Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)
For over four decades, Richard Diebenkorn worked with a sustained virtuosity in not one, but several different idiosyncratic styles. Diebenkorn was influenced by both the complex color of Matisse and the strict geometry of Mondrian, yet fused aspects of each into his own unique language of abstraction. Taken as a group, the following three works beautifully represent each of Diebenkorn's distinct forays into different pictorial languages, yet all seem to imply that "strength in reserve - tension beneath the calm" that the artist sought to achieve. In 1949, Diebenkorn left the California School of Fine Arts where he had been teaching and moved with his wife, Phyllis, and their two children to Albuquerque, New Mexico. He enrolled as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico and experienced a new-found freedom, partly inspired by the expansiveness of the landscape and by the school's remote location (far away from the Bay Area, which he felt was becoming claustrophobic). In Albuquerque, Diebenkorn poured himself into his work, spending long hours in the studio day and night. Painted in 1951, Untitled (Albuquerque) epitomizes the powerful new abstraction that crystallized within Diebenkorn's work at that time, both in its formal vocabulary and palette. Typical to the period, hovering planes of heavily-nuanced color are demarcated by a calligraphic charcoal line reminiscent of de Kooning's emotionally-charged abstractions. The painting's palette reflects the environment of New Mexico in its bleached pinks, muted grays and pops of crystalline blue and green. Untitled (Albuquerque) also represents Diebenkorn's unique new vision of representing the unusual topography of the landscape, a technique the artist developed after a flight from Albuquerque to San Francisco in 1951. He stated, "The aerial view showed me a rich variety of ways of treating a flat plane -- like flattened mud or paint" (R. Diebenkorn quoted in G. Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, New York, 2001, p. 43). As Livingston writes, in New Mexico "the sky took the place of the ocean." (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in J. Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). In 1955, Diebenkorn returned with his family to the Bay Area and purchased a house in Berkeley, where he began working from live models in the classical tradition. Diebenkorn's return to the figure was a controversial one, which was criticized by many, especially those centered around the critic Clement Greenberg, who felt that "going back" to figurative art constituted a betrayal of Modernism. As Ad Reinhardt once said, "Enter nature, exit art." But Diebenkorn, alongside many other artists who returned to the figure in the 1950s, noticed a palpable vacuity in the work of many second-generation Abstract Expressionists. In short, for Diebenkorn, Abstract Expressionism had lost its edge. In a much-sourced statement from 1957, he explained: I came to distrust 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" (R. Diebenkorn, quoted in J. Livingston, The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, p. 24). E. T. in a Hat was painted in 1958, most likely in a new studio space behind a working class bar in Oakland that came to be known as the "Triangle Building Studio." A seated female figure rests within the center of the canvas, and is rendered in warm, pastel flesh tones, applied in vigorous brushstrokes that recall the period of abstraction that directly preceded it. Head turned slightly to the side, her face partially shadowed in blue by a jaunty hat, the figure recalls the portraits of Matisse. Early works from this period typical include a seated female figure, usually fully-clothed, seated beside a window or table. As in the present painting, the posture of the figure is usually quite reserved, with arms held close to the body or holding a cup of coffee. As the works progress, the gestures of the figure become more open and pronounced. Diebenkorn's E.T. in a Hat displays the "strength in reserve...tension beneath calm" that Diebenkorn sought in his return to figuration. Untitled, 1988, painted by the artist after moving to Healdsburg, Sonoma County, is no doubt evocative of his most prominent Ocean Park series. Typically composed of vertical or horizontal bands of color, consolidated and refined over a period of over 20 years, these works constituted a radical departure for the artist from his earlier work in a number of ways. Their austere geometry contrasts with the calligraphic, free-form abstraction as witnessed in Untitled (Albuquerque). Instead, Untitled, 1988 is rigid in its geometry and layering of rectangular forms. Yet in its toughness and boldness, still displays the pale blue Pacific air, the warm yellow tones of the California sunshine--an overall sense of California light and atmosphere. Diebenkorn's works from the late 1980s display a fuller, richer palette of sparkling colors as his artistic style continued to evolve in the last years of his life. While the Albuquerque series might present a palette of restrained, bleached pinks, whites, ochres, with hints of blue or green, the late drawings reveal the opposite. Livingston described them as "chromatically sumptuous," remarking further, "these upright drawings are as spatially and structurally expansive as any of Diebenkorn's full-size canvases" (Ibid).
Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)


Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)
dated '88' (lower right)
gouache on paper
12 x 9 in. (30.4 x 22.8 cm.)
Painted in 1988.
Estate of the artist
Acquired from the above by the present owner
M. Kimmelman, "A Life Outside," New York Times Magazine, 13 September 1992, p. 60.


The present work will be included in the forthcoming Richard Diebenkorn catalogue raisonné under number 2237.