American painter and printmaker. He was most widely recognized for his large-scale, luminous abstractions known as the Ocean Park paintings. His abstract and figurative work alike is devoted to the delicate balance between surface modulation and illusionistic depth, between the establishment of structure and its dissolution in light and space.
Diebenkorn was brought up in San Francisco. His first interest was in the American illustrators Howard Pyle (1853–1911) and N. C. Wyeth (1882–1945). He studied at Stanford University from 1940 to 1943 and received his first formal art training with Daniel Mendelowitz (b 1905), who introduced him to the work of Edward Hopper, and to paintings by the artists of the Ecole de Paris. Diebenkorn’s study was interrupted by service in the Marine Corps during World War II, but while stationed at Quantico, VA, he often visited the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. There, Henri Matisse’s Studio, Quai Saint-Michel (1916) inspired him. Matisse’s technique of exposing the painting process, marrying indoor and outdoor space and aligning the planes of the composition with the edges of the canvas itself raised formal issues that Diebenkorn did not forget.
In 1946 Diebenkorn returned to California to continue his education at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) from 1946 to 1947 with David Park, whom he met in the first week and who would become his most important teacher and friend. Park encouraged him to look at the work of Joan Miró and Picasso. During the mid-1940s he also became aware of the work of Robert Motherwell and William Baziotes. However, it was not until 1948 that he first saw paintings by Willem de Kooning in magazine reproductions. In 1947 Diebenkorn was offered a position on the faculty of the CSFA, which at the time included Park, Elmer Bischoff (b 1916), Clyfford Still and, during the summer of 1947 and of 1948, Mark Rothko. His teaching career lasted more than two decades with few breaks. He enrolled at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in 1950 (MFA, 1951). His abstract paintings of this period, such as Albuquerque No. 4 (1951; St Louis, MO, A. Mus.), were stylistically rooted in the New York school; they were characterized by linear planes, which gave the impression of aerial landscape views, and by a fluid line that defined a type of biomorphic abstraction. His palette resembled that of de Kooning but, in fact, the pinks and earth colours were derived from the New Mexico landscape.
The travelling Matisse retrospective exhibition that Diebenkorn saw on a trip to Los Angeles in 1952 influenced paintings such as Urbana No. 4 (1953; Colorado Springs, CO, F.A. Cent., see 1976 exh. cat., p. 20), which he made while teaching at the University of Illinois. At the end of the school year in 1953 he briefly considered moving to New York but instead returned to Berkeley where he established a studio. The Berkeley paintings of 1953 to 1955, such as Berkeley No. 23 (1955; San Francisco, CA, Mus. Mod. A.), are evidence of his personal response to Abstract Expressionism, in particular to the gestural force of de Kooning and the colour veils of Rothko. The sense of landscape predominates in these dense, calligraphic canvases, and in 1954 Life magazine appropriately used the term ‘abstract landscape’ (cited in 1976 exh. cat., p. 23) in association with his work.
On his return to the Bay Area, Diebenkorn renewed his friendships with Park and Bischoff, both of whom had recently given up abstraction for figuration. Toward the end of 1955, feeling that the highly expressionist Berkeley paintings offered no room for the contemplative aspect of the painting process, Diebenkorn too began to make more direct reference to observed subjects. The small studio still-lifes of 1955–6, such as Still-life with Orange Peel (1955; San Francisco, priv. col.), signalled a new era.
The period of Diebenkorn’s figurative work corresponds (with the exception of the last of the Berkeley abstractions in 1955) to his remaining years as a teacher in the Bay Area. With Park, Bischoff and other artists such as Nathan Oliveira (b 1928), William Theo Brown (b 1919) and Paul Wonner (b 1920), Diebenkorn became known as one of the founders of the Bay Area figurative school. He always resisted the notion of a ‘school’ in any formal sense, noting that the artists involved simply enjoyed a close association, but he led the way in developing a unique northern Californian realism. Paintings such as Figure on Porch (1959; Oakland, CA, Mus.) continued the fluid, horizontal landscape references of the Berkeley series, while they introduced a skeletal grid with elements, such as a solitary figure anchoring shallow space at a central point. The new colours—intense sunlit blues, greens and yellows—were those of the California landscape. After visiting the former Soviet Union in 1964, where he saw paintings by Matisse previously in the Shchukin Collection (now Moscow, Pushkin Mus. F.A.), he paid further homage to him in his use of arabesques and fusions of exterior and interior spaces.
The titles of Diebenkorn’s paintings often alluded to the places that inspired them. His move to the Los Angeles area in 1966 to teach at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) led to a dramatic change in his work. One of his last figurative paintings, Window (1967; Stanford, CA, U. A.G. & Mus.), was made after he settled in Santa Monica. It recalls Matisse in the forms of the balcony door, restates the familiar empty chair motif and introduces the broad, open expanses of colour suggested by the view from his new Ocean Park studio.
From that time, in a series of more than 140 paintings entitled Ocean Park, Diebenkorn gave priority to formal concerns in his monumental abstract compositions. Eliminating the figure but retaining allusions to the landscape, he created paintings distinguished by geometric scaffolding visibly aligned and re-aligned, overlaid with glazes of luminescent colour. Ocean Park No. 83 (1975; Washington, DC, Corcoran Gal. A.) typifies his continuous struggle to balance structural elements, proportion, spatial illusion, the weight of his sensuous lines (the ‘bones’ of the composition) and the mutations of atmospheric colour. Characteristically, the works are broadly brushed yet animated by small passages of detail. Although he made no studies for the Ocean Park paintings, preferring to work directly on the canvas, his prints and drawings, such as Untitled (1980; New York, Whitney; see Newlin, p. 155), provide the most intimate access to his highly personal search for order and the means to express it. In 1988 he left Santa Monica to return to the Bay Area, where he built a studio in Healdsburg, in the vineyards north of San Francisco. After a heart attack in 1989, followed by a series of operations and illnesses, he gave up working on his characteristically large canvases to concentrate on a series of gouache drawings and two beautifully refined etchings made at Crown Point Press, San Francisco, in 1991 and 1992.
Constance W. Glenn
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press