in abstract painting, that I don't have this kind of dialogue between elements that can be . . . wildly different and can be at war, or in extreme conflict.59
Not all of Diebenkorn's figurative paintings involved the implied presence of conflict, but the most ambitious ones were usually psychologically complex. One of his steadfast models was Phyllis, whose depicted presence increased as the artist developed his figurative work. He often asked her to pose extemporaneously, interrupting whatever she was doing, or he would schedule extended sittings. In his tireless explorationsof slightly variant body positions—how arms and hands are contoured with the elbow crooked behind the head or resting on the knees; how crossed legs angle differently in a seated or prone posture—Diebenkorn ceaselessly observed Phyllis both in posed and in unguarded moments. And he sometimes enlisted her as the subject of his most ambitious and monumental paintings, such as Seated Figure with Hat (Fig. 145).
It is probably fair to speculate that some of Diebenkorn's figure drawings and paintings are composites, in which aspects of Phyllis are blended with those of other models or of imaginative elements. "Lots of the figures [in the paintings] started from a sketch done in the evening sessions [with Bischoff, Park et al.]. . . . And some of them stayed pretty much like the drawing. Others were changed or got painted out completely once the painting was going, and I might just improvise the figure, invent it. . . . I think [figure and context] would grow simultaneously. But . . . in terms of the outcome, I don't think I ever started with what finally [happened]. Or . . . it would happen this way: The figure would start as a figure and an interior, and then possibly there would be a window, and then pretty soon I'd take the wall away and reveal the rest of the landscape—or it might work in the reverse. The figure in the landscape would sort of bring about something like this."60
The hierarchic character of Diebenkorn's representational painting applies more strictly to the distinction made among still lifes, unpeopled interiors, and figure paintings than to the landscapes. There is a fundamental difference for Diebenkorn between the project of landscape painting and that of other subjects: in some ways landscapes or cityscapes elude the artist's self-decreed hierarchy of difficulty and complexity, existing as a discrete genre within the oeuvre. One might say that the landscapes relate far more organically to the abstract paintings, or at least the earlier abstract paintings, than do the other representational works (although this oversimplifies the case).
Among the strongest paintings of Diebenkorn's career is a series done in 1962 and 1963 in medium or small scale, ranging from up to 60 inches in width or height to as small as 13 inches, depicting geometrically sectioned-out cityscapes (Figs. 122, 123). These paintings, composed from sharply elevated viewpoints, directly reflect Diebenkorn's experience years earlier of flying over the Southwest, which inspired him to integrate a bird's-eye perspectival structure into the Albuquerque paintings. But the later aerial-view works also establish the artist's authoritative grasp of the distinctive nature of landscape space as opposed to that of interiors. Whether or not the cityscapes include a piece of horizon and sky near the top, they show Diebenkorn grappling with the issue of how to organize, in a legible perspectival frame, the infinitely complex variety of shapes and textures presented in virtually any view of the outdoors, while also taking into account the quality of light and shadow actually observed in nature. To compare Diebenkorn's interiors with his landscapes is to grasp in an instant the difference between the qualities of space and light innate in each. "I can't think of the interior of a room sharing the kind of light that's outside the room. It would be to falsify everything for me. . . . It's in [Matisse's] earlier painting which is really the traditional way of thinking about it, the way I think about it, which is [that there is a difference between] the indoor light and the outdoor light."61
One feels that Diebenkorn was also looking carefully at Cizanne, one of the masters of the exterior "portrait," when he was composing his outdoor pictures. Cizanne's solid structure, even in the most sketchy or aerated outdoor scene, his way of anchoring pictorial space in familiar perspectival proportions without sacrificing a sense of atmospheric lightness or openness—this structure echoes everywhere in Diebenkorn's landscapes. A larger but related picture that demonstrates Diebenkorn's remarkable skill in organizing the evanescent is Ingleside (1963; Fig. 20). Never did he achieve a more dramatic tour de force of
20. Ingleside , 1963
Oil on canvas, 81 3/4 x 69 1/2 (207.6 x 176.5)
Grand Rapids Art Museum, Michigan; Purchaselight and color, especially in the use of white, than in this eternally fresh painting.
In 1955 or 1956, Diebenkorn wrote a series of statements explaining his reasons for turning to representation that are almost like a manifesto in tone:
Just as I once believed that spatial ambiguities, intensity spelled out, and infinite suggestibility were necessary properties of painting I now believe that the representations of men, women, walls, windows, and cups are necessary. There is of course an image or a "voice "for the artist in terms of what he believes. I don't think however that the expression of a spatial ambiguity or the representation of a woman is what is most important. 62
In abstract painting I worried about the limited range of possibilities that as time went on became increasingly important to me. I wanted to express or deal with differences that an all-over paint and canvas "presence" neutralized. The common denominator of all the elements I would use, namely paint and its somewhat consistent handling as well as its manifest adherence to the surface, proved too strong for the shift in emphasis that I wanted in my work. I found that a somewhat literal reinforcement of the differences I sought, such as, outside beside interior, sunlight as opposed to gloom, the presence of person as opposed to emptiness, made the balance a better one and maintained the kind of differences that I sought. 63
A few of Diebenkorn's more monumentally scaled figurative paintings reverberate with opposing forces. Often, indeed, several oppositions are established in a single picture. In Interior with View of Buildings of 1962 (Fig. 21), Diebenkorn devised an enormously ingenious variation on Matisse's repeated depiction of indoor-outdoor light. Instead of creating an articulated windowlike aperture in the picture space, he established essentially two discrete zones of light, one surmounting the other. We see, in the foreground, the shadowy floor and wall of a terrace or balcony, over whose balustrade is glimpsed the top of a sun-drenched row of buildings, surmounted by blue sky. The contrasting areas of light and shade are deployed in horizontal bands across the picture plane; it is a relatively straightforward polarity. But a number of mysterious elements complicate matters. For instance, the top of the canvas, instead of traveling into an indeterminate sky/space, is curiously anchored by an uninterpretable band of paint. This passage is explicitly not an architectural or other veristic element; it is expressly to be read as paint. Though Diebenkorn strongly protested being called an abstractionist when he was exploring figuration, he nevertheless felt perfectly at liberty to introduce non-illusionistic elements into his "representational" paintings. For all his prodigious technical abilities, he was temperamentally incapable of painting a canvas whose whole being was grounded in Renaissance space. Nor did he seem able to purge his figurative paintings of a paradoxically unpolished, or ever-so-slightly dislocated, sensibility—a quality one might read as a sort of existential awkwardness.
The content of Interior with View of Buildings becomes even more complex when one considers its lower half. Diebenkorn clearly wants to confront the problem of the human figure—or, more precisely, the most difficult part of that problem—i.e., the rendering of the human head or face. No one has written more provocatively about this question than John Elderfield, who positions it at the very core of Diebenkorn's struggle as an artist.64 The disjunction between Diebenkorn's often fully corporeal renderings of figures in paint and his highly generalized, incorporeal—or at least unspecific—faces, is a subject requiring lengthy consideration. It was a problem that Diebenkorn sometimes confronted and frequently avoided. He knew how to depict the human physiognomy. During the years he was painting figuratively, he made quite a large number of small oil paintings of heads or faces done in a distinctly ruminative tone, as though testing his ability to portray likenesses (Fig. 22). Some of these are
21. Interior with View of Buildings , 1962
Oil on canvas, 84 x 67 (213.4 x 170.2)
Cincinnati Art Museum; The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorialextremely successful portraits; others, in their precise formality, have the character almost of still lifes. But these "exercises" did not make their way into larger-scale work.
22. Head , 1960
Oil on canvas, 13 1/8 x 11 3/4 (33.3 x 29.8)
One of the strategies Diebenkorn devised to obviate the dilemma of depicting the face is found in Interior with View of Buildings. Here he inserted into the painting another painting, a small canvas representing a slightly turned female head, viewed from the rear so that only a small part of the side of the face is visible. But it isn't just a portrait placed within a larger composition. The head is made to look at a picture within the picture—it gazes toward a fragment of the same architecture depicted in the larger picture that contains it. It is as if a woman had at some previous time been sitting on the very terrace we are observing, looking at the very same view. Furthermore, she might have been sitting in the very chair that the artist has placed to the right of her picture, only now the chair is turned to face the viewer. To inject a further note of mystery and paradox, Diebenkorn has, in the lower left corner of this large canvas, placed what we can only surmise to be the corner of a table, on which is lying a reducing glass the painter frequently used to scrutinize objects and scenes around him. The oval-shaped face of the glass holds—reflects?—three bands of color, or light, in an inversion of the atmospherically contrasting bands that are the picture's primary subject.
Interior with View of Buildings may be read as a meditation on the infinite possibilities of juxtaposing literalism, illusionism, and metaphor in modernist painting, especially at a moment when a certain kind of mimetic painting had become anachronistic. But this kind of analytical and literary approach was only one of several Diebenkorn experimented with during his figurative years. Seated Nude, Hands Behind Head (1961; Fig. 112) reminds us that he was consummately equipped to paint the figure in a manner whose lineage can be traced back to Cizanne, Degas, Manet, and earlier masters. Unlike many of his large interiors, withor without figures, this painting presents a classic nude in a corporeal, indeed monolithic, manner. Every inch of painted flesh in this picture is evocative of the heft and sensuousness of real flesh. The figure sits languidly and yet firmly, inhabiting a space whose handling of atmospheric light is worthy of the artist's predecessors. Yet, as always, we are reminded of Diebenkorn's subtle radicalism. For all its lucid and straightforward qualities, Seated Nude, Hands Behind Head is essentially an invented, or a clearly metaphorical, work of art. In its many transgressions of illusionistic architectural space, its peculiar planar disruptions, its dissolving extensions and frank painterliness, the picture belongs solidly to a post-classical era.
