Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years


Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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I hope that because of this beautiful and fascinating exhibit, Richard Diebenkorn (1922–1993) will cease to be known as a “California artist” and instead be regarded as a superb 20th century American artist. Yes, Diebenkorn was part of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, but that designation shouldn’t limit his importance as a painter who bridged the gap between abstract expressionism and figurative works.

After growing up and studying art in the San Francisco Bay Area, Diebenkorn lived and worked in various locales, including New York City. Clyfford Still, Arshile Gorky, Hassel Smith and Willem de Kooning were his contemporaries in the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, which began in the 1940s.

The artist continued his abstract work (ca. 1946–1956), but in 1953, when he returned to the Bay Area to live in Berkeley, California, he began a dramatic shift into representational art. De Kooning’s exploration into somewhat figurative art had given Diebenkorn “permission” to experiment. From 1955 through 1967, Diebenkorn painted figures, still lifes, landscapes and interiors. Although he later returned to abstraction (ca. 1967–1993) including his famous Ocean Park series, his fertile Berkeley period was not only the most interesting phase of his development, but also yielded some of his most captivating works in luscious, saturated color.

This first in-depth definitive survey of Diebenkorn’s Berkeley period contains more than 130 paintings and drawings gathered from individual collections and 36 museums. The excellent curation of this exhibit by Timothy Burgard, Curator of American Art, really enriches one’s appreciation and understanding of Diebenkorn. And although one can thoroughly enjoy viewing the paintings and drawings without explanation, attention to the wall labels, or better, the audio tour, or best, the exhibition catalog, are great ways to learn more about the artist and understand more about his art.

To begin a painting, Diebenkorn often used alphabetic letters as a base abstract form. He also painted his canvas from all aspects — upside down, sideways, etc. — whether he was painting an abstract or a figurative piece. One can see the resemblance and synergy between his representation work and abstract pieces as he uses similar basic lines in both. He used female forms in his abstract art; later he used the same lines for figurative nudes. The artist’s Berkeley studio had no outdoor view, so that virtually all of his Berkeley period works, even his landscapes, were painted from his imagination.

Diebenkorn admired the art of de Kooning, Cézanne, Matisse and Edward Hopper and saw himself as part of their continuum. His “Interior Doorway” painting shows aspects of Matisse’s fondness for using opened doors as bridges between the interior and exterior. It also reflects Edward Hopper’s dramatic use of empty buildings. One can see a Hopper-like building through the doorway in the picture.

In 1964, Diebenkorn was invited to visit the Soviet Union. He asked to see some Matisse paintings in Soviet museums. At the Hermitage in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), he viewed artwork that was then stored in the basement. He saw the museum’s fabulous Matisse collection, now properly displayed at the Hermitage. He absorbed them into his frame of reference. In his “Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1955,” Matisse’s influence is seen in the colorful, flat imagery and the flowery bedspread.

At the de Young Museum, there is also a companion retrospective exhibition of photographs by Rose Mandel (1910-2002).The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel,” is the first full review of this dynamic artist. She photographed and worked closely with many of the Bay Area’s best-known artists including Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff and Ansel Adams. Her photographs of Diebenkorn offer an intimate and personal view of his Berkeley studio.

“Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years”is a wonderful exhibit with wonderful art. It explores and explains Diebenkorn’s oscillating conceptions of abstraction and figuration, which led to his powerful influence on postwar American art.

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