Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Richard Diebenkorn Photo

Richard Diebenkorn

American Painter

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."
1 of 6
Richard Diebenkorn Signature
"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."
2 of 6
Richard Diebenkorn Signature
"I'm really a traditional painter, not avant-garde at all. I wanted to follow a tradition and extend it."
3 of 6
Richard Diebenkorn Signature
"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."
4 of 6
Richard Diebenkorn Signature
"The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued - except as a stimulus for further moves."
5 of 6
Richard Diebenkorn Signature
"All paintings start out of a mood, out of a relationship with things or people, out of a complete visual impression."
6 of 6
Richard Diebenkorn Signature

Summary of Richard Diebenkorn

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.


  • Although Richard Diebenkorn was a great student and teacher of art, he did not, in the end, contribute in any revolutionary way to the narrative of art history. However, it is significant that he was a contemporary artist who could successfully combine such diverse influences as Abstract Expressionism, Color Field Painting, and the whole history of European "belle peinture" ("beautiful painting").
  • The truth is that Diebenkorn, in addition to being a more private than public individual and not self-aggrandizing, was fundamentally a West Coast artist - influenced by his New Mexico and California environments. These personal traits also found expression in his ability to create a kind of humanized abstraction, either through the direct use of the human figure within an abstracted setting or through the delicacy and personal expressivity of the touch of his brush.
  • One of the most significant and unusual features of his art was the fluidity with which he could change styles between abstraction and figuration, observing the structure and order both in nature and on the canvas. His works exquisitely reconcile his perception of the natural environment with his conception of the created entity on the canvas.

Biography of Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn Photo

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.

Important Art by Richard Diebenkorn

Progression of Art

Palo Alto Circle

Diebenkorn's earliest paintings reflect his interest in Edward Hopper's style, which is very much in evidence here, with its realistic depiction of an American scene expressed in the stark contrasts between shadow and light. We see before us, spread laterally across the picture surface, an uninhabited cityscape. The background consists of the sky, punctuated by the hotel sign, telephone poles, and vents - all indicators of contact with people and the outside world. In the middle ground sits the hotel itself, with shops below at street level, in front of which is a fence separating it from - at the same time it unites with - the foreground chain link fence and railroad tracks. These railroad tracks also connect to the outside world, leading, as they do, out of town. They contrast with the homey, but stately and enduring, presence of the warmly lit hotel. The streetlamp at the far right balances all the horizontals in the painting while helping to fill in the negative space of the sky. Significantly, it is not lit - it is the warm light of day on the rich stucco surface that has captured the artist's attention. The artist's treatment of the formal elements of this work points to his innate sense of the abstract surface, which would become characteristic of his work.

Oil on canvas - Santa Cruz Island Foundation, Ventura, CA


Untitled (Albuquerque)

This work typifies Diebenkorn's Abstract Expressionist period in Albuquerque, the influence of New Mexico's desert landscape clearly evident in the sunburnt red and gold colors that the artist summons forth. This painting also exhibits the gestural markings and quasi-symbols that had defined the Abstract Expressionists' interest in a subconscious reality, seen most clearly in the work of Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still. Although the artist was inspired by the forms and colors he saw in the surrounding desert, the resulting work is an abstraction - a beautifully composed and balanced series of flat shapes executed with subtle and sophisticated layers of color. However, and significantly, this canvas also suggests Diebenkorn's eventual departure from the New York School towards figuration; not only does his palette refer to a specific location (the surrounding desert), but also the large shape areas can be traced back to representational aerial views of the Southwest landscape.

Oil on canvas - The Buck Collection


Berkeley No. 8

Berkeley No. 8 is one of Diebenkorn's last Abstract Expressionist paintings, executed upon his return to California and just before transitioning to more imagistic work as part of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Perhaps hinting at this return to representational form, Berkeley No. 8 - as opposed to his earlier Abstract Expressionist works - exhibits a more expanded view of the landscape, with an increased number of forms and more varied detail. In the lower right quadrant, the artist introduces additional overlapping and, therefore, more of a spatial component - a suggestion of depth - as well as supplementary diagonal lines and shapes that interrupt the flatness and surface orientation of earlier examples of his work. In this painting, it has been suggested that Diebenkorn was influenced by the landscapes of Chaim Soutine, with their divided surfaces and diagonal intrusions, but more importantly - in view of the fact that the work is both drawn and painted - it relates to and ties together the two kinds of Abstract Expressionism: gestural abstraction and Color Field Painting, as exemplified in the work of Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, respectively.

Oil on canvas - North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh


Woman on Porch

Diebenkorn's shift from abstract landscape to a more figurative style that had begun in 1954 can be seen in this painting. The artist maintained that works such as this one had been partly influenced by his friends Elmer Bischoff and David Park, who had turned away from landscape toward the figure. Also, Diebenkorn had been looking at the work of such European modernists as Edgar Degas (in the solitary, pensive figure), Pierre Bonnard (in the sumptuous color), Henri Matisse (in fusing the three-dimensional figure with the essentially two-dimensional abstract background), and the German Expressionists (in the mask-like face and the freedom of the brushstroke). From their examples, he learned to paint the sole figure - newly imbued with a level of human psychology - embedded within the abstract surface design.

Oil on canvas - New Orleans Museum of Art


Cityscape I

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.

Oil on canvas - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Ocean Park No. 54

Ocean Park is the name of the area of Santa Monica where Diebenkorn had his studio; in fact, the views in the paintings may have been based on the view from the studio window. If both his Abstract Expressionist paintings and his Ocean Park represent aerial landscapes, the former are intuitive and impulsive, while the latter are coldly delineated and rational spaces. A comparison of the two shows just how far Diebenkorn's abstract vocabulary had evolved throughout his career. The painting marks a sharp contrast with the organic forms of his Abstract Expressionist work of the 1950s, showing a much more geometric and planned approach. This painting also shows his appreciation for the teachings of modernism and, in this case, the work of Piet Mondrian specifically.

Here, Diebenkorn worked within Mondrian's conceptual grid framework and applied lighter washes of predominantly pastel colors to his squared-off composition. His inspiration still comes from the landscape, but now it is specifically the light-filled southern California landscape. Like the Impressionist painters who also worked in series, Diebenkorn based his 140 Ocean Park paintings on the changing atmospheric effects and conditions that he perceived. There is elegance in the design and palette of this painting that only comes of being a mature painter. Although composed of flat, neat, and rectilinear planes that evoke a sense of space, the emphasis is still on the process of painting itself, with evidence of the artist's thoughts, as he scored and reworked the surface many times.

Oil on canvas - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Similar Art

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Richard Diebenkorn
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Richard Diebenkorn

video clips

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Do more

Content compiled and written by Kara Fiedorek

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Richard Diebenkorn Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Kara Fiedorek
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 05 Jun 2014. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]