Richard Diebenkorn: Reflections On An Ever Changing Immersive California Light

Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), which opens this week at The Royal Academy, is perhaps the most exciting painting show to be mounted in London this Spring. It is not only the first exhibition in the UK for nearly 25 years but also a strong affirmation as to his influence and importance as a leading second generation Abstract Expressionist. Diebenkorn never achieved the same level of recognition in this country as other higher profile American abstract artists despite being made an Honorary Royal Academician in 1992. This was partly due to his having lived most of his life on the West coast, while all the more revered abstract painters like Rothko, de Kooning and Pollock lived in New York and partly because his work was always running against the current trends, be it figurative or non objective abstraction.  However, all those who know his work hold him in the highest regard and once introduced to his memorable and enduring paintings he is guaranteed to find a place on your list of favourite artists.  

Diebenkorn’s work is a curator/art historian’s dream as it can clearly be divided into three key areas and styles. Each of the exhibition’s three rooms is devoted to one of these periods: his first abstract paintings 1948-55, his figurative interlude from 1955-67 and finally his return to abstraction from 1967 onwards and the Ocean Park paintings for which he is best known.

Born in Portland, Oregon in 1922, Diebenkorn grew up in the San Francisco Bay area.  He studied at Stanford University but was called for active duty in his third year and transferred to the University of California, Berkeley where he studied painting as part of his military training before deployment.  After the war ended, he continued his studies at the California School of Fine Arts and started teaching there in 1947.  Further studies took him to Albuquerque, New Mexico, a teaching post to Urbana, Illinois before returning to Berkeley, California. Environment played an important role in Diebenkorn’s oeuvre and in these early abstract works he is clearly influenced by the light and landscape in each location.   The pink, dusty hills of Albuquerque are reflected in works such as Untitled 1951 (Albuquerque) and a bluer, translucent palette in Berkeley 1953.  His work at this time references his fellow American Abstract Expressionists like Gorky, De Kooning and Motherwell, with a loose expressionistic style but his palette and brushstrokes are his own.  In Berkeley 1955, his love of paint is evident.  There are so many different types of brushstrokes and each colour exudes its own gutsy energy.    

In 1955 he abruptly started to paint figuratively and along with fellow artists Elmer Bischoff and David Park, and their students, became known as the Bay Area figurative school.  In his own account, he felt something was missing, that the process of abstract painting had become too automatic, too habitual.  He painted still-lifes, figures and landscapes.  Each painting has strong graphic compositions, which owe an enormous debt to Matisse.  Large areas of flat colours divide the canvases with a strong sense of colour, line, shape and form.  In Cityscape 1963, the strong Californian light is evident and he uses the compositional device of a road and a high horizon line to divide the painting into sections in a semi-abstract manner.  Similarly, Interior with View of Buildings 1962 has large blocks of textured colour to divide the composition and reduce the buildings to cubes reminiscent of Cezanne and Mondrian.

In 1966 he accepted a teaching post at the University of California, Los Angeles and moved to Santa Monica.  Within a year he reverted to painting abstract canvases.  He manages to synthesize the lessons he has learnt over the previous two decades and the result is the Ocean Park series: larger format canvases with the same colouristic and painterly process but with a balance of geometry and brushwork.  The paint is thin and translucent, colours more delicate and subtly layered, often leaking to the edges.  Over the next 20 years he painted 145 canvases in the Ocean Park series and 500 works on paper but only a handful are on show here.  The highlight is Ocean Park #79 1975 now in the Philadelphia Museum with its pastel shades of blue, green, grey and a thin band of yellow towards the top. It is soothing and calming and complex yet simple. The Ocean Park series on display are clearly landscapes as seen through the artist’s studio window. They deal with complex compositions and reflections as well as an ever changing light that becomes immersive.  

What is also astounding about Diebenkorn is that he was as comfortable using a small format as he was on a large scale.  There are three painted cigar box covers in the show that he gave to family and friends as gifts.  They retain all of the same compositional concerns of the larger works, the same handling of paint intense colour and attention to detail.

The Sackler wing at the Royal Academy is an ideal setting for these pictures giving them the space to be appreciated.   Although quite modest in scale, the selection is perfect and there isn’t a bad painting in the whole show.  

Richard Diebenkorn: Royal Academy 14 March-7 June 2015

Words: Sara Faith – Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2015

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