PRINT January 1965

Diebenkorn Retrospective in Washington

RICHARD DIEBENKORN IS probably the most celebrated living artist from the western U.S. And with good reason––he is one of the most intelligent, aware and self-directed of artists. He established himself with a fresh abstract painting style before he was thirty years old. He has pursued his own vision regardless of fashion and has changed directions in his art when his early style had achieved sympathetic understanding and even popularity. There is an unquestionable continuity between early work and the more recent, which confirms the artist’s achievement and illuminates his self-direction. It is time to evaluate the artist’s entire work without belaboring the superficialities of style or subject matter.

Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1922, Diebenkorn studied from September 1940 to June 1943 at Stanford University before the V-12 Officer Training Program transferred him to the University of California, Berkeley. He had drawn and painted since he was a child and followed two paths: “In the classroom . . . I used strong color, painted loosely, took subjects that the other fellows were interested in . . . at home my work was quite different. It was a sort of elaborate note-taking with reference to my private world. The pictures were tight, rather small, the color was used to identify things . . . the pictures being a means of being transported and brought into real contact with things of importance to me . . .”l Later, in his first years as an art student, his first serious efforts seem to reflect the seeing of Edward Hopper, the qualities of isolation, monotony and disengaged reporting.

At Stanford he studied with Daniel Mendelowitz and Victor Arnautoff and he responded to their sym­pathetic teaching. Even while training for the military at California, Diebenkorn managed to study with Erle Loran for a time. Transferred to active duty and stationed near Washington, D.C., Diebenkorn prepared for work as a war artist and later moved to Honolulu on active duty. When the opportunity permitted, he visited The Phillips Collection, reporting that it was a humanizing experience and that it was his “. . . main contact with Matisse.” Even now, nearly 20 years after the experience, the painter finds reflections of works in The Phillips Collection working their way into his paintings.

After the years of military service, Diebenkorn returned in 1946 to San Francisco to enroll at the California School of Fine Arts. There he encountered David Park who became his most influential teacher and friend. Later in the same year he received the Albert Bender Grant-in-Aid, which enabled him to work part of the next year in Woodstock, N.Y. In 1947–8 he began teaching at the California School alongside Clyfford Still, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Hassel Smith and Edward Corbett. After a year of teaching he held a one-man show at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and received the Emanuel Walter Purchase Prize at the 67th San Francisco Art Museum Painting and Sculpture Annual, 1948.

Judged by current standards, the Legion’s show was composed of small paintings. The paintings had a structural base which rested in Cubism and a division of the picture surface which took the form of abstract geometry. Space tended toward flatness but there were passages handled three-dimensionally which created a tension between forward and back­ward in the picture space. One might say that the first generation of American abstract painters—Dove and O’Keeffe—and a romantic sense of space and color were brought together in the artist’s impressive debut.

A young instructor did not relate directly to the senior faculty members at the California School. Diebenkorn was most aware of Clyfford Still’s influence through two young artist-students—John Hult­berg and Frank Lobdell—with whom he made up the Sausalito group of Abstract Expressionist paint­ers. Naturally Diebenkorn felt Still’s presence and he did see Still’s one-man exhibition at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Influences work circuitously and the Still ethic and esthetic were strong in San Francisco in those years. Mark Rothko taught two summers at the School and was always encouraging and easy with his juniors. A six-foot canvas of Roth­ko’s exhibited at the San Francisco Museum, exercised an influence on many of the younger artists. Diebenkorn belonged to one clique—David Park, Hassel Smith and Elmer Bischoff—which met once each week to look at each other’s paintings and to talk and exchange ideas about their work. This group did not overlap any other faculty group, nor did it touch the student group to which only Diebenkorn belonged. Another esthetic liaison existed between Diebenkorn and Edward Corbett, who saw each other often during those years.

