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Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years @ de Young Museum

This exhibition is both sequel and prequel, picking up where the 2008 exhibition at the Harwood Museum titled Diebenkorn in New Mexico left off while also foreshadowing the much more well known work featured in the Orange County Museum’s 2012 exhibition of the Ocean Park series. It focuses on the years that Richard Diebenkorn lived and worked in Berkeley, California (1953-1966), and it has two undeniable hallmarks, the first being its breathtaking

Girl Looking at Landscape, 1957, oil on canvas, 59 x 60 3/8"

display of sheer painterly virtuosity; the second being the way that it shows the artist taking on all of the already traditional modernist subjects of abstraction, still life, figure and landscape, in every case enlivening them with a fresh and distinctly individual sensibility. And let’s be clear: when I write sheer painterly virtuosity, I mean superlative draughtsmanship and vivacious color manipulation, as well as in almost all cases, a talent for finding the perfect balance points between pictorial and graphic organizations of form, creating picture spaces that perfectly finesse the tension between the dynamic and the static.  In short, this exhibition represents a rich and powerful affirmation of painting for the sake of painting, undertaken at the moment just prior to the pandemic of Duchampitus that would keynote the ensuing five decades of art production. 

Clearly, Diebenkorn was both prodigy and virtuoso, but that recognition brings questions along with it, owing to the special curse that so often haunts the truly gifted. It is the curse of self-impersonation, and its earmark is affectation. In a few works included in this exhibition, we see Diebenkorn falling victim to it. For example, Girl Looking at Landscape from 1957 is certainly suffused with delightful color, but its portrayal of space seems overly conventional and static, rather in the manner of an exercise. View From the Porch (1959) is another landscape that can be said to foreshadow the Ocean Park series works, but its problem is its safe, analogously hued palette, which fails to enliven the awkward central bisection of the work’s composition. Some of the later still life works, such as Poppies (1963) veer in the direction of sheer illustrational academicism, if not outright cuteness.
View from the Porch, 1959, oil on canvas, 70 x 66"

By no means do I want to belittle Diebenkorn’s achievement by raising this issue, and in any event, relatively few of the works presented in this exhibition deserve the scrutiny that it prompts. But it does help us understand just where Diebenkorn’s artistic struggle rested, thereby allowing us to more fully appreciate the many high points of this particular chapter of his distinguished career. Clearly he was a painter who was inspired and challenged by much of the best painting of the 20th century, and he did an admirable job of living up to that challenge. But he didn’t really exceed that challenge until he embarked on the later Ocean Park works, and I think one of the reasons for this was his decision to remove himself from the Bay Area, with all of the personalities and local politics that went along with it. Sometimes, doing the kind of work that everybody likes can be artistically stifling, because it becomes too easy and even a bit dangerous to please a crowd of uncritical supporters. 

Let me explain: No one would dispute that Richard Burton was a great actor, but the vexing side effect of that greatness was that we would often see Richard Burton playing Richard Burton playing his prescribed role. In fact, audiences seemed to enjoy it when Burton did such things, even if it was to the detriment of the film or play in which he was cast. Likewise, the annals of art history gives us many superbly talented painters running from Rubens and Tiepolo up to Picasso, all of whom having had some occasion to indulge in a kind of supercilious over-confidence simply because they had the ability to get away with it. No one would ever say such a thing about David Park, who always made it clear that he earned every brush stroke the hard way, always bringing his surfaces up from the earthy depths. And no one would say that about Elmer Bischoff, whose figurative work from the 1950s and 1960s often erred on the side of a dreamy and undifferentiated romanticism. Of course, Park, Bischoff and Diebenkorn are the three artists who are credited with defining the parameters of what is now called Bay Area Figuration (Hassel Smith also deserves some credit, although this is not widely known), and it is worth noting here that those parameters are still being honorably upheld by many contemporary painters who chose to work against the grain of current art world fashion.
Berkeley #23, 1955, oil on canvas, 62 x 54 3/4"


The exhibition starts with Diebenkorn continuing in the vein of abstraction that he developed during his years in New Mexico, fusing surrealist-derived automatism with gloomy evocations of the same mystery-shrouded desert landscape that so fascinated Georgia O’Keefe two decades earlier. Most of these works are part of a body of work called The Berkeley Series (1953-1955), which usually feature a fast, swashbuckling brush laden with cool color decisively pirouetting through sumptuous fields of warm pigment.  For example, in Berkeley #23 (1955) we see the large canvas subdivided by a frothy patchwork of torqued rectangles of red

and green, many of which are corralled and/or enlivened by looping linear forms of darker color, all of which are clustered under broader, less chromatically active forms that evoke the horizontality of sea and sky. As is the case with many other works in the Berkeley Series, Number 23 seems comfortably informed by the idea that second generation (i.e. 1952-1960) Abstract Expressionism as practiced on both the east and west coasts was somehow more “French,” lyrical and finesse-saturated than was the work of the first generation, who, like Clyfford Still, tended to despise the rarified refinements of the French modernist tradition. 

