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Modern Artist: Richard Diebenkorn
Richard Diebenkorn was an American painter who came to define the California school of Abstract Expressionism of the early 1950s. Although he moved back and forth between making abstract and figural paintings throughout his career, his version of Abstract Expressionism became an important counterpart to the more well-known brand of the movement popularized by such New York artists as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

Key Ideas / Information
  • The work of Richard Diebenkorn was very important in the Abstract Expressionist movement in California in the 1950s because he provided a touchstone for other artists who were interested in the movement but not directly involved in the New York School.
  • Diebenkorn was an artist who was both moved by earlier and contemporary artists, applying ideas gleaned from a variety of sources directly to his work, and influential to a generation of artists.
  • Diebenkorn actively embraced art's academic institution, both as a student and teacher, holding numerous professorships all over the Midwest and West Coast.

Two years after Richard Diebenkorn was born in Portland, Oregon on April 22, 1922, his family relocated to San Francisco. Although his parents were not particularly supportive of his interest in the arts, Diebenkorn found encouragement in his grandmother, who fostered his visual imagination by giving him illustrated books, taking him to local galleries and impressing upon him a love for European heraldic imagery. Diebenkorn disappointed his father by choosing to major in the arts rather than the more pragmatic pursuits of law or medicine at Stanford University, where he began his undergraduate studies in 1940. Daniel Mendolowitz, one of his art history professors and mentors, introduced the aspiring painter to the work of modernists such as Henri Matisse and Edward Hopper, whose works would prove formative to Diebenkorn's artistic development.

Early Training
Diebenkorn's earliest paintings reflect his interest in Hopper's style, as they depict realistic American scenes with stark contrasts between shadow and light. Although his early work is predominantly figural (that is, portraying real imagery rather than abstract forms), Diebenkorn transitioned between representational and abstract work throughout his career - a seeming indecisiveness that would come to characterize his artistic personality. However, this spoke more to his keen interest in exploring all manners of art-making than to a deep vacillation.

Diebenkorn married his fellow Stanford student Phyllis Gilman in June of 1943, and enlisted directly after in the U.S. Marine Corps where he served two years. While stationed at the base in Quantico, Virginia, Diebenkorn took the opportunity to visit the East Coast's most important collections of modern art, including MoMA, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

Upon his return to San Francisco in 1946, Diebenkorn took advantage of the GI Bill by enrolling at the California School of Fine Arts. He became a faculty member at the school the following year, after spending a winter painting in the vibrant artistic community of Woodstock, New York.

Mature Period
Always looking for a change of scenery, he moved his family to Albuquerque to pursue his Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of New Mexico in 1950. The contacts he made traveling, teaching, and learning at these different universities had a huge impact on the young artist, who participated in a great exchange of ideas. Albuquerque in the early 1950s was where his Abstract Expressionist period truly began, which lasted roughly five years through his move to Illinois and back to California. Taking inspiration from the forms and colors he saw in the surrounding desert, Diebenkorn layered bright planes of color in organic shapes with bold markings. Borrowing the techniques of the Abstract Expressionists in New York in the 1940s, Diebenkorn imbued the movement with his specific personality by relying on his physical environment in the Southwest as the source material for his painting.

Late Period and death
Along with the friends he had made at various teaching positions, including David Park, Diebenkorn became a central member of the Bay Area Figurative Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which rejected Abstract Expressionism in favor of a return to figural representation. Apparently, the freedom of gesture and composition in his Abstract Expressionist period was ultimately not to his liking. Eventually, however, Diebenkorn came to strike a balance between the use of abstract and figural elements in his work. His Ocean Park series, for example, consisting of one hundred and forty paintings made over twenty-five years until his death in 1993, catapulted the mature artist into the national spotlight. These paintings are clearly abstract, but in a much more geometric and planned way than his Abstract Expressionist works of the 1950s. If both his Abstract Expressionist paintings and his Ocean Park series represent aerial landscapes, the former are intuitive and impulsive while the latter are coldly delineated rational spaces. A comparison of the two shows just how far Diebenkorn's abstract vocabulary had evolved throughout his career.

Diebenkorn worked on drawings and paintings until falling ill in 1992. He died on March 30, 1993 due to complications from emphysema at the age of seventy-one.

Richard Diebenkorn achieved a rare feat in the life of an artist, which is to approach painting from many different angles and to take earnest inspiration from other artists while maintaining originality. Although Diebenkorn did not reach the level of fame of Abstract Expressionists of the New York School, his influence on artists of the latter half of the twentieth century is undeniable.

Below are Richard Diebenkorn's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.

Clyfford Still
Arshile Gorky
Willem De Kooning
Mark Rothko
Edward Hopper
David Park
Daniel Mendelowitz
Abstract Expressionism
European Modernist Painting
American Modernist Painting
Richard Diebenkorn
Years Worked: 1940 - 1993
Clyfford Still
Clement Greenberg
Abstract Expressionism

"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."

"I'm really a traditional painter, not avant-garde at all. I wanted to follow a tradition and extend it."

"I'm very old-fashioned. Though I'm interested in most of the new art, painting remains for me a very physical thing, an involvement with a tangible feeling of sensation. "

"The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued - except as a stimulus for further moves."
Content written by:
  Kara Fiedorek

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Museum of Modern Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Whitney Museum

Richard Diebenkorn

The Art of Richard Diebenkorn

The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism

Richard Diebenkorn

Written by Artist
Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings and drawings

Richard Diebenkorn: Small Paintings from Ocean Park

Richard Diebenkorn in New Mexico

Slideshow: Richard Diebenkorn in New Mexico
The New York Times
January 24, 2008

Richard Diebenkorn, Lyrical Painter, Dies at 71
The New York Times
March 31, 1993

A Painter Unafraid to Change Styles
The New York Times
October 10, 1997

God is in the Vectors
December 8, 1997

Hail, Richard Diebenkorn. So Heroic, So Underrated!
The New York Observer
October 19, 1997

Oral history interview
Susan Larsen with Richard Diebenkorn

Video Clips
Richard Diebenkorn Paintings
Slideshow with music

Websites about artist

Richard Diebenkorn
Art, Paintings, Biography, and Info