In the fall of 1963, Diebenkorn accepted a yearlong residency at Stanford University, using the opportunity to live near the campus, work in a comfortable, temporary studio, and paint and draw in an environment of unusual concentration. After an intense period spent completing a major group of canvases, he now proceeded to produce a large number of important drawings. It was also in these months that he made his first prints, launching what became an extended, parallel career working in print media, primarily etchings and drypoints. In June 1964, shortly after the closing of his first one-artist show of drawings, held at Stanford, Diebenkorn's father died. In the following months, he concentrated on a number of still lifes on paper, some of them, according to Phyllis Diebenkorn, dealing with feelings about his father's death. At the end of 1964, he received a measure of national recognition for his representational paintings in a large show at the Washington, D.C., Gallery of Modern Art, whose director was Diebenkorn's friend and supporter Gerald Nordland; that show traveled to New York's Jewish Museum and the Newport Harbor Art Museum.
In the fall of 1964, at the invitation of the Soviet Artists' Union, extended through the United States government, the Diebenkorns embarked on a prolonged trip to the USSR; afterward they visited France, Germany, Yugoslavia, Romania, and England. It was their first trip to Europe. Guided by US Cultural Attachi William Luers and his wife, Jane, the Diebenkorns were escorted to (and occasionally rescued from) official Soviet Artists' Union gatherings. They were also granted access to institutions and collections not ordinarily open to visitors. "[Bill Luers] made sure that I got to see things that I wanted, because he could do all sorts of bargaining. . . . All this sort of intrigue-y stuff. . . . He was always saying, 'Now, come along, you agreed at the beginning that you were going to . . . meet so and so'"65
In 1977, thirteen years after the event, Diebenkorn retained resonant memories of the Shchukin paintings and others at the Hermitage:
There was the most incredible Matisse that I'm sure will never go anywhere, because it's in such precarious condition [Fig. 23]. It's immense . . . at least as big as The Dance or Music, but it's on paper . . . or maybe muslin or something like that. They had it up in their lab. . . . It was starting to flake away and the binder of the glue in the gouache [sic ] apparently had sort of disappeared, and they were saying, "Well, we're possibly going to spray this thing," and I thought, "Oh my God, if you spray it, you're going to ruin eighty percent of the sensation that comes from this thing, because it had this marvelous dusty [quality] Gouache can be very beautiful in its dryness." It was a big Moroccan period work. 66
Ten years later, Diebenkorn added:
It was a real marker. . . . It was somehow an expanding experience for me, not just in the art way. . . . [The Hermitage had] beautiful . . . upstairs galleries with perfect light. Unfortunately the large Matisse Music and The Dance were too large for the galleries, so they were in the stairwells, not very well lit. . . . The pictures downstairs were hard to see. . . . There was a huge Velasquez of Philip IV, and the only light was coming through dingy windows . . . with a single bulb hanging on a long cord, swinging in the draft. . . . The painting had varnish on it, so you would sort of dodge around the room and see this piece, that piece. . . . You'd never see the whole thing at once. . . . So that was the Hermitage, such a feast on one hand such a terrible disappointment on the other. . . . The Moscow Galleries were better. The collection had been split between Moscow and Leningrad, but what really disturbed me was the Matisse Moroccan Triptych. There were two of the three panels in one place and one in the other. 67
One of the three panels of this 1912 triptych, Zorah on the Terrace (Fig. 24), has been cited as a direct influence on Diebenkorn's later Ocean Park paintings, based on its background, which is, at least superficially, similar to Diebenkorn's paint handling, and the use of diagonals in counterpoint to right-angled planes. The triangulated upper-left passage in the Matisse, hinting at a shaft of light falling on a wall, may have remained indelibly fixed in Diebenkorn's mind.
Diebenkorn, however, sometimes protested that too much emphasis was placed on the influence Matisse allegedly had on him, and not enough on the influence of other painters, especially Cizanne and Mondrian. Yet part of the reason for this emphasis may be the frequency of Diebenkorn's own allusions to Matisse—though not always in a simple, admiring way. That he was so intently focused on Matisse's work at this stage in his evolution signals not necessarily a heightened fascination with the French painter, but a desire to frankly acknowledge Matisse's influence, and then perhaps move away from it.
When Diebenkorn returned to California he was ready to change course. For the next year or two, nearly every decision he made, in his work and in other aspects of his life, seems, in retrospect, to have been a preparation for a turn no one could then have anticipated: a move to Southern California and a shift back to abstraction, resulting in a lengthy cycle of paintings and drawings that proved remarkably different in character from the first-period abstractions.
In 1966, Diebenkorn decided to accept a teaching offer from the University of California at Los Angeles. UCLA Art Department chairman Frederick Wight had for some time been trying unsuccessfully to persuade Diebenkorn to join his faculty. Diebenkorn admitted he had harbored negative feelings about Southern California: "My parents were San Franciscans, and I had grown up with a San Franciscan's prejudice about Los Angeles. . . . [In the early 1960s] I visited [the lithographic workshop] Tamarind for three weeks . . . and this is the first time I realized that Los Angeles had any character, and it was very attractive to me. . . . I felt something about the place, an absolutely different pace. . . . I could feel these little twinges over the next five or six years before I finally decided to just say, 'God, move down here.' . . . It took that long to sort of turn things over and make the decision to pull up stakes in beloved (I thought) Northern California. Sometimes one considers a thing beloved long after it no longer is. . . . It seemed like it was a kind of pace, or a different rhythm or metabolism than in Northern California. And it seemed considerably more open."68
The Diebenkorns immediately gravitated to the Santa Monica canyon, close to UCLA, and close to the beach communities of Santa Monica and Venice, which had become the neighborhood of choice for some of the region's best artists, including Sam Francis, Craig Kauffman, Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston, Tony Berlant, James Turrell, Lee Mullican, and Charles Garabedian. For a year, they rented a house in the canyon, and then bought a nearby home on Amalfi Drive, where they lived until moving back to Northern California nearly twenty years later. It was a singularly charming house dating from the 1920s, a replica of a graceful, one-story Italian residence. From the beginning, Diebenkorn maintained his studio in the Ocean Park sector of Venice.
The geographic move took place in October 1966, soon after Gretchen Diebenkorn married Richard Grant in the chapel of Stanford University, alma mater of them all. Diebenkorn settled into a teaching routine at UCLA that became more demanding than he had anticipated, since he initially allowed himself to be significantly involved in administrative matters. On the other hand, he found the teaching itself rewarding. At UCLA he became an extraordinarily respected and sought-after teacher, his interactions with students adding an important dimension to his own progress as a painter. "At the time [I came to UCLA] I considered myself an artist-teacher. That's a terrible phrase. . . . I don't like that hyphenated thing at all. What I meant was that I always felt that teaching was very much a part of my life, that it supplemented the work in the studio in some way. . . . It forced me to define myself, my own position to me. I listen to myself often in the classroom, and that is often rewarding because sometimes I would realize that . . . I was talking about current problems in my studio. . . . [And when I came to UCLA] I did it in order to teach and work. Teach and think."69
23. Henri Matisse
The Moorish Cafe , 1913
Oil on canvas, 69 1/4 x 82 3/4 (176 x 210)
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
24. Henri Matisse
Zorah on the Terrace , 1912
Oil on canvas, 45 11/16 x 43 5/16 (116 x 110)
Pushkin Museum, Moscow
In 1966 and 1967, Diebenkorn faced challenges in his work that seemed, at moments, intractable. The decisive transformation in his painting style generally associated with his arrival in Los Angeles actually took much longer than the months required to physically relocate; and its beginnings can be detected in paintings begun before he moved south. A slow evolution initiated with major works completed in 1965 and 1966 can now be seen to have created the groundwork for the Ocean Park paintings.
Moreover, contrary to the conventional perception that Diebenkorn undertook the journey from representational to abstract painting in response to external critical pressures, the artist's reasons were, as usual, entirely dictated by a subjective logic:
At about this time [late 1964], the . . . figure thing was running its course. It was getting tougher and tougher. . . . Things really started to flatten out in the representational [paintings]. Five years earlier I was dealing with much more traditional depth [or] space. . . . In my studio at Stanford, things were already flattening out. . . . I'm relating this to Matisse, because of course Matisse's painting was much flatter in its conception than my own. . . . After I returned from Russia, we came [to Los Angeles]. . . . And the painting I did here [was] really flattened out, and so it was as if I was preparing to go back to abstract painting, though I didn't know it. 70
The works that most purely embody this new "flatness" are among the most important of Diebenkorn's career. Three of them, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad (1965), Large Still Life (1966), and Window (1967), were clearly conceived as a tribute, or valediction, to Matisse (Figs. 133, 132, 27). And yet each of these ambitious paintings includes references to many other sources, ranging from plays on Diebenkorn's own earlier work to allusions to Edward Hopper, Russian Suprematism, and Dutch Constructivism.