Hassel Smith and Diebenkorn held a two-man show at the Lucien Labaudt Gallery, San Francisco, in 1949. Smith, eight years older than Diebenkorn, painted in a figurative manner until 1947. There can be no question that each had an influence on the other in the late ’40s. Labaudt had been a painter and after his death his wife continued a policy of showing the work of artists in whom she had confidence. Exhibitions of this nature, in a studio-­gallery environment, had meaning largely for the professional art community and not for the collector.

In those G.I. Bill days a new generation of artists had come to mature years in an entirely different atmosphere than had been possible during the 1930s. Free tuition, materials, and a minimum subsistence allowance made it possible to follow art study with the single-minded intensity which greater maturity permitted. Art schools everywhere found themselves obtaining unprecedented results under the effect of the G.I. bill. The California School of Fine Arts was far ahead of most schools at the time, under the guidance of the cranky and inspiring Douglas MacAgy who had first come to the bay city as Assistant to Dr. Grace Morley of the San Francisco Art Museum. The two institutions—CSFA and SEAM—did a magnificent job in creating a climate in which art was important and where experiment and controversy were encouraged. The composition of the faculty at the School and the roster of exhibitions at the Museum make this record clear.

Diebenkorn came to chafe at a teaching schedule which limited his own working time. He reckoned out his modest salary and realized that with the additional allowance for his two children added to his G.I. benefit he could paint full time if he were working for a Master’s degree. He chose the University of New Mexico, because it was known for its professional-type curriculum, its studio thesis project, and he liked the look of the state. He enrolled at the school in January of 1950, received his degree in June of 1951, and stayed on painting for an additional year. His Master’s project exhibition consisted of 16 paintings, a half-dozen drawings and two or three sculptures. The sculpture referred back to the paintings in the Legion of Honor while the drawings showed a great freedom and seemed to rush forward into a spectacular spaciousness and completeness all their own.

THE MOST IMPORTANT observation to be made of the paintings is that the painter avoided formula. Each work was realized as an individual experience. While there are relations between one canvas and another, the most important element is the discovered individuality which was suggested in the Palace show of 1948 and had come to fulfillment in 1950–1. The impasto pictures and those of 1950 with dark forms invaded by light colored areas are a transition to the artist’s most distinctive Albuquer­que paintings. The Master’s show had a preponderance of new elements: light, sand and flesh colors with a looping drawing, a rhythmic crudeness in the line, and deposits of color-form which developed out of revisions and transitions. There is little of conventional “fine handling” or seductive surfaces in these works. They have a toughness as of the New Mexico desert. They are “right” but at the same time foreign and obviously subject only to which is apparent in the segmentation of a form at the canvas edge and in the roughness of execution. His directness becomes a positive element of style rather than a simple indifference to techniques and it dramatizes the values of freshness, excitement and space . . . Drawing is achieved by a large brush, leaving an edge against a pre-existing form, as much as by the linear dots and dashes of his more conventional drawing. Color is matter-of-fact and yet unorthodox. Flesh tones, orange, yellow, grey and white with dark charcoal accents and pacings give a new structure to a flatly two-dimensional image. The natural phenomena which triggered these creations are remote. This body of work has been loosely referred to as his “abstract landscape” manner, and while this is a convenient label, it isn’t accurate to imply that these works are simply “translated” into abstract imagery from nature. The transformation is so complete that the only common thread remains the ever-changing colors which the sun coaxes from the flat line of the western mesa. The painter admits now, that “Temperamentally, perhaps, I had always been a landscape painter, but I was fighting the landscape feeling . . . In Albuquer­que I relaxed and began to think of natural forms in relation to my own feelings.”2 He has always remained sensitive to landscape and light wherever he painted. While at times one senses an aerial perspective in the composition of a painting, it always remains an intuition and cannot be forced into natural counterparts: neither the contour draw­ing, nor the color, nor the imaginative perception released by that sunny, sandy, spacious western desert.

