The Art of Richard Diebenkorn

The Art of Richard Diebenkorn

by Jane Livingston

ISBN: 9780520212589

Publisher University of California Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Museum Exhibition Catalogs, Arts & Photography/Artists, A-Z

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Sample Chapter

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, in 1955, 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


Excerpted from "The Art of Richard Diebenkorn" by Jane Livingston. Copyright © 1997 by Jane Livingston. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Jane Livingston

Jane Livingston

After graduating college with a degree in fashion design and fine arts, I moved to New York City where I studied screen writing with the Gotham Writer's group and attended NYU part-time studying filmmaking and acting. Learning how to write screenplays taught me how to write tight storylines and acting helped master dialog.

View full Profile of Jane Livingston

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