Richard Diebenkorn

Whitney Museum of American Art

Oct. 12, 1997 to Jan. 11, 1998

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Feb. 8, 1998 to April 12, 1998

The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

May 9, 1998 to Aug. 16, 1998

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Oct. 9, 1998 to Jan. 19, 1999

"Strength In Reserve - Tension Beneath Calm"
Ocean Park No. 79 by Diebenborn

Ocean Park No. 79, 1975, oil on canvas 93" x 81", The Philadelphia Museum of Art, All rights reserved Estate of Richard Diebenkorn

By Carter B. Horsley

Artists are usually preoccupied with developing a personal style, a "signature" treatment that distinguishes their work.

Once the "formula: has been developed, the artist then usually churns out works that conform closely to the model, fleshing out, amplifying, experimenting, broadening, embellishing, reinforcing it. He usually becomes defined by it.

Some artists stick with it, seemingly forever. Others, however, change directions, and explore new artistic avenues, sometimes dramatically different. Picasso, Matisse, George Inness and Childe Hassam are such examples.

Richard Diebenkorn is another, switching from abstraction to figurative works and back to abstraction.

In some instances, the artists may have exhausted the possibilities of their "style," or merely become exhausted, and in need of a change of pace. In other cases, such as Diebenkorn's, the change is not inconsistent with a maturing process and the temperament is consistent, even visually derivative.

Diebenkorn is such a synthesist, and his late work, beginning with his famous "Ocean Park" series of vertical, geometric abstractions of magnificent color and subtle reworking, transcends much of the art that so strongly influenced him: that of Edward Hopper, Paul Cezanne, Piet Mondrian, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Henri Matisse.

His is an art that clearly was not exhausted. One sees the large paintings and longs for more. It engages the viewer in the potential for variations and involves them in the creative process. The sensation is similar to the large color field work of Mark Rothko but as wonderful and viscerally emotional as those are they are more limited in scope and intellectual fertility.

While Diebenkorn grew up with Abstract Expressionism, he has, correctly, been lionized as one of the very last "Moderns." His work bears the stamp of the above-mentioned artists, but also the intensity and process of Albert Pinkham Ryder, the lyricism and palette of Paul Klee, the painterly qualities of Hans Hofmann and the poetry of DeChirico.

While many artists would be demeaned by so many clear influences, Diebenkorn rises not above them necessarily but to them. In his best works, and there are many, he is awash with beauty.

Sometimes, a viewer of art is astonished at an artist's vision, awestruck by his interpretative powers and singular imagination. Too often, however, the artist turns out to be a "one-trick pony," the "first" to giganticize, or "macrotize," or "pontillize," or "pop," and their oeuvre is repetitive, and becomes boring, or predictable.

Diebenkorn's oeuvre does not fall in this category. His works engage and excite. There is a dynamic force to his compositions and a haunting musicality to his themes. His art rewards repeated viewings and is not static.

There is a resonance that rings of the fine Cubist works of Picasso, Braque and Gris and the Russian Constructivists and the German Expressionists and the Fauves.

In large measure, this resonance is mostly compositional. Digitize his works into a computer and play with the palette and you will produce many very satisfactory variations. Diebenkorn's color juxtapositions are fabulous and "locked."

In his foreword to the excellent and large catalogue, David A. Ross, the director of the Whitney Museum, observes correctly that "Diebenkorn emerges at the century's end as an artist who restored to late modernism the sense of the sublime that seemed to fade with each successive decade after World War II."

Richard Clifford Diebenkorn Jr., was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1922 and remembered that he was always drawing locomotives on shirt cardboards as a child. "When he was too poor to buy first-quality art materials, he drew on recycled advertising posters that had a coated surface," Jane Livingston wrote in one of her essays in the catalogue.

As a child, he was also fascinated with medieval heraldry and the Bayeux Tapestries. Late in life, he reminisced about the tapestries: "The main events are central and in flanking panels above and below, and they are dead men and coats of arms; therefore, these dialogues paralleling one another, horizontally."

In addition to certain artists, Diebenkorn admits to being influenced by such musicians as Bach Hayden, Mozart and Beethoven and such poets as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats and Wallace Stevens.