July, 1957, oil on canvas, 58 1/2 x 53 1/4"

Soon thereafter, Diebenkorn’s paint grew thicker and the color brighter, and the world of people, places and things was rediscovered through the prism of lavish color and the abstract expressionist brush. As was the case with Park, Diebenkorn’s earliest explorations of the figure took the form of small head portraits of friends and acquaintances, each a spontaneous capture of the evanescent moment when typical attitude is revealed. He also doubled down on his longstanding commitment to drawing the figure, at some moments quite freely and on other occasions with precisely described renderings of the human form. But even when Diebenkorn was at his most spontaneous, it seemed that he could do no wrong, because his deft touch could turn any accident into an opportunity for pictorial invention.

This exhibition contains some of the very same works that were featured in historically significant exhibitions, one being Paul Mills’ Figurative Painting in the Bay Area, held at the Oakland Art Museum in 1957. Harking back to that exhibition is July (1957), a colorful image of a man sitting on an outdoor bench partially wrapped in American flag bunting, looking as if he is losing patience while waiting for a holiday parade. The work is close to being five feet square, and the color bespeaks bright noontime sunshine, even as the impassive figure in the slightly skewed composition seems distant and separated from the world around him. Like many of the other works from this period, here we see the artist giving a nod to the work of Edward Hopper, which, along with that of Matisse and Bonnard (especially Matisse) are revealed to be Diebenkorn’s most visible influences. More somber is the smaller work titled Table from the same year, which reads like a complex architectural backdrop for a still life painting that fell short of becoming a still life. But the work’s compositional structure intimates other things, one being a telescoping expansion of the distance between foreground and deep space viewed from an overhead vantage. This device would become more prominent in Diebenkorn’s subsequent work, especially in many of his still life works taking table tops covered with painting studio paraphernalia as their subjects, as well as the Cityscape paintings from the early 1960s. It would continue to haunt the post 1966 Ocean Park series, insofar as they also allude to ideas about space, elevation and horizon.
Man and Woman Seated, 1958, oil on canvas, 70 3/4 x 83 1/2"

There are also several works that were previously included in Peter Selz’s landmark 1959 exhibition titled New Images of Man at the Museum of Modern Art, and they bear some mentioning here. One of them is Man and Woman, Seated (1958), and another is Man and Woman in a Large Room (1957), the former richly colored and the latter subdued and somber. Both works have undercurrents of trouble in paradise, their protagonists seeming at odds with each other even as their environment seems comfortable and forgiving. Remembering back to the Selz exhibition, which contained powerfully expressive works by Francis Bacon, Willem DeKooning and Leon Golub, we can imagine that Diebenkorn came off as a bit of a California lotus-eater compared to the urgently tragic images conveyed by the work of those other artists. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that these works carry more in the way of psychological tension than most of Diebenkorn’s other figurative works, suggesting that he too wanted to make statements about the human condition, albeit from a position far removed from the historical traumas emphasized in that exhibition.

During the first half of the 1960s, Diebenkorn’s work gradually moved in the direction of crisp refinement. Even the figure drawings that he did in 1965 and ’66 were earmarked by an organized formalism, featuring looping forms that were perfectly wedged in their picture spaces. Following a path blazed by Matisse’s late cut paper pieces, he also experimented with collage, as was manifested by a pair of brightly colored works featuring faceless figures from 1966. Although most of his figures gradually lost the spark of those from the late 1950s, his landscapes from those years are pretty remarkable, using an elevated perspective to look down on the collision of geography and terraforming being done to treeless lots that would soon become suburban building sites. He gets a great deal of pictorial power from the use of a skewed perspective, and the painterly attitude in these works is, if not exactly subdued, certainly suffused with a mature restraint.
Richard Diebenkorn, “The Berkeley Years 1953-1966” @ the M.H. De Young Museum.
Photos © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

Upcoming: “The Intimate Diebenkorn: Works on Paper 1949-1992 @ College of Marin Fine Arts Gallery, September 28, 2013 to November 14, 2013.  The show will include 40 works, 38 of which have never been publicly exhibited, representing the locations in which the artist worked: Albuquerque, New Mexico, Berkeley, Ocean Park and Healdsburg.

About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward.  Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America.  His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010).  He is the coordinator of the annual Art Criticism Conference at the San Francisco Art Institute. 

5 Responses to “Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years @ de Young Museum”

  1. Elaine O'Brien says:

    Really nice piece by an author who clearly loves and knows painting. Question: Mark Van Proyen’s “Duchampitis” is implicitly disparaging, yet one whose “visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward” would seem to have affinities with the Duchampian. No?

  2. Satri Pencak says:

    “Most of these works are part of a body of work called The Berkeley Series (1953-1955), which usually feature a fast, swashbuckling brush laden with cool color decisively pirouetting through sumptuous fields of warm pigment.” Just for this sentence alone, I look forward to seeing the swashbuckling and pirouetting through sumptuous fields! Well writ.

  3. Joan says:

    One of my most loved book is “Bay Area Figurative Art: 1950-1965”
    edited by Caroline A. Jones, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

    And Diebenkorn is one of my champions of art.

  4. DeWitt Cheng says:

    Excellent analysis, as usual, from MVP. Close looking and clear thinking.

  5. livia stein says:

    What an amazing review. Being a great Diebenkorn fan, trying to piece together his various periods and artistic output, this review was very meaningful to me. Thanks, Mark

    Livia Stein


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