In the first of these three pictures. Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad , Diebenkorn incorporated the pattern from an Indian batik bedspread he kept around his studio that he had often used in drawings. Whereas in past appearances this pattern had been used casually, to establish density or rhythmic incident in an interior scene, now its prosaic spiral-floral motif was transposed into a direct play on Matisse's use of patterned wallpaper and textiles in such works as Harmony in Red (1908) or, even more directly, Coffee Pot, Carafe, and Fruit Dish (1909), both in the Hermitage (Fig. 25). It is no accident that the latter Matisse is itself a kind of homage to Cizanne. And the more we consider Diebenkorn's work of this period, the more we become aware that it was Cizanne's lessons—primarily the handling of still-life objects in relation to the "tilted surfaces" the very young Diebenkorn had at first found so problematic—which the mature Diebenkorn now turned to of his own account.
It is significant that Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad and Large Still Life are both large and slightly horizontal; they clearly relate to a tradition of ambitious interiors qua still lifes whose ascendant modernist practitioners were Vuillard, Cizanne, and Matisse. Recollections establishes a hauntingly ambiguous synthesis between indoors and outdoors, achieved without the device of a windowlike aperture to reveal the light of day, thus ringing a change on the 1962 Interior with View of Buildings by dividing the two regions vertically rather than horizontally. Here, at the picture's left, we seem to be looking at a highly abstracted, yet solidly material, decorated wall, below which is a tilted plane subdivided into several vertical sections. Is it a tabletop? To the right of this spatially and descriptively enigmatic passage, the picture opens up—as though we are peering, not through a window or over a balcony, but straight off the edge of the room—into a perspectival landscape.
At the top of the painting sections of sky and sea show above a grassy area; at their intersection is a reductively oval-shaped tree. It seems to have two trunks. This talismanic form is directly related to the tree that will recur in the peculiar 1977 gouache and crayon piece, Invented Landscape (Fig. 181)—one of the rare "representational" works made in the extended later abstract phase—itself a picture prefigured by another Invented Landscape (see p. 8) done in 1966, shortly after Recollections. Above the grass and tree are passages that seem to represent sea and sky. But why is the horizon line canted? Demarcating the line between "inside" and "outside" in this painting is another enigmatic passage, a vertical strip of pale paint reminiscent of the horizontal top of the balcony wall in Interior with View of Buildings. The upper part of this strip seems to define an architectural element, while the lower part, slightly angled to the right, becomes interchangeable with the golden-hued path, or walkway, that is a part of the outdoor segment of the composition.
Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad is far more ambiguous in its abstract vs. representational character than Interior with View of Buildings , and yet the earlier picture resonates within it, just as it would continue to do in the third of the three great "transitional" works under consideration. In early 1967, after a frustrating period when he was forced to work in a windowless, though skylit, studio space, Diebenkorn finally settled into a windowed, northern-exposure space in the same building. (He shared its top floor, above an appliance store at the corner of Ashland and Main Streets, with the painter Sam Francis.) The first painting he completed in the new studio was Window (Fig. 27). Here, in addition to the decorative, spiral-and-circle motif that appears in different forms in both Recollections and Large Still Life— a transparent reference to Cizanne and Matisse—Diebenkorn again harks back to his own Interior with View of Buildings. There is no mistaking the whitish architectural elements viewed from a shadowy, quasi-interior balcony space as a version of the view from the earlier balcony or porch, even though the two architectural scenes are far from identical. In the later picture, however, rather than incorporating the figure, or even the re-figuration-of-the-figure, Diebenkorn emphasized mood and light per se , recalling no painter so much as Edward Hopper. The red wall-like element suggests the blocky, reddish segment of wall in Hopper's City Roofs (1932); the overall mood and composition is akin to Hopper's approaching a City (1946; Fig. 26).
In these paintings, which are so patently about both spatial and imagistic ambiguity and other art, Diebenkorn seems to be employing a number of codes or highly charged references that only he could fully penetrate. Large Still Life , the middle painting of the three (Fig. 132), is in some ways the least mysterious, or the least layered. The bow to Cizanne is plain and wholehearted, as if Diebenkorn were acknowledging Cizanne's tilted table as necessary for his own maturation, while asserting a highly individualistic use of it. The still-life objects deployed on the reddish surface proclaim one last time their author's utterly confident and distinctive way of rendering homely objects. Again Diebenkorn adverts to Cizanne and Matisse with a variation, here in the form of a wallpaper passage, on the Indian-bedspread decorative motif; again he nods in the direction of the two masters' chromatic repertoires, especially Cizanne's. Yet Large Still Life is also about "flattening out," a pictorial concern Diebenkorn was finding more and more compelling. Finally, in its handling of color, the painting reveals the artist who became one of the consummate colorists of the extended modernist episode.
Before turning his full attention to abstract painting, Diebenkorn completed a few other full-scale canvases, three of which create a kind of counterpart to Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad , Large Still Life , and Window. It is as if he wanted to make a salutatory offering, to deal with the single figure before ending this heroic episode in his artistic journey.
The first of these three large-scale figure paintings was done in 1966, while Diebenkorn was still living in the Bay Area. Nude on Blue Ground (Fig. 29) is anomalous in several ways. First, it is one of the few paintings for which a preparatory drawing or sketch was used (Fig. 28). Second, it was not only inspired by the work of Picasso, but was probably painted in conscious reference to that most prodigious of modern artists, whose work Diebenkorn generally downplayed as an acknowledged source. Its fixed and reductive, or generalized, corporeality, as well as its pronounced angularity, call to mind some of the single-figure nudes Picasso made around the time of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907); and its facial rendering closely resembles several of Picasso's female visages, including that of the second figure from the left in Demoiselles. Nude on Blue Ground confronts the classic nude figure in a two-edged gesture of physical concreteness and my thic generalization. Its perfect centrality in the compositional frame and its vertical containment—the canvas cuts to just aninch below the top of the head and, at bottom, the toes of the right foot—add to its iconic, rather than naturalistically descriptive, character. The figure's monumentality summons Cizanne's bathers or Courbet's monolithic nudes.
Nude on Blue Ground goes distinctly against Diebenkorn's type in the face, which, while artfully synoptic, is nevertheless fully delineated in relation to the rest of the body. Unlike the figures in the artist's other large-scale works, every inch of this woman's body carries equal physical and psychological weight. Moreover, the entire composition is frontal and symmetrical to a degree exceedingly rare in Diebenkorn's oeuvre. Here there are none of the architectural subtleties or complex spatial ambiguities usually found in the large, representational pictures. Despite the familiarly indefinite and painterly background space, which is a little difficult to read illusionistically, this figure stands firmly and convincingly in three dimensions. Moreover, the palette is uncharacteristically limited to blues and whites, almost in the manner of grisaille (substituting cobalt for gray), suggesting another association with Picasso.
In one sense, however, Nude on Blue Ground relates more directly to Diebenkorn's figurative drawings than to his painting style. As in many of these drawings, the body is naturalistically rendered in terms of compositional gravity, architectural space, and the particulars of the human anatomy. Nude on Blue Ground is in fact the only figurative painting in which this canon is so strictly applied. In light of Diebenkorn's compulsion to leave signs of revision and indecision in even his most ambitious and successfully resolved paintings, it is not surprising that Nude on Blue Ground , in its commanding symmetry, reduction, and unity, stands as an isolated example in his production.
In 1967, just before Diebenkorn moved from the relatively dark and confined studio space into the large, northern-lit one in the same building, he painted two more single-figure paintings conceived in a spirit of both monumentality and closure. Large Woman and Seated Figure with Hat (Figs. 144, 145), like Nude on Blue Ground , emanate from Diebenkorn's years of drawing the figure from life. Unlike the nude portrait, however, they point to the abstract modality that would soon follow. Each figure inhabits a fictive space; in each the artist is as concerned with color as with modeling. Seated Figure with Hat (as noted, a portrait of Phyllis) can be read as an almost theatrical anticipation of the later, large-scale abstract style: a severely static woman in profile sits pensively in an indeterminate foreground space. Indeed, the realm she inhabits hardly constitutes an illusionistic space at all. Rather, it is as though the figure inhabits a painted space, or perhaps she is sitting in front of a painted wall, or a painting. The lower part of her skirt and right leg drop into a narrow but defined foreground plane, while the rest of her is positioned in a strangely metaphoric realm—neither in the viewer's own space nor in a depicted one. Diebenkorn is experimenting with the figure's capacity to inhabit an entirely invented plane. He is fast on his way to entering a completely new pictorial world.
Large Woman is quite different from Seated Figure with Hat. At 80 x 90 inches, it is the largest single-figure painting Diebenkorn ever made. It is also one of the most opulent pictures of his career. Like the three architectonic pictures, Window , Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad , and Large Still Life , Large Woman is visibly achieved in a mood of tribute to predecessors. We cannot but think of Paul Gauguin in the flatly decorative passage to the right of the figure, and indeed, of French Symbolist painting in general, in the decorative curvaceousness of the entire composition. Withdrawing from the strongly articulated facial features in Nude on Blue Ground , Diebenkorn here mutes the physiognomy within an emphatic oval. Only the palest indications of eyebrows, eyes, nose, and mouth are visible, barely enough to glimpse an impression of a calm, unsmiling visage. The problem of the thoroughly realized face in organic continuity with the thoroughly realized figure,which Diebenkorn never fully resolved, is played out one final time in this extraordinarily sensual picture, with its sinuously posed woman in a velvet-dark dress gazing directly out of the picture.