As Clyfford Still’s concepts of space came to be more profoundly expressed in 1948 pictures and as Rothko and other associates from the CSFA were felt and sometimes reflected in his work, Diebenkorn all but abandoned drawing as a tool of painting. His art became “forming with color” without renouncing tactile values, but he was still interested in the capacity of drawing to add to the expressive possibilities of painting. He first saw Willem de Kooning’s work through magazine reproductions, those suggested a new use of line offering help in his own painting. This vigorous, even violent, calligraphy had a relationship to Diebenkorn’s own manner of working and held out the promise of help over a hurdle in his development. Diebenkorn acknowledges this source with candor, saying he is “ . . . decidedly in de Kooning’s debt.”

In 1952–53 Diebenkorn accepted a position teaching painting at the University of Illinois, but Illinois was a disappointment and the painter found its light uninspiring. In Albuquerque he had felt released and able to follow his own feelings, producing 30 to 40 works. He took part in a number of midwestern shows, resigned from the faculty at the close of the year, and spent the summer in New York before returning to Berkeley in October.

The next two years melt together into an extremely productive period of concentrated work. The Bay Area climate and landscape had a new persuasiveness and the painting went very well. By 1954 the artist knew that the Samuel Rosenberg Fellowship had been voted to him and that he could continue painting full time. James J. Sweeney invited a painting to the Guggenheim’s “Younger Americans” show and Diebenkorn held one-man shows at Paul Kantor, the San Francisco Museum and Allan Frumkin, Chicago. Contact was renewed with David Park, and on Diebenkorn’s recommendation, shows were arranged for both Park and Bischoff at the Kantor Gallery. Park had turned to figure painting in 1950 and Bischoff returned in 1953. Dieben­korn was re-thinking his own direction as a result of living in this milieu. He was influenced.

Some commentators have tried to confine Dieben­korn in a “human predicament” philosophy because of his figurative involvement. Nevertheless he has remained very much as he was before. His respect for the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters has never flagged, and he sees only “some pretty poor contemporary work” among the existen­tial hangers-on. He has always shunned the idea of a “following” and this may well have influenced his shift of direction in 1955.

In 1955 the artist reached one of those plateaus which occur occasionally in the working lives of creative people: he was becalmed, unable to move ahead. The unitary and seamless logic of his work seemed to be broken. Over-painting of passages, corrections and an uncharacteristic brushing gave evidence of the artist’s crisis as well as insight into the prolonged process of struggle involved in his work. Dissatisfied with the way his work was going, he restlessly picked up a small canvas and began painting “a messy still life” which he found, by chance, before him in the studio. The result was not entirely satisfying but it held out a peculiar promise to the artist at the moment. The mistrust he had for his “hyper-emotional abstractions” was sublimated. He sensed a quality of strength in reserve in this new work which gave him confidence––a tension beneath calm for which he had been searching. David Park reacted affirmatively to the painting and, confirmed, Diebenkorn devoted himself to several months of evoking moods and emotional overtones through pictures with clearly identifiable subjects, but still within the painterly style of his non-representational painting. As always he remained modest, blessed with candor, open to new experience. Diebenkorn did not exhibit this series of experimental works but kept searching and evaluating. His dealer and some of his collector friends learned of his new experiments and attempted to dissuade him from his course. He could not stop this evolution in his own vision and feeling any more than he could say that an image was right for him when it needed to be moved, painted out, or reversed. The painter never knew, in any programmatic way, where he was going. There was always the possibility of his returning to abstraction, if he found the authentic force he required of himself and his art.

Ever since his shift to figuration, Diebenkorn has continued to test his convictions regarding the need for subject matter. He has pursued his own vision with a great deal of trial and error. From time to time he has painted abstractly, found himself unconvinced of his achievement, and returned to the genre subjects from his world of home, studio and California landscape. His process of painting is the same today as it was 15 years ago. He is not looking for a specific result; he approaches every work differently. The attitude of self-demand, of tirelessly looking and experimenting is crucial to understanding his achievement. Resisting a formula and eternally trying again, starting the whole work into chaos again, is the essence of his process. His manner of paint handling is so autographic it has moved commentators to claim he thinks in abstractions and reduces his subject matter to pawns in his manipulations; they claim his subject is unimportant and, in fact, interferes with his fulfillment as an artist.

