The day was warm and the campus was quiet when my aunt and I toured two neighboring, but vastly dissimilar, art museums at Stanford University. We were there primarily to see the two new exciting acquisitions at the Cantor Arts Center, “Richard Diebenkorn: The Sketchbooks Revealed,” and Edward Hopper’s “New York Corner.” And although these two remarkable presentations are alone worth the visit, the Anderson Collection, the one-year old new modern museum building next door, which showcases an outstanding collection of 20th-century American art, is also a treat for the senses.
Richard Diebenkorn (1922–1993), a superb 20th century American artist, bridged the gap between abstract expressionism, an early interest, to figurative works, as a member of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. He studied at Stanford University from 1940 to 1943, and returned after the Second World War to graduate in 1949. His first formal art training at Stanford introduced him to the work of Edward Hopper (1882 –1967), whose works he admired greatly. Diebenkorn saw himself as part of the continuum of Hopper, de Kooning, Cezanne and Matisse. So it is fitting that the two impressive acquisitions should be shown together in one gallery.
The late Phyllis Diebenkorn donated 29 of her husband’s private sketchbooks to the Cantor — and what a precious gift it is. The artist always carried a sketchbook, so it’s not surprising that the donated books contain 1,045 drawings. From a few creative lines of pen and ink forming a figure, to complete-looking vibrant watercolors, the drafts span Diebenkorn’s entire career. Many are of his wife, most are figurative, while others blend figuration with abstraction. Unfortunately, one can view only a one page-spread from each sketchbook. But the Cantor has digitized all the books, which may be seen via touchscreen kiosks in the gallery. I hope that the viewable one-page spread from each sketchbook will vary over time.
To accompany the sketchbooks, the exhibition includes a few of Diebenkorn’s earliest paintings, which have not been previously shown in a public setting. The link to Hopper is quite evident in these deceivingly simple figurative works.
Edward Hopper’s “New York Corner” is one of his early paintings, created in 1913, when he was just 31 years old. Well received at the time, it is considered the first work created in the representative style for which he is justifiably renowned. Like Hopper’s later “Nighthawks,” the famous solitary night scene of the corner diner held by the Chicago Art Institute, “New York Corner” is also a street scene, but of a corner saloon in lower New York City. However, “New York Corner” is richly populated with people bustling along the street, and has hazy smokestacks and buildings in one corner of the background. It is easy to understand why the Cantor would go to great lengths and expense to acquire this fine iconic painting.
The Anderson Collection at Stanford is distinct in look and feel from the Cantor Arts Center. Whereas the Cantor is neoclassical in style, the Anderson Collection is a modern, well-designed, high-ceilinged, light-filled building containing 121 modern and contemporary American paintings and sculpture collected by Harry and Mary Margaret Anderson. I loved that the collection was divided into schools of art including Bay Area Abstraction, Bay Area Figuration, California Light & Space, Color Field Painting, Contemporary Painting, Funk, New York School, and Post-Minimalism. With this sectioning, it was easy to compare and contrast works by artists in the same school.
Among the surprisingly rich collection are two brilliant paintings by Richard Diebenkorn, “Ocean Park #60 (1973) and “Girl on the Beach” (1967) that will be better appreciated after viewing the artist’s sketchbooks at the Cantor. “Wine Glass and Postcard (Zurbaran) (1968) by Paul Wonner (1920-2008) is a fine example of the Bay Area Figuration School. “Hans Brinker in the Tropics” by Roy De Forest (1930-2007) completed in 1974, in the “Funk” section is imaginative, amusing and colorful.
Stanford is expanding its art and art history departments by forming a new arts district. In addition to the Cantor and Anderson Collection, the nearly completed McMurtry Building for the Department of Art and Art History will form the triumvirate of fine arts buildings. On a tech-heavy campus, the University’s emphasis on fine arts is a welcome and complimentary addition.