25. Henri Matisse
Coffee Pot, Carafe, and Fruit Dish , 1909
Oil on canvas, 88 x 118 (223.5 x 299.7)
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
26. Edward Hopper
Approaching a City , 1946
Oil on canvas, 27 1/8 x 36 (68.9 x 91.4)
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Diebenkorn might have been referring to Large Woman when he said in 1983: "I wanted it both ways—a figure with a credible face—but also a painting wherein the shapes, including the face shape, worked with the allover power that I'd come to feel was a requisite of a total work. Clearly there was an inherent trap here and when I first got caught in it, I knew why Matisse sometimes left his faces blank. Matisse was relaxed in his centuries' old tradition of figure painting whereas I was not and it would have been a first day cop-out not to deal with the complete figure image—face and all. But there was a compromise. . . . The face had to lose a measure of its personality. The first response in taking it in had to be relational—not as in Old Master painting where the first response might be to character. This compromise with the completeness of the face was a large one, one that perhaps undermined my figurative resolve in the long run."71
In January 1966, during a visit to Los Angeles to explore the possibility of accepting the UCLA faculty position, Diebenkorn had seen an exhibition of paintings by Matisse at the University Art Gallery. It is difficult not to ascribe enormous weight to this experience for the direction his work took from that time on. Two pictures he saw there reverberate in almost every Ocean Park canvas. View of Notre Dame and French Window at Collioure , both painted in 1914, were on view for the first time in the US (Figs. 30, 31). In the former, Matisse sketched the barest outlines of an interior space, with a peculiarly equivocal, highly abstracted glimpse of Notre Dame as seen from his studio window on the Quai St. Michel. The painting, limited in palette to blue, black, and white, with the merest touch of green, is defined by the counterpoint among its vertical, horizontal, diagonal, and gently curved lines. It is
27. Window , 1967
Oil on canvas, 92 x 80 (233.7 x 203.2)
Stanford University Museum and Art Gallery, California; Gift of
Mr. and Mrs. Richard Diebenkorn and anonymous donorsdifficult to discern whether these boldly placed lines are ruled or freehand; this precise kind of calculated subtlety would become characteristic of much of Diebenkorn's work, both on canvas and on paper. Moreover, as in so many of Diebenkorn's Ocean Park images, Matisse's several reworkings are visible in the form of half-obliterated passages which—together with the tension of the quasi-precise lineation—energize the painting.
Possibly even more dazzling to Diebenkorn was French Window at Collioure. In this breathtakingly reductive picture, the left shutter of a window is closed, while the right one opens at an angle into the room. Essentially the composition is constructed as four vertically arrayed areas of color—a dusky gray-blue, charcoal black, warm gray, and aqueous green. Particularly in some of the mid-period Ocean Park canvases, a similarly limited yet inventive, or unexpected, palette declares itself as Diebenkorn's chief subject. Only on one level does the Matisse hold back from the purity of abstraction which Diebenkorn attained. In order to establish illusionistically what was being portrayed, Matisse allowed the bottom sill of the window to appear as a shallow, barely off-black plane running from extreme left to the lower, angled plane of the right-hand shutter. By configuring implied trapezoids rather than strict rectangles, he introduced just enough perspective to produce the effect of recessive space. It is a startling composition, isolated in Matisse's output.
Diebenkorn must have experienced French Window at Collioure as an epiphany. While fundamentally different in intention from the abstract paintings he began to create in late 1967, this picture can be regarded as a touchstone for the long and magnificent series of Ocean Park paintings. Without for a moment invoking the strong, if highly generalized, representational character of the Matisse, Diebenkorn managed to expatiate on its every implication in terms of design, space, color, and emotion.
Near the end of 1967, Diebenkorn painted the first of the full-scale Ocean Park paintings. (And for nearly three years he limited his activity in the studio to painting on canvas; the works on paper in the Ocean Park style were not begun until 1970.) He needed an ambitious theater for his next great play, and he found it in a format that was calculated to encompass the maximum physical extension of his own tall and imposing figure. The precise scale of these paintings was of central importance: "I wanted to work [in slightly larger scale than before.] My canvas, the cotton duck that I bought, was 84 inches wide. [I needed] three inches to turn over, so that left 81 inches, almost always my width. And so then the height was what I could get out of the place without doing an alteration of my door. And I could manage to get . . . 100 inches out. So 100 x 81 inches was the largest I did."72 Diebenkorn's close friend William Brice commented: "So many of the Ocean Park paintings run to the 6 x 8, or 7 x 9 feet. He could pop up on his little stool to reach the top. He chose a scale that embodied his own extension. That means something." 73
The "first period" Ocean Park paintings number up to Ocean Park No. 40 (1971). Among the earliest, fully developed works is Ocean Park No. 9 (1968; Fig. 32). A salient element of Diebenkorn's new vocabulary is announced here in the idiosyncratic palette, combined with the same kind of aggressive awkwardness that had sometimes characterized his representational paintings. The intentionally muddy grays and browns juxtaposed with the most intense green and a highly modulated set of yellow-golds generate a muscularity and controlled aggression that recall Clyfford Still at his coarsest. Ocean Park No. 9 also suggests something Diebenkorn said when discussing how music had inspired him. He was speaking of a particular quality he sometimes heard in Beethoven, but was also referring to a quality he wanted to inject into his own painting:I'm not going to be able to really describe this. [But Beethoven] does a really non-art kind of thing, and deals with it so deftly. . . . There's all sorts of rambunctious music. [But] he's the only one who can be rambunctious like—like somebody talking in a bar. . . . I don't know anybody who has done it as strikingly as Beethoven, this thing. . . . I would hope sometime to feel that my expression could do that thing. And it isn't that I want to do some non-art thing—Even somebody like Jackson Pollock. I don't think Pollock does it. . . . And it's curious that [Beethoven] drops it in later music. Maybe, finally, the later music is, as the musicologists will all say, the most profound. But it becomes, in some sense, rather artier. Possibly an example of it is in the Great Fugue, which is very impulsive. But I like to think of it as in more the middle period, where it's like throwing a ball around, bouncing it off here and there, and things are so unpredictable. 74
The early Ocean Park paintings alternate between "rambunctious" works, and those with an antithetical quality of gentility or lyricism. An example of the former is Ocean Park 14 1/2 (Fig. 151), one of the first in which Diebenkorn employed quirky pastel brown—a color, or use of a color in relation to other colors—that he made distinctively his own. By 1970, when he painted both Ocean Park No. 24 and Ocean Park No. 27 (Figs. 152, 153), he had moved into more seductive palettes, the first employing some fairly high-keyed value contrasts, the second even more value-contrasted and chromatically diverse. One of the most important hallmarks of the Ocean Park paintings, evident from the very beginning, is that each one creates its own, self-contained chromatic universe, and each functions within that universe in a structurally self-sufficient way. The sheer complexity of incident within each painting, to say nothing of their comparative serial complexity, is unrivaled in the abstract painting of the era. It might well be argued that, in this sense, Mark Rothko takes a distant second place to Richard Diebenkorn.
The first-period Ocean Park paintings are characterized by strong diagonals, often disposed like beams holding up the surface of the picture. The paintings have a sturdily synthetic character, as though blocks of color and texture were being moved around and built upon one another, sometimes directly abutting, sometimes separated by masking-like strips. But by 1970, the year Diebenkorn began to work constantly with drawing, or "painting on paper," as well as on large canvases, a new device had entered the scene. As if retracing Cubism's steps from its Analytic to its Synthetic phase, in Ocean Park No. 32 (Fig. 33) he moved decisively into a collage-based compositional method, creating the illusion of radical flattening. The result is a picture trying to look like an enormous montage, the paint seemingly sectioned out, cut, and reassembled on the surface. Everything sits right on this surface, yet everything implies some idea of overlapping planes. A number of contradictory things are happening at once, all within a relatively reduced palette. Besides its spatial contradictions, No. 32 demonstrates in an especially salient manner that tension between ruled and apparently freehand lines which Diebenkorn so often explored.
The early months of experimenting with the Ocean Park format had been exhilarating for the artist. "I wanted to get away from having to follow all the obligations, so to speak, that were carried by a given subject. . . . In brief, I suppose I just wanted more freedom. And I was continually thinking back to the [Berkeley period] abstract painting, and it seemed to me that things just flowed so freely, and it was kind of . . . improvisation , which was exciting. . . . At first [I felt that freedom again]. But it doesn't take long before that totally different set of disciplines start to, in a bad moment, throttle you, and so it's finally the same [difficult] thing. But one has moments of hope when he changes to a new scene."75
One of the central defining principles of the Ocean Park paintings is precisely the dichotomy between the
28. Sketch for Nude on Blue Ground , 1966
Charcoal on paper, 17 x 12 1/2 (43.2 x 31.8)
29. Nude on Blue Ground , 1966
Oil on canvas, 81 x 59 (205.7 x 149.9)
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Ken Siebelimprovisatory character Diebenkorn acknowledges and the effect of agonizing discipline they convey. These paintings above all reveal a process of intense re -thinking—and yet many of them are among the most lyrical and highly decorative images in the modernist tradition. Diebenkorn once explained the painstaking labor that for him was a necessary condition for creativity: "I want a painting to be difficult to do. 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. With rare exceptions I respond most to painting that cuts across grain rather than following it. I think the artist here can get in touch with that grain rather than simply feel its flow. And he really can't cut right across it anyway."76
30. Henri Matisse
View of Notre Dame , 1914
Oil on canvas, 58 x 37 1/8 (147.3 x 94.3)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Purchase, acquired
through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest, and the Henry Ittleson, A.