In truth Richard Diebenkorn has used abstraction and so-called “action painting” conventions to make himself an artist; to give himself the confidence to create truly personal forms. Diebenkorn found himself inexorably moving toward figuration based on the visual stimuli of his home and studio environment; the world of daily vision and insight; the realm from which moods and relationships can most truly be mined. Far from feeling that he was renouncing a portion of his professional vocabulary the painter rejoiced in his new-found capacity to invoke feelings through subject matter as well as compositional devices, proportions, space and color. All of the possibilities of composition heretofore available were renewed for him within the fresh framework.

The unpeopled Interior with View of Ocean is also a living space filled with light, triangulating through its windows. It is a plastic tour de force in quasi-geometric composition. The paint handling seems strikingly consonant with earlier works. The new imagery satisfies the artist’s search for a visual twist which can lift the painting into a higher realm. He finds it in the powerful veracity of the Interior, with its memories of personal experience, Matisse (the window diagonal at left), Bonnard (the patterned chair hard against the right-hand frame), and even Cubism with the light jumping from floor-to-­table-to-floor in arbitrary, form-confusing selectivity.

The painting Woman and Window, 1957, continues this very abstract process of composing complex figures. Here the female figure rests in the left foreground, her right elbow and left hand come to rest on the near corner of a high table, which bisects the canvas tangent to the window edge. The balance between emptiness and incident, weight and absence is ingenious, but the real impact of the picture derives from the felt quality of the figure’s reverie and the timeless need of humans to look through windows toward the sea. The remorseless geometry of the composition is dissolved in the subject and the implicit content of mood.

The new landscapes and cityscapes, still life paintings and figure compositions continue the compositional evolution which drew the artist more and more into observation and poetic re-creation of his visual experiences. Draftsmen train themselves to understand what a line implies behind the forms as well as in front. Diebenkorn sees a room or a composition as a man-made structure within which pictorial events can take place. He populates these spaces with people, books, chairs or coffee cups which belong and are conceived of as a part of the whole. He remembers other rooms, other landscapes, from experience and from art. The observed and the remembered are worked together, moved about, scraped, repainted, despaired over and eventually pulled into an order that is recognizably and inevitably the work of but one painter.

In the past five years the artist has become increasingly independent of the self-discoveries of Abstract Expressionism. He finds less need to dramatize his paintings or their subjects. He is more profoundly concerned with the evocation of feelings through an unobtrusive composition, a sometimes obvious subject matter and a growing capacity to invest visual experience with meaning. While the habits of years are not easily lost, there is less of Abstract Expressionist paint handling and more apparent concern for the necessities of the subject than before. As a result Diebenkorn has transcended the various influences which to some extent survived in the early work and has created a new art which has grown entirely out of his own life experience. The synthesis of his Abstract Expressionist concept of the artist, his interest in a fresh figuration, and his responsiveness to the tradition received from Bonnard and Matisse provide his new foundation. The tradition is renewed and the new master joins the old in evident harmony.

Gerald Nordland



1. Pulitzer, Louise and Joseph, Jr. “Modern Painting and Sculpture Collected by Louise and Joseph Pulitzer.” Cambridge, Mass. Fogg Art Museum, 1958. p. 30–1.

2. Ibid. p. 30-1.

Mr. Nordland’s essay is a somewhat condensed version of the catalog essay produced for the Washington Gallery of Modern Art’s Richard Die­benkorn retrospective. The exhibition was seen at the Washington Gallery from November 6 to December 31, 1964. It will travel to the Jewish Museum in New York (January 13 to February 21, 1965) and the Pavilion Gallery, Newport Beach, California (March 14 to April 15, 1965).