Born: April 22, 1922 - Portland, Oregon
Died: March 20, 1993 - Berkeley, California
"I'm really a traditional painter, not avant-garde at all. I wanted to follow a tradition and extend it."
Question: what would an artist have to do to become famous and significant without being involved in the New York art world? Answer: paint like Richard Diebenkorn, the American painter who, through his seductive colors and surfaces and exquisite sense of balance between planes - and between figuration and abstraction - came to define the California school of Abstract Expressionism during 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. During the 1950s through the 1960s he was noted for developing a unique form of Northern California realism, now referred to as the Bay Area Figurative School.
Most Important Art
Richard Diebenkorn Artworks in Focus:
Cityscape I (1963)
Diebenkorn painted this suburban California street in 1963, when he moved away from making abstract work and returned to a more representational style, having become a leading figure of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Cityscape I suggests that Diebenkorn's essentially abstract, signature style, comprised of large planes of bright color executed with expressive brushwork and plotted within a grid-like plane, extends even to his imagistic work. The planes - both the densely-packed planes of the buildings at the left as well as the larger, more open landscape planes at the right - stack up vertically to assert the flat surface of the picture and create its abstract design. Although at one level the painting is clearly a cityscape or landscape, at another level the viewer can cordon off almost any rectangular part of the picture to enjoy an almost totally abstract painting in miniature.Read More ...
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 from his grandmother, a poet, painter, and civil rights lawyer, 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 study art and art history rather than the more pragmatic pursuits of law or medicine at Stanford University, where he began his undergraduate studies in 1940. Daniel Mendelowitz, one of his art history professors and mentors, introduced the aspiring painter to the work of modernists such as Edward Hopper, whose works would prove formative to Diebenkorn's early artistic development. Mendelowitz also took the artist to visit the home of Sarah Stein, sister-in-law of Gertrude Stein, where he saw works by Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse -- modern artists who also inspired Diebenkorn's artistic development.
Diebenkorn married 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 The Museum of Modern Art, 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 G.I. 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. His fellow teachers included Clyfford Still and David Park. He received his B.A. degree from Stanford in 1949.
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. During this period, when he was flying at low altitude in a plane between Albuquerque and California, he was able to view the landscape from above. This experience had a major impact on the layout of many of his compositions, both in New Mexico and California. Albuquerque in the early 1950s was also where his Abstract Expressionist period truly began, which lasted roughly five years through his move to Urbana, Illinois, (where he had accepted a faculty position at the University of Illinois) and back to California. Berkeley was his place of residence between 1955 and 1966 (his "Berkeley Period"). From the fall of 1964 to the spring of 1965, Diebenkorn traveled throughout Europe; in particular, he was granted a cultural visa to visit important museums in the Soviet Union and view their holdings of Matisse's paintings.
Late Years and Death
Diebenkorn and his wife moved to Santa Monica in 1967, when he became a professor of art at UCLA, where he worked until he retired in 1973. During the late 1960s and early 1970s - 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, 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 (1967-88), for example, consisting of 140 paintings made over 21 years, catapulted the mature artist into the national spotlight. In 1988, Diebenkorn and his wife moved to Healdsburg, California, near the Russian River. Diebenkorn worked on many small-scale, but exquisite, drawings and paintings until falling ill in 1992, when the couple was forced to move into their Berkeley apartment to be nearer to medical treatment. The artist died on March 30, 1993, due to complications from emphysema at the age of 71.
Immediately following Diebenkorn's death, The New Yorker Magazine's art critic Adam Gopnik wrote that he "had been, in an unpretentious way, one of the key figures in a great transformation that took place in American art over the past quarter century: the rise of California from a provincial backwater to an artmaking capital equal to New York." Although Diebenkorn did not reach the level of fame of the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School, major retrospectives in 1976 and 1997 helped vault his reputation to that of a major postwar American painter. His work is still studied and emulated by students of painting today. As the critic John Elderfield commented, he is admired "for the persistence and longevity of his achievement... he renews your belief in painting."
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Useful Resources on Richard Diebenkorn
| Richard Diebenkorn |
By Gerald Nordland
| The Art of Richard Diebenkorn |
By Jane Livingston, John Elderfield, and Ruth Fine
| The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism |
By Susan Landauer and Dore Ashton
| Richard Diebenkorn |
By Jane Livingston and Barnaby Conrad III
| Richard Diebenkorn Catalogue Raisonne || Richard Diebenkorn at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art |
| Richard Diebenkorn |
Features Paintings, Biography, and Information
| Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 |
By John Seed
| Slideshow: Richard Diebenkorn in New Mexico |
The New York Times
| Hail, Richard Diebenkorn! So Heroic, So Underrated |
By Hilton Kramer
| A Painter Unafraid to Change Styles |
By Grace Glueck
| Richard Diebenkorn, Lyrical Painter, Dies at 71 |
By Michael Kimmelman
| Park Places: Richard Diebenkorn's Sad, Luminous 'Ocean Park' Paintings are a Revelation at MOCA Retrospective |
By Christopher Knight
| Richard Diebenkorn Discusses Representational Painting || Richard Diebenkorn on Beginning a Painting |
| Richard Diebenkorn: Known and Unknown || Richard Diebenkorn Grant on the Life and Art of Richard Diebenkorn |
| Art Talk on Richard Diebenkorn |
| Oral history interview |
Susan Larsen with Richard Diebenkorn