Conger Goodyear, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Sinclair Funds, and the
Anna Erickson Levene Bequest given in memory of her husband,
Dr. Phoebus Aaron Theodor Levene
31. Henri Matisse
French Window at Collioure , 1914
Oil on canvas, 45 7/8 x 34 1/2 (116.5 x 87.6)
Musie National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Elsewhere, Diebenkorn described his process in more concrete language: "I guess never in Ocean Park has there been a one-day painting, from blank canvas to finish. There are probably almost no two-day paintings. I think there are a few [finished in] a week, five days—others have maybe gone on for a year. . . . Sometimes they just get realized, finished. Other times they just turn over completely. I look at them and say, 'My God, . . . what was the bind, why was I so torn up and stopped, and blocked?' And I can just see that [sometimes] the technique is blasting-powder rather than steady struggle."77
Diebenkorn truly hit his stride with the new, monumentally scaled abstract paintings only after taking some time to absorb new stimuli. In 1969, he and Phyllis took an extended trip to Europe, visiting museums in Holland, Germany, and Italy. He disliked Venice intensely, and never developed an interest in the Venetian painters. Florence was different; it fascinated him. It was there, at the Uffizi and other museums, that he seriously sought out certain works of art, which he studied intently. According to Phyllis Diebenkorn, hewas especially drawn to the Lorenzetti, Paolo Uccello, Piero della Francesca, and painted carvings from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Diebenkorn apparently couldn't wait to get out of Rome, but he loved Naples. He was fascinated by Etruscan ruins as well as Herculaneum and Pompeii.
32. Ocean Park No. 9 , 1968
Oil on canvas, 84 x 88 (213.4 x 223.5)
The Times Mirror Company, Los Angeles
With the exception of Ingres and those French modernists whose tradition was so central to him, outside of Italy Diebenkorn was most interested in the work of German and Spanish artists. Two of the painters whose work he always looked for in European museums were Lucas Cranach and Velazquez. In 1973, when the Diebenkorns returned to Europe, the highlight of their journey, Phyllis Diebenkorn recalls, was a three-day visit to the Prado in Madrid.
What Diebenkorn absorbed in the European trips of 1969 and 1973 seems to have moved his work in the direction of greater and greater finesse. As the Ocean Park series progressed through the early 1970s, he cultivated increasingly harmonious chromatic effects, and the spatial, or planar, structure of the paintings became both more complex and less muscular, less architectonic. These paintings were often described as comprising "dissolving planes" or "sheets of atmospheric color"; moreover, to the artist's puzzlement, they seemed to be read by many as literally depicting the actual landscape of Ocean Park, apparently in reference to the ocean itself and the sky, although Ocean Park was a half-residential, half-industrial, slightly scruffy urban area rather more than an idyllic seascape. The interpretation of these works as either landscapes or cityscapes is well off the mark. The Ocean Park paintings were intended as—and remain—highly metaphoric spatial and chromatic explorations.
Starting in 1971, the tenor of the paintings underwent an evolution that might be said to parallel Diebenkorn's own evolving taste, from Ezra Pound to a preference for Wallace Stevens. Rather than striving either for the kind of sonorous iconoclastic cadences Pound so resoundingly expressed, or the rambunctiousness the
33. Ocean Park No. 32 , 1970
Oil on canvas, 93 x 81 (236.2 x 205.7)
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. David K. Wellesartist spoke of in relation to some of Beethoven's music, the paintings became reflective, stately, intellectually rigorous. Like Stevens, the work became increasingly touched with humor and irony. Sometimes Diebenkorn allowed a painting to range with the most rarefied subtlety in two or three chromatic families—yellow-golds anchored with green and heliotrope in Ocean Park No. 48 (1971; Fig. 158), blues shifting into rose or lavender in Ocean Park No. 54 (1972; Fig. 161). And instead of bold compositional diagonals, many of the paintings from this period are severely, even statically, structured in perpendiculars, with angled lines remaining as lines sitting on the pictorial surface rather than defining planar edges. Now and then the artist would return to complex syntheses of palette and structure, as in Ocean Park No. 70 (1974; Fig. 165). But often in the later 1970s and continuing into the 1980s, Diebenkorn's most elaborate compositional experiments were played out in works on paper.
The earlier Ocean Park drawings tended to be far leaner, both chromatically and compositionally, than the contemporaneous paintings, as if Diebenkorn wanted to have two markedly different lines of thought going on simultaneously. He produced few if any drawings that related directly to such Ocean Park paintings as No. 24 or No. 32 ; in 1970, when the latter painting was made, Diebenkorn's drawings were primarily black, white, and gray. One is tempted to see here a strain of the Minimalism or general reductivism that was so prevalent in American art during the 1970s. Insofar as, at the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s, Diebenkorn seems to have returned in his meditations to the work of Piet Mondrian, this might even be true, though only in a limited sense. The spareness of the early Ocean Park drawings is radically different from the conceptually reduced work of such artists as Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, or even Diebenkorn's admirer Brice Marden. Diebenkorn's is a reductiveness based not on theory, nor on prior notions of the physicality of the sheet of paper or the stretched canvas. It is a reductiveness even harder won, since it is grounded in a long process of trial and error, a physical positing of ideas followed by their correction or restructuring; and it is a process that only sometimes leads to true reduction.
It wasn't until the mid-1970s that Diebenkorn began to work out ideas in drawings, or paintings on paper, as they came to be called, that were as complex and as chromatically full-fleshed as the paintings. In fact, at times the formula almost seemed to be reversed: in works on paper such as Untitled (Ocean Park) (197475; Fig. 164) or Untitled (1979; Fig. 40), a degree of opulence bordering on the voluptuous becomes a counterpoint to the paintings' generally handsome, rather than luxuriant, brand of decorativeness.
Another distinct type of abstract drawing reached its full force between 1983 and 1986. Some of the works are chromatically sumptuous, such as Untitled (1984; Fig. 194) or Untitled No. 26 (1984; Fig. 34); others, like Untitled No. 32 (1984; Fig. 198) are more austere. Yet even when imposing as subdued a palette and as restrained a composition as are found in Untitled No. 32— a work evocative of Matisse's French Window at Collioure —Diebenkorn in this late period almost never reached the exaggerated degree of Minimalism that often characterized his earlier Ocean Park drawings. Many of these mid-1980s works are as large in conception as in dimensions—up to 26 by 38 inches—and seem larger still. While most are horizontal, a few, such as Untitled (1986; Fig. 199) are commandingly vertical. These upright drawings are as spatially and structurally expansive as any of Diebenkorn's full-size canvases.
The paintings on paper from the mid-1980s combine a vigorous painterly impulse with a series of remarkably diverse structural conceptions. Right-angularity is freely introduced into diagonal matrices, or vice versa. For the first time, architectonic organization competes head-on with chromatic incident. Whereas in Diebenkorn's earlier abstract painting he seemed to subjugate his chosen palette to an overall organizational principle, now the opposite is more often
34. Untitled No. 26 , 1984
Gouache, acrylic, and crayon on paper, 24 x 38 (61 x 96.5)
Private collectiontrue. In these works, Diebenkorn presented the full measure of his understanding of Mondrian—especially the work he loved best, that of 1914 to 1917. Both artists produce structures that look simple, and are not, each work creating an individual universe that seems complete and inevitable—yet not without tension. But the kinship was in no way imitative. Unlike Mondrian, Diebenkorn felt no inhibition about juxtaposing ruled and freehand line; playing with triangles and parallelograms; and equivocating with the edges of the picture. Yet Mondrian's own words, written in 1914, characterize the underlying balance of intention informing Diebenkorn's drawings of the mid-1980s: "[They must be] constructed consciously , though not by calculation , and directed by higher intuition . . . ; chance must be avoided as much as calculation. "78
Before about 1983—certainly throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s—Diebenkorn sometimes seemed to approach his work on paper as a sort of backdrop, or subtext, for the process of compositional thought that went into the paintings and that led to other drawings. At virtually any point (it was certainly true each time I visited the artist's studio), he would be looking carefully at works on paper while he was painting large canvases. The drawings were tacked to the wall in rows, sometimes as many as twenty of them; they were frequently changed, both in terms of their disposition on the walls and, in some cases, their internal composition. In the meantime, two or even three paintings would be in process and, despite the nagging presence of the drawings, it was the paintings' demands for resolution or, more accurately, each one's precise degree of lack of resolution, that most intensely preoccupied the artist. In an undated, punctiliously worded statement, almost certainly written during the Ocean Park period, Diebenkorn articulated the difficulty he experienced in relation to full-scale canvases:
I think that my necessity to work and rework a canvas in order to realize it becomes a process wherein my idea or ideas are externalized . I find that I can never conceive a painting idea, put it on canvas, and accept it, not that I haven't often tried. As a young man I considered this inability a shortcoming—I felt my ideas (those that I brought from my head to an initial laying out on the canvas) were essentially banal. This of course may well have been/be true but however it is, almost from the beginning, I looked forward with relief to being able to correct, to set things right, and it was with something akin to guilt that I did so in the privacy of my studio. . . . It was as though I'd failed in my performance but somehow was able to steal this second chance and thereby come up with something that I could set out with the works of my peers (which were of course first crack).