At Stanford University, Diebenkorn fell in love with the work of Edward Hopper: "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."

He joined the marines, studied some more at the University of California at Berkeley and made trips with his wife, Phyllis, to the Phillips Collection in Washington where visitors could sit, smoke and talk and absorb the works of Albert Pinkham Ryder, Pierre Bonnard and Matisse, among others. Diebenkorn was particularly stuck by the pentimenti (traces of underlying pigment) in some of the Matisse pictures, and, Livingston wrote, "These visible traces become an indispensable part of the viewer's experience of immediacy and lend the work a king of provisional (though never unfinished) quality.)

Indeed, Diebenkorn's work abounds in pentimenti, visible overpainting and reworking, but it rarely appears sloppy. Neither does it appear intentional. It is "found," part of the 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," Livingston wrote.

These "human touches," that almost appear as errors, or mistakes are very important to Diebenkorn's art, adding a painterly touch. One could imagine him, or more likely another artist, "cleaning up" such slapdash smudges and being very impressed with the result as the compositions are so very strong. But it is these touches, as well as the composition, the palette, and the painterliness of Diebenkorn that elevate his works to a higher plane.

In the 1940's, Diebenkorn went to New York where he became familiar with the works of Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes and Bradley Tomlin Walker, and became interested in jazz, even to the point of taking up, briefly, the trombone.

At the time, critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg were becoming highly influential, especially the former who propounded that art should "spring from formal purity, or a vigilant effort to strip painting of spatial or representational illusionism," Livingston wrote.

"The orthodox purveyors of the Greenbergian dictates of flatness and the primacy of the material, among them Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, and Kenneth Noland," Livingston continued, "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 Pollack - and more decorative than that of Richard Diebenkorn. Willem de Kooning never comfortably fit Greenberg'' theoretical mold - though Greenberg rarely acknowledged him as anything other than 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."

At the California School of Fine Arts, Diebenkorn was befriended by David Park, an artist and teacher who was wary of some New York artists' "egocentrism" that he found a bit implicit in "The Doctrine of Action Painting" and Abstract Expressionism. At the CSFA, Diebenkorn became a teacher and also became familiar with the works of Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, whose painting, "Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea," influenced him considerably with its strong horizontal segments.

Diebenkorn's early abstractions evidence "unusually multifarious gradations of a single hue even in quite small canvases, Livingston observed, a characteristic that runs throughout his work.

"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 Cat cartoons, an interest Elmer Bischoff characterized as part of Diebenkorn's 'cultivating a deliberate awkwardness.' 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….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 ventured to Albuquerque and in the early 1950's became influenced significantly by the work of Arshile Gorky and by a fascination with aerial vistas. After taking a teaching position at the University of Illinois at Urbana, Diebenkorn's work 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," Livingston noted.

Diebenkorn, according to Livingston, eschewed the "Moby-Dickism" of Pollack, Newman and Rothko: "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."

His abstractions of the early 1950's were marked by strong composition and bravura brushwork and brought him considerable acclaim. Livingston remarked that his work of the time "rival the highest achievements of classic Abstract Expressionist painting." Despite increasing success, Diebenkorn, however, was not at ease and in 1957 maintained that "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."

Thirty years later, Diebenkorn would reflect that, for him, the absence of people or objects in abstract painting missed the "dialogue between elements that can be…wildly different and can be at war, or in extreme conflict."

He would switch from abstractions to figurative work for most of the 1960's. His still lifes and portraits and cityscapes of this period manifested the bold brushwork in the mode of a Manet, but bore a consistent sense of vibrant colors and very strong compositions. His 1963 painting of "Ingleside" depicts, apparently, a typical suburban housing subdivision, but one that far surpasses the reality. The composition is very strong with a darkly bluish gray sky occupying the top third or so of the painting, a curving very dark gray road taking up the lower portion and the middle of the work sparkling with super bright white abstractions of houses running up a hillside, punctuated by a few dark trees and some red and orange roofs and some blue highlighted trim. At first viewing, one is tempted to suggest some gradation of color for the sky or even some clouds and perhaps some foreshortening for the lower third of the painting, but one quickly senses such adjustments are not necessary, indeed, are wrong. What Diebenkorn possesses in abundance is an original sense of balance. What he has painted here is a specific place that is also universal and though it appears to be a scene of brightest illumination it has a timelessness about it that makes the viewer supply the time-lapse changes. What lingers is the organization, the man-made creation and their immense powers.

