Reflections on the Painting of Richard Diebenkorn: THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

Richard Diebenkorn was a "painter's painter." Born in 1922 when modern art was still in its youth, Diebenkorn knew since his own earliest days that he would be an artist. Throughout his prolific career, Diebenkorn explores the opposing worlds of abstraction and figurative painting. Not only does he work in both modes, but his efforts in one mode always inform the other. Whether he was busy in the world of abstraction or the world of representation, Diebenkorn's unswerving intention is directed toward wholeness and visual harmony.

Diebenkorn began his formal education at Stanford University, and his early artistic influences include Cezanne, Edward Hopper, and Matisse. One early work, Palo Alto Circle (1943), is extremely Hopperesque in its subject matter and handling: a hotel facade rendered in a strong sunlight. This
composition of various rectangular and linear elements foreshadows his mature, more abstract work. Diebenkorn's early delvings into abstraction include his Berkely series began in 1953. These paintings depict loose, organic imagery which is sometimes derived from the figure, but mostly evolves from the artist's highly intuitive style. Formal relationships of the fundamental elements of design -- line, shape, value, color, texture -- are the mainstay of his paintings at this time. One can, however, sense the tension between the figurative and the non-objective. In The Archer (1953) the overt imagery of the archer with a drawn bow is tempered by the active, painterly surface. The visual tension in the lines of the bow and string are as real as the physical tension in the objects that they represent.

The surface of Diebenkorn's paintings tells the viewer much about the manner in which he works. This is true of all of his work. The multi-layered, built-up quality of the surface reveals many revisions and corrections. This is evidence of an active feedback between artist and canvas. Some critics view this aspect of Diebenkorn's work negatively and accuse him of uncertainty and imprecision. On the contrary, "getting it right" is Diebenkorn's chief objective and he does not mind revising things to realize a composition where everything is essential -- nothing is left out.

In the mid-50's, about 20 months into his Berkely series, Diebenkorn began to sense an "emptiness" in the abstracts that, to him, came all too easily. As a result, he started a series of still life paintings that looked something like exercises in art school -- straightforward, objective studies of scissors, cups, books, and other everyday items. Though representational in imagery, these paintings retain the painterly surface and attention to design that is characteristic of his earlier abstract expressionism. Then, the figure appears.

Injecting the figure into his work, Diebenkorn attains the human element that rejuvenates his creative spirit. In Woman in a Window (1957), the artist unifies geometry and contemplation through the image of a woman gazing out of a window. The woman -- posed with head in hand, slightly hunched, and leaning on a table -- appears to be deep in thought, perhaps daydreaming. The figure and ground are handled in simple, flat shapes. Vivid blues and reds in the figure and the window glow against a muted ochre wall. Diebenkorn's use of simple shapes runs parallel to his objective of universal expression. Details are eliminated in favor of a unified whole. This painting recalls the classical theme expressed in Durer's Melancholia I where a figure in contemplation is surrounded by geometric elements.

In 1967, Diebenkorn's creative pendulum swings back toward abstraction in the Ocean Park series. This extensive series was begun when the artist was living in Santa Monica, California. Although the series is strictly non-objective, strong elements of landscape evoke the bright, open feel of the California coastline. The entire series consists of variations in surface division. The horizontal and vertical lines, and the dynamic intervals of spaces are somewhat related to Mondrian's neo-plasticism. In Ocean Park No. 96 (1977, Fig. 4), Diebenkorn arranges blocks of muted yellow, pale blue, and bright orange into an open structure which refers loosely to a beach scene with a sunset and tall cliffs. Several diagonals activate the space. Diebenkorn uses a transluscent, layered wash to deepen the surface interest. Along with his handling of paint, Diebenkorn continues the spatial ambiguity seen throughout his work. Cool blues and plunging diagonals induce a spatial recession, yet the gestural painting emphasizes the surface. This simultaneous creation and destruction of space creates a strong visual tension.

In summary, Richard Diebenkorn is a master visual synthesizer who worked primarily on two levels: formal, abstract relationships, and the emotional level of visual experience. Unconcerned with trends and the opinions of his contemporaries, Diebenkorn pursued his goal of making unified pictures with few preconceived notions. He cultivated a broad base of studio skills and art history knowledge, but when brush met canvas, he always chose the intuitive over the intellectual. Diebenkorn also had an amazing capacity of self criticism and clearmindedness in assessing his work. Ironically, he thought himself a tradition painter who was simply expanding tradition. However, as gallery director Robert Buck, Jr. puts it, "His ability to resolve his talents ... in directions at once so diverse and yet related makes him a unique and altogether unparalleled figure in contemporary art."

Gregory Eanes
April 7, 1993