Somewhat later, I did realize that the arts of painting, writing and composing music were intrinsically activities that partake of revision and that it is probably the exception (Mozart)for this not to be true. Later yet I began to feel that what I was really up to in painting, what I enjoyed almost exclusively, was altering—changing what was before me—by way of subtraction or juxtaposition or superimposition of different ideas. I should also admit to a modicum of guilt in this instance too in that I felt that what was becoming my painting process was a wholesale proposition and that my initial intent, as well as intent in process was reduced to simply making things right—to as vague a goal as "realization. "79
The greater difficulty of resolution Diebenkorn experienced in the large canvases compared to the works on paper is one of the persistent problems of all modernist painting. We know that Diebenkorn rigorously distinguished his full-scale paintings on canvas from his smaller paintings on paper, even though at times, as has been noted, the latter were major-scaled compositions. The reverse, however, was not true. Except for his still-life oil paintings on canvas or panel, he generally refrained from making very small paintingson canvas. It was a part of his adamant avoidance of cultivating what he called "miniaturist painting."80
There was, however, one exception to this preference for large scale: an extraordinary group of paintings, all done on cigar box lids at different moments between 1976 and 1979, and all apparently intended as gifts, since they were given and dedicated to friends or family members (Figs. 3538, 170178). These works are as close as Diebenkorn ever came to participating in a found object or quasi-Pop art modality. Their nature is dictated both by something found, and by the occasional emergence through passages of oil paint of the emblems or brand-name text on the box lids. In general, however, these paintings cannot be classified as either playful or minor. They are simply too dazzling. They echo and distill the themes being simultaneously worked out in the Ocean Park paintings and drawings, but in a kind of hothouse. Taken together, the cigar box lids comprise a concise reference work on the artist's formal quirks and compositional obsessions. Many of the most arresting or idiosyncratic passages in the Ocean Park paintings appear in them, from the hesitant-yet-defining diagonal cutaway to the half-erased boundary; from the tension between ruled and freehand lines to the occasional compulsion to introduce a severely symmetrical arch; and from the maplike habit of construction to the infrequent, and somehow always arresting, introduction of aleatory drips and splatters on the surface.
The cigar box paintings embody a brief moment of playfulness and something like relaxation in Diebenkorn's intensely sustained artistic struggle. Perhaps the most salient aspect of Diebenkorn's personality was his artistic seriousness and habitual self-questioning. If he invited someone to his studio, it was because he genuinely wanted that person's opinions, and he would hesitate neither to express his own doubt about what was being viewed nor to closely question his visitor's response. Sometimes, if one happened to be in the studio when a particularly slow-to-develop, or often reworked, picture was in progress, one glimpsed the artist's agony in the process of resolution. He could seem genuinely despairing about a given picture. Yet Diebenkorn's formidable visual intelligence was too overwhelming for this strange self-effacement to suggest fundamental creative doubt. William Brice has said, "Dick had the capacity of penetrating insight. When he talked, he talked a lot like he painted. He searched for words with his hands. He was always looking for the word. You felt him weighing the truth of things as he talked. That's the way he painted."81
In 1976, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, organized a full-scale retrospective of Diebenkorn's work. The show, which included some ninety-one paintings and sixty-two works on paper, opened in November 1976 and then traveled to the Cincinnati Art Museum, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and The Oakland Art Museum. The show was, in Diebenkorn's estimation, somewhat flawed, but was nevertheless received with wholehearted respect. Robert Hughes wrote in Time magazine: "[Diebenkorn] is not, as the condescending tag once read, a California artist, but a world figure. . . . In short, he is a thoroughly traditional artist, for whose work the words 'high seriousness' might have been invented. The Ocean Parks, the monumental series of paintings Diebenkorn began in 1967 . . . are certainly among the most beautiful declamations in the language of the brush to have been uttered anywhere in the last twenty years."82
For Diebenkorn, the Albright-Knox show provided an occasion to view the evolution of his artistic career with a cold eye. He collaborated with me in the show's installation at the Corcoran, and commented that he was clearly able to see the recent Ocean Park paintings in a way he had never done before, as a "record of this tremendous effort that I sometimes didn't know if I could sustain." I asked him if he would compare it to
35. Cigar Box Lid No. 2 , 1976
Oil on wood, 6 1/4 x 6 1/2 (15.9 x 16.5)
36. Cigar Box Lid No. 3 , 1976
Oil, watercolor, and graphite on wood, 6 1/2 x 5 3/4 (16.5 x 14.6)
Santa Cruz Island Foundation, Santa Barbara, California
37. Cigar Box Lid No. 7 , 1979
Oil on wood, 9 x 7 3/4 (22.9 x 19.7)
38. Cigar Box Lid No. 8 , 1979
Oil on wood, 6 1/2 x 5 3/4 (16.5 x 14.6)
Private collectionathletic endeavor, and whether he felt he had been getting himself in shape for future efforts. He responded, "I think that's exactly what it's like. Right now I feel as though I'm in better condition than ever to continue the effort in the studio. But some days I'll probably doubt it."83
As it happened, Diebenkorn now found himself entering an interval during which he would fine-tune his game before getting back into the fray. For in the months and years following that first museum retrospective, he demonstrated not so much a prolific outpouring of creative energy as an extraordinarily consistent consolidation of, and building upon, the efforts of the previous five years. Between 1977 and 1980, he made some of his most important abstract works on paper, and a few of the supreme examples of the Ocean Park paintings, such as No. 107 (1978; Fig. 39) and the relatively diminutive No. 117 (1979; Fig. 183). But while he was continuing to work in the now firmly established abstract vocabulary he had been developing for a decade, he was quietly, even for a time secretly, experimenting with a new set of formal ideas. The heraldic emblems that had occasionally crept into both his representational and abstract paintings and drawings—and that were even present in some of the small, fetishlike objects he made in the late 1960s when he was recovering from back surgery—increasingly preoccupied him.
In February 1978, the Diebenkorns spent four months in Aups, near Aix-en-Provence, France, at the house of their friends Bill and Roselle Davenport, who were traveling elsewhere. During this period, they lived an isolated existence, once visiting Paris at the invitation of the United States Embassy, another time seeing friends in Vaux. But Diebenkorn used most of the time to work in Roselle's studio, where he completed seventeen works on paper. Anyone who has visited Provence in April or May has experienced the sensuousness of the spring landscape, pungent and luminous, and the eerie perfection of the village architecture in relation to this landscape. Nevertheless, it was not an environment that stimulated "rightness of feeling" for Diebenkorn. When he returned to California, he completely reworked all but one of those seventeen sheets; the one he saved was slightly revised. He said cryptically about them that "the colors were French."84
Even the "failure" of these works reflects Diebenkorn's acute sensitivity to his environment. Rarely has an artist been more finely attuned to nuances of changing light, temperature, landscape, and streetscape. And rarely has a character of ethical propriety attached so firmly to an artist's requirement that what is properly represented is only what is thoroughly observed in a given environment. Everything from the diagonal traceries formed on the studio floor by the shadow of a propped-up open window to the shifting colors that transform the mailbox in late afternoon sunlight were carefully registered and recorded in Diebenkorn's paintings and drawings. William Brice has said, "I don't know of any artist who was more responsive to his physical environment than Dick. If he moves down the block, it changes everything. He absorbed the aura of a place. . . . [And] he didn't like anyone messing in his studio. He liked the look of his place in its continuity of his life in it. The defacement of that continuity was a violation. Even the cigarette butts on the floor were OK with him. Leave them alone. If anything was cleaned or changed, he'd do it himself in his own good time."85
Starting in the spring of 1977, having left the Marlborough Gallery, Diebenkorn exhibited regularly with Lawrence Rubin at M. Knoedler & Co., with each new show marking a much anticipated biannual presence in New York. His years with Marlborough had established him as a noted painter of distinctive, large-scale abstract paintings; most of the Knoedler exhibitions included or were devoted exclusively to works on paper. This was partly because he was producing relatively few paintings on canvas, and partly because of the extraordinarily high quality and broad appeal of the paintings on paper.
39. Ocean Park No. 107 , 1978
Oil on canvas, 93 x 76 (236.2 x 193)
Oakland Museum of California; Gift of the Women's BoardThe latter, in fact, were often neither drawings nor paintings on paper; during the late 1970s, Diebenkorn experimented with a wide range of materials and formal effects, working not only on paper but on wood and even on mylar. He sometimes cut and pasted paper, though generally with results that disguised or de-emphasized the physical overlappings. Whereas in his paintings on canvas Diebenkorn favored oil paint, in small format he often used acrylic, or combined acrylic with charcoal or ink. He became adept in the medium of gouache, exploiting it for its inherent opacity but also coaxing from it a transparency more typical of water-color. Indeed his mastery of delicate translucency on paper surfaces is generally reminiscent of Cizanne's late works on paper. The drawings of the late 1970s explore the use of pentimenti even more exhaustively than do the paintings—and yet they are rarely densely or heavily worked, retaining a character of lightness and openness that belies the layering of material on their surfaces (Figs. 40, 41).
The public's growing familiarity with and affection for Diebenkorn's drawing style made the works in his January 1982 Knoedler exhibition seem like a startling departure. This show unveiled for the first time drawings whose structure, far from echoing the complex Ocean Park vocabulary, presented symbolic figures. These ranged from rudimentary triangles and half circles to talismanic clubs and spades. With this sudden introduction of strong shapes or figures in crisp outline, Diebenkorn seemed to be withdrawing from the hard-won pictorial system in which figure-ground relation-ships were dissolved in abstract fields.