In 1966, Diebenkorn started teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles and would soon commence his famous series of paintings influenced by the Ocean Park section of the Venice section of Los Angeles.

Here is Livingston's perceptive description:

"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 period. 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….The result is a picture trying to look like an enormous montage, the painting 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….

"One of the central defining principles of the Ocean Park paintings is precisely the dichotomy between the improvisatory 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….

"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 metaphorical spatial and chromatic explorations."

Later, Diebenkorn's experimented with different materials and smaller scale, executing several works on cigar box covers. His technique also changed and some of the works seemed to have a fluid undercurrent and there are "passages of a sort of Byzantine, or Sienese, sense of ornamentation…[and a] higher-pitched and more opaque pigmentation," Livingston commented.

In his catalogue essay, John Elderfield, chief curator at large and deputy director of curatorial affairs at The Museum of Modern Art, recalled that "the spontaneous first impulse Diebenkorn called a performance; it was to be distrusted, for the artist would want to 'rethink, alter, discard'…the artist learned to take the risk of not knowing what he was going to say. He would, he said, deliberately do things wrong at first in order to set them right. But anything done at first was bound to be dissatisfying because what was unaltered was unexamined. He was an admirer of the work of W. B. Yeats and subscribed to that poet's famous dictum: 'We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric; but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.'"

In his best works, Diebenkorn evokes the notions of elegy, erosion, memorialization and temporality. His "crudities," as he called his intentionally left splotches and pentimenti, are touchstones of fraility, perhaps even frustration. Above all, there is a very cerebral character to his work, but it is not too intellectual and it is not devoid of emotion. Indeed, Diebenkorn exudes resolute emotionalism and empathy. Some of his paintings of women, for example, are intensely private glimpses into distraction, poignant and pregnant not with reverie, but reflection.

There are many surprises in this splendid exhibition such as "July," a 1957 oil of a man in a blue shirt on a park bench that somehow has blended into a landscape composed by the American flag. The man's face is mask-like, but the overall image is incredible strong. Is the man impassive, or stoic, or exhausted, or deliberate, or dejected, or stone? His left arm is barely contained by the side of the canvas while his right arm comfortably rests atop the bench behind which stretches brightly colored fields of the country. In such boldness there is still great mystery.

Asymmetry abounds in Diebenkorn's work and many of the abstractions seem to have the layered dimensionality that was a hallmark of the work of Irene Rice Peirera. It matters little, however, how many different references one finds in his works to that of others, whether to Matisse, or Ralston Crawford, or Cezanne, or Bonnard. Diebenkorn was not static and he was not derivative. He clearly was an artist of great sensitivity and humility, but, moreover, of depthless ingenuity and spark.

Two years before his death in 1993, he painted "Untitled No. 10," a horizontal work that is one of his finest compositions. Although Diebenkorn disliked critics who read into his work objects and subjects that were not there or intended, this beautiful painting is a design for the most beautiful flag ever, one that would put that of England's to shame. Perhaps more importantly, it demonstrates a renewed vision that could have led to an major series equally as important as Ocean Park.

Diebenkorn's luminist spirit is shared in part by artists such as Fairfield Porter and Milton Avery, but Diebenkorn is an artist who transcended easy boundaries, niches and definitions. What was paramount was the work, the vision, the problem, the sensation, the sentiment, at, and in, hand. As the magnificently illustrated catalogue amply demonstrates, Diebenkorn got a lot out for which we must be very grateful.

He may not have been the first at much, but, most importantly, he was a master and his best work stands triumphant, and most beautifully, on its very own.

The exhibition is sponsored by J. P. Morgan in New York and San Francisco and by Philip Morris Companies in Fort Worth and Washington.

Click here to see a reproduction of "Ocean Park No. 67" by Diebenkorn in The City Review article on the May 15, 2001 evening auction of Contemporary Art at Sotheby's

The Whitney Museum has a website about the exhibition with about a dozen reproductions.

Click here or on the picture of the catalogue's cover below to order the catalogue at 30 percent off list price from

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