In fact this kind of image-making, as we have seen, had intrigued Diebenkorn since childhood; evidently, he had not entirely outgrown his early fascination with the heraldic emblems of European chivalry. Indeed, heraldic charges had appeared in his mature paintings during the 1950s, as in Albuquerque No. 4 (1951; Fig. 11), where the cross pattie is plainly visible. In 1956, in a gesture whose significance has never been fully analyzed, Diebenkorn inserted into an otherwise typically painted landscape, a large, starkly overlaid black trefoil, or playing-card club form, outlined in white (Fig. 42); it looms in the upper right corner, disconnected from the rest of the painting. The work is titled Landscape with Figure ; clearly the artist is alluding to the word "figure" in the heraldic sense, since no person is depicted. In the mid-1970s he experimented with these shapes systematically: a series of monotypes made in 1975 show spades, roundels, and Greek crosses.86 In 1980, Diebenkorn arranged to go to Malta because of his interest in the Knights of Malta; in London he always visited the museum collections of arms and armor.
In the drawings exhibited at Knoedler's in 1982 and other drawings made the following year, emblems constitute the core subject matter. But the spirit in which Diebenkorn turned to this kind of figuration was entirely different from that of an artist such as Jasper Johns, whose iconic use of the flag or the target was deliberately unemotive—if not culturally, at least personally, neutral. Diebenkorn's insignia-inspired shapes, in contrast, resonate with ancient and cryptic meanings. He was speaking in a language of obscure and yet powerfully felt symbolism.
The response to the Knoedler Gallery exhibition of some fifty of the heraldic-image drawings was a kind of whispered dismay, as if the public expected the Ocean Park cycle of drawings would go on indefinitely. The word-of-mouth reactions to the new work ran to questions about the artist's "loss of direction" or "groping for a new vocabulary." It was evident to few at the time that this exhibition presented an original and fully realized body of work. What now appears to be a character of tension between surface decorativeness and an underlying darkness, or intensity of feeling, may have appeared at first as simply decorativeness. And the works' strongly serial nature—they could be seen as rather minutely differentiated variations on a few themes—separated them decisively from Diebenkorn's usual wide-ranging approach.
40. Untitled , 1979
Acrylic and charcoal on paper, 29 x 23 (73.7 x 58.4)
Collection of Elizabeth and L.J. Cella
41. Untitled , c. 1975
Gouache and pasted paper, 25 x 20 1/2 (63.5 x 52.1)
Stanford University Museum and Art Gallery, California; Gift of
Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant and Richard GrantThe negative reaction to the new works remained unpublished, subject to a curious critical silence. And, unlike the response that greeted Diebenkorn's reengagement with figurative imagery in 1955, no theories arose to explain the artist's apparent shift of direction. Yet Diebenkorn may not have been particularly troubled by this critical unresponsiveness. He may even have been relieved that no one started trying to over-interpret his adoption of a new formal lexicon. He had always disliked critics who "read into" his abstract paintings or drawings by identifying objects or images that might or might not have been intended. Even when painting in a fundamentally abstract mode, he reserved the right to occasionally "represent" things—but he didn't want anyone naming those things, or making analogies that gave symbolic weight to his intentions.
42. Landscape with Figure , 1956
Oil on canvas, 50 1/4 x 47 5/8 (127.6 x 121)
Diebenkorn's retreat in 1981 from a commitment to the "purely abstract" was not made out of a desire to reengage the human figure, but rather to create a field on which to stage a number of dramas involving issues of the human psyche. It is as if, during the nearly three years Diebenkorn was involved with this long series—during which time he was doing little, if any, painting on canvas—he was working out issues that were both psychologically and formally laden. He himself acknowledged this when he described his appropriation of clubs and spades as having had an unpredictable out-come: "I [had used those shapes] occasionally, but . . . never confronted them directly. I used them this time because I wanted some sort of image that would hold its presence. An image that I could manipulate, and . . . it's more complicated than that. . . . You see, I knew that those shapes had emotional charge for me, but I didn't expect that charge to last as long as it did."87
Among the formal concerns brought to the fore in the clubs-and-spades drawings is that of collage. Before 1980, Diebenkorn had often literally appended pieces of paper to his Ocean Park drawings, usually in the form of strips added to the top or bottom of the compositions.
43. Untitled No. 24 , 1983
Gouache, acrylic, and crayon on paper, 25 x 26 3/4 (63.5 x 67.9)
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Grant
44. Ocean Park No. 131 , 1985
Oil on canvas, 65 1/4 x 92 (165.7 x 233.7)
Collection of Lenore S. and Bernard A. Greenberg; Partial Gift to
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
45. Ocean Park No. 140 , 1985
Oil on canvas, 100 x 81 (254 x 205.7)
46. Soda Rock I , 1987
Crayon, gouache, fabric, plastic, and pasted paper on paper,
12 1/2 x 8 (31.8 x 20.3)
Private collectionIn the heraldic-image works, collage or montage became important in a different sense: even when not constructed from separate components cut and reassembled, many of them seem as if they are, in an almost trompe-l'oeil sense. And when he returned in 1983 to a drawing style that continued the Ocean Park compositional structure, collage became more important than ever before. At this moment, too, a more assertive architectonic character came into play, as in one untitled work of 1983 (Fig. 43); here Diebenkorn seems to be so unafraid of strong design that he feigns the look of montaged building blocks embedded in perfectly unified surfaces. That montaged or collaged elements could be used to undermine illusionistic space simply by declaring the literalness of the surface—one of the many discoveries of early twentieth-century modernism—seems to have fascinated Diebenkorn. He sometimes cited Kurt Schwitters as one of the artists whose work had interested him as a young man, and in the 1980s he returned to Schwitters, as well as nodding unmistakably in the direction of Joan Mirs. It is, however, more in Schwitters' dark and multifarious terrain of the psyche than in Mirs's brightly sardonic field of play that Diebenkorn dwelled during this period in his work.
Diebenkorn returned to large-scale painting in 1984. By now he had long since set up a larger and more light-filled studio; in 1974 he had built his own studio and storage space—an entire building suited to his purposes—across the boulevard from the original Ocean Park address. He had given up teaching in 1973, except in the sense that he always taught, keeping in close touch with a few former students, and maintaining the practice of occasionally inviting a few artist friends to look at his work. The paintings done in late 1984 and 1985 are some of his most monumentally conceived works; and a few of them, such as Ocean Park No. 128 of 1984 and Ocean Park No. 130 of 1985 (Figs. 208, 209), are among the most explicitly decorative pieces he ever made. These paintings, and a number of the paintings on paper from this period, attain to that rare level of decorative brilliance we associate both with Matisse's Moroccan period and his final body of large, cutout works.
Diebenkorn's mother, Dorothy, who had lived in Southern California for many years and moved to Santa Monica in the late 1970s, died in 1984; during her declining years, the artist had confined himself to working on paper. In his paintings and drawings of 1984 and 1985, he explored a modified version of the earlier Ocean Park compositional structure—but with the vital differences already noted: elements of collage-related, rather than dissolving, spatially ambiguous surface incident; and of an incipiently architectonic structure which was nevertheless anchored firmly to the surfaces. In other words, now the canvas surfaces displayed none of that backward-forward planarity with which Diebenkorn had experimented in the late 1970s; they tended to declare their flatness, even when, as in Ocean Park No. 131 (Fig. 44), they showed evidence of underpainting or pentimenti. Moreover, Diebenkorn seemed consistently willing to let loose his full capacity for high-pitched chromatic lyricism. Whereas in the past he often reined himself in, deliberately introducing either a formal awkwardness or a highly controlled chromatic discipline—sometimes toning down his palette to the point of near-monochromism—he now unleashed his formidable capacity to create perfect works in the high realm of ornamental aestheticism.
Diebenkorn's last large-scale painting, Ocean Park No. 140 , was completed in 1985 (Fig. 45). It is one of several works (including Ocean Park No. 137 and Ocean Park No. 139 ) that hint at a new direction—but one the artist would never pursue in full-size format. Ocean Park No. 140 employs unusually demarcated and unmodulated colors—green, blue, yellow, and red; and its composition depends not on the subduing perpendicularism of the earlier Ocean Park canvases, but rather on a sweeping diagonal linear division. Like the other late pictures, every element in it proclaims an extremeoverall flatness, broken by passages of a sort of Byzantine, or Sienese, sense of ornamentation. The familiar layered atmospherism of many of the earlier Ocean Park paintings has been purged, replaced by higher-pitched and more opaque pigmentation. The surfaces are remarkably dense, seeming to comprise leaves of variegated color rather than transparent veils or spatially interlocking planes.
Even more frankly ornamental than these large 1985 paintings—the last year Diebenkorn worked in monumental scale—are the drawings from that year and later. Both the shapes and the colors of many of the late works on paper remind us of decorative architecture, sometimes alluding to a pre-Renaissance vocabulary, sometimes to what can only be called a neoclassical framework. Many of these works, especially the more elaborate ones, point to a newly lyrical painting style (Fig. 46). It is as if the artist were reaching toward an immense gesture of gratification, giving form to that poignantly beautiful character previously confined to some of the paintings on paper, the collages, and some of the cigar box lid paintings. The occasional darkness, or inwardness, we have seen emerge periodically in Diebenkorn's work, as well as the willed awkwardness, are absent from this late style.
In 1986, the Diebenkorns decided to return to Northern California and began to look for a rurally situated property in Napa or Sonoma County. In 1988, they finally found and moved into exactly what they had been seeking, a classic old house—restrained Victorian, white clapboard—overlooking the vineyards of the Alexander Valley, near Healdsburg. From the front porch, where the artist often sat, the view extends across the lowlands of the Russian River to a range of foothills whose contours and colors change throughout the day, reflecting every nuance of refracted light and presenting the cycles of seasonal vegetation. The grassy hillsides can shift in a week from brown to green; in late summer and fall, the mountains show off the dark clusters of oak trees to greatest advantage, radiating a particular wheat-gold hue distinctive to the California wine country.
Although Diebenkorn experienced serious health problems soon after settling into the Healdsburg house, he remodeled a large, barnlike structure nearby into a studio with ideally controlled natural light and the highest ceilings of any of his studios. In this environment, he prepared for what he must have envisioned as a new phase in his painting. Despite their nature as miniatures, many of the drawings and collages made at Healdsburg disclose a vocabulary of form and color that could conceivably be transposed into full-scale canvases; if they had, they would have elaborated on the already richer palette achieved in the canvases of 1985. The last drawings, done while Diebenkorn was sitting in a chair in the living room of the Healdsburg house, make frequent use of gold, green, and magenta, and introduce strong blacks and dark grays. Some of them incorporate peculiar curvilinear elements, evoking the shapes of the turbaned heads or upward-curved shoes in some of the Indian miniature paintings the artist had collected in the 1970s, which hung on the walls of the room in which he worked.
In one collage, a mythical moon is suggested by the repeated use of the circle, or parts of the circle and, most startling of all in the context of nearly all his previous work, passages of harlequinlike patterning come into play (Fig. 214). In at least one work, Diebenkorn used silver-painted paper, confirming the hints in some of the late Ocean Park paintings that he was thinking about reflective surfaces or gilding as a device that flattens a surface (Fig. 46). This impetus indicates a desire to establish a wholly nonperspectival, pre-Renaissance spatial matrix. In their transcendent, or spiritual, decorum, the late works on paper relate far more directly to Simone Martini, Cimabue, or Duccio than they do, for example, to one of Diebenkorn's most revered artists, Piero della Francesca. Had he transposed the ideas he was evolving during this time intofull-scale works on canvas, it is fair to say that we would have had a body of work synthesizing the vibrant energy and chromatic complexity of some of the Berkeley paintings, with the unabashed lyricism of some of the still lifes of the 1960s—expressed in the language of Ocean Park.
All his life, Richard Diebenkorn spoke of "rightness" in painting. By this he meant many things, ranging from the mechanics of composition to the state of the work's "soul." "I attempt to make the lines and shapes right and because spatiality is intrinsic to a line-shape continuum, it too must be dealt with—made right. . . . One's sense of rightness involves absolutely the whole person and hopefully others in some basic sense. What is important to artistic communication is only this basic part but if the artist doesn't make his work right he has no idea what he has left out."88
Less freely, but with increasing passion as he grew older, he spoke of the "wrongness" of public values and of much contemporary art. In the collection of studio notes kept in a file dated 196667, he observed: "Painting, art has followed an exclusivity track—which began with leaving out much false value which was brought to art in the 19th century. It continued with the refining and simplifying of forms in the first third of this century. Then because this course had been a right one for so long, fifty or sixty years, it was continued. The point was not noticed when real and positive values began to be excluded."89
And yet it could never be said that Diebenkorn was either a cynic or a pessimist. Rather, he was a man for whom living and working meant recorrecting, and for whom even the most insurmountable difficulty in art was never, for a second, a thing to be feared or avoided.
If there is a single aesthetic or philosophical concept that could explain what Richard Diebenkorn was after in his later paintings, it is the notion of the sublime, that old-fashioned concept that can apply as easily to music as to literature and the visual arts. Diebenkorn read widely and became deeply conversant with a number of musical compositions and their interpreters. In fact, it may be that these worlds were at least as nourishing to him in his own artistic development as was other visual art.
The following words, written by Helen Vendler about the poet Wallace Stevens, might have been written about Richard Diebenkorn. One could substitute Diebenkorn's name for that of Stevens and, in place of the other three poets mentioned, insert the names Newman, Rothko, and Still: "The search for the twentieth century sublime is not peculiar to Stevens, but in him it avoids the ideological or political or religious forms that it takes in Eliot or Auden or Crane, and so can be seen purely as a poetic search creating its own images of quest and finding, refusing to borrow the vocabulary of an institution or a movement or a historical myth to shore up its own creation."90 Vendler goes on to write that Stevens is "modern as Cizanne is modern; he keeps the inherited shapes, is classic in his own disposition of materials, is rarely bizarre, and stays within the central tradition of Western art. . . . Stevens' 'copies' never forget their great originals; but we may see, in following Stevens' experiments with the materials of [Keats' ode "To Autumn"], how a modern originality gradually declares itself, while deliberately recalling, even into old age, the earlier master's prototype."91
In 1990, following a period of severe ill health, Diebenkorn was invited by Andrew Hoyem's Arion Press, San Francisco, to create a series of prints to illustrate a luxury edition book of 145 poems by W.B. Yeats. Helen Vendler selected the poems and contributed an introductory text; Crown Point Press provided Diebenkorn with etching plates, with which he could create as many or few images as he wished. Because of his limited physical strength, he worked on the project in the living room of his home in Healdsburg, finally producing six etchings.
47-50. Coat I , III , IV , V , 1990
Etchings, 8 1/2 x 6 1/2 (21.6 x 16.5) each
Private collectionDiebenkorn seems to have strongly associated with an image Yeats repeated three times in italics in one of his last poems, "The Apparitions"—"Fifteen apparitions have I seen;/The worst a coat upon a coat-hanger. " It plainly reminded him of the little pencil drawing of his Marine jacket, which had been made more than forty years earlier, given to his mother, and put away in a drawer (Fig. 5). Now Diebenkorn turned the strangely resonant object, first rendered in a spirit of youthful self-examination, to quite a different purpose. With Yeats' familiar words guiding him, the artist chose to render the coat upon the hanger in a series of five, increasingly abstracted, versions (Figs. 4750). The first two literally allude to the Marine jacket drawing, but now the coat belongs to a civilian wearer. Then the idea is transformed into a series of enormously fraught signs and metaphors. At one stage—Coat III— the image suggests an arched window containing a dryly linear, Klee-like composition. It hints at a spindly cage, confining something intense but invisible. At the top of the arched structure, the line that alludes to the hook of the coat hanger is also unmistakably to be read as a question mark. Coat IV , in the words of Andrew Hoyem, "is the arch become suit-bag or body-bag, zippered.&n bsp;. . . The shroud is open at a V-neck. Inside it is totally black. The outside is a fabulous fabric."92 The final image, Coat V , unexpectedly returns to a mood of mundane corporeality; it seems to signify the finality of the object, and its image—what remains after the soul that once inhabited it has vanished.
Yeats' poetry guided Diebenkorn's thoughts and art in his final years. No words of the Irish poet have more resonance for Diebenkorn's late work in general than the second and fourth stanzas of "Sailing to Byzantium" (1927). Diebenkorn knew these lines by heart:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
In January 1989, Diebenkorn underwent surgery to replace a damaged aortic valve. During his hospital stay, he contracted an infection that persisted for months, and in September 1989 the valve operation was repeated at Stanford Memorial Hospital, after which he seemed to improve. He was able to remain at Healdsburg for all of 1990, complete the remodeling of his studio, and work on small drawings, prints, and collages. But during most of 1991 and 1992, he experienced health problems that required repeated hospital visits. At Christmas 1992 in order to be near medical facilities, the Diebenkorns took up full-time residence in the apartment they kept in Berkeley. Diebenkorn was never again able to work or to return to Healdsburg; he died on March 30, 1993.
51. Richard Diebenkorn, 1986
Excerpted from The Art of Richard Diebenkorn by Jane Livingston Copyright © 1997 by Jane Livingston. Excerpted by permission.
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|Preface and Acknowledgments||12|
|The Art of Richard Diebenkorn||17|
|Reality: Digested, Transmuted, and Twisted||93|
|Leaving Ocean Park||107|
|Selected Exhibition History||260|
|Works in the Exhibition||271|
Posted October 29, 2010
Ruth E. Fine's title for her essay on Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) aptly describes the career of this phenomenally important and gifted artist. His works are still sought after by those who can still afford his many print editions from Crown Point Press ('Green', an etching from the Ocean Park Series remains one of the most highly valued etchings in this country): his place in art history is secure. This book is actually a catalogue form the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City exhibition that traveled from 1997 - 1999 across the country. It is in very respect one of the finest books on Diebenkorn, form the color reproductions to the fine and intelligent essays from not only the curator of this exhibition Jane Livingston ('The Art of Richard Diebenkorn'), but also form the above mentioned Ruth E. Fine and especially John Elderfield ('Leaving Ocean Park'). The artist's career is followed chronologically, a particularly fine curatorial choice because of the ways in which Diebenkorn's career mutated. Best known for his abstract expressionist paintings created in his home in the Bay Area of California - especially the Ocean Park Series, paintings that glow with light the way that Rothko's glow with dark. But Diebenkorn, always testing the waters of creativity, turned to representation for a while, creating figurative work that while painted with realism still managed to make even his figures reflect his unusual gift for capturing the qualities of light peculiar to the Bay Area. The canvases range from the very large to the intimately small works of still life, like 'Poppies' that graces the cover. A special aspect of this book of wonders is the decision to add bits and fragments of Diebenkorn's own writing - at times witty, at times shy, and always informative as to his perception of his work in the art world at large. This is a book to cherish for all art lovers and a monument to the art of catalogue design. Grady HarpWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 2, 2010
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