“Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years 1953-1966” at the de Young Museum

by Admin on 07/09/2013

The engagement of Richard Diebenkorn’s artistic practice with the unique settings of the Bay Area makes “The Berkeley Years: 1953-1966” now on view at San Francisco’s de Young Museum a significant re-examination not only of the artist’s career-changing practice at this time as well as an intriguing exploration of the artist’s personal and creative relationship to the local area. This “Berkeley Period” is just one of several major epochs within the artist’s oeuvre he completed in the Bay Area, evincing Diebenkorn’s work was continually inspired and influenced by his surroundings. This particular period however was not only a moment that radically changed the artist’s work, as he vacillated between and experimented with abstract and figurative elements and style, but also reflected an art world at the precipice of a major shift and new generation.

“Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years” foremost illustrates how deeply the artist was influenced by the Bay Area’s unique geography and culture. Diebenkorn seems to have had a penchant for landscapes, and titled a significant amount of his series or periods after the place he resided when he painted them, such as the “Ocean Park” and “Albuquerque” series. Throughout his life, Diebenkorn remained personally attached to the Bay Area. After growing up in San Francisco’s Ingleside Terraces neighborhood, Diebenkorn lived in Sausalito from 1947 to 1949. He returned to the Bay Area in 1953 where he resided for 13 years to create the “Berkeley” series, and accept an artist residency at Stanford University. After many years living in various cities in California, Diebenkorn returned to the North Bay in 1988 until his death in 1993 in Berkeley. The “Berkeley” series was marked with an initial abstract phase deeply influenced by the Bay Area’s natural environment: light and atmosphere, deep reds, greens, and ochres. “I began to feel that what I was really up to in painting, “Diebenkorn is quoted in this exhibition, “what I enjoyed almost exclusively was altering– changing what was before me– by way of subtracting or juxtaposition or superimposition of different ideas.” Although it’s been thought that Diebenkorn progressed from abstraction to a more figurative style in the series, he certainly continued to be influenced by an abstract painting’s use of line, layering, textures, and colors. In many ways, Diebenkorn’s figurative phase of the Berkeley series seems to have simply used the physical world to experiment with shape, color, texture and temperature. In “Cityscape I” a climactic end to this period, Diebenkorn utilizes a common Bay Area street with a slight incline to divide two sides of the painting: a man-made environment to the left, and open space to the right. The underdeveloped side of the street: triangular sliver of aubergine buttressed with orange, green and grey polygons strongly reflect upon the artist’s abstract history. On the other side, the developed land reveals quaint homes, businesses, or apartments standing stalwartly figurative against the freedom of the right side of the composition. Even at its end, Diebenkorn seems to refuse either one to compose his work. This flucutation between the abstract and the figurative continued through the series, and perhaps not merely switching from one to the other as commonly thought.

“Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years” includes over 130 of the artist’s artworks from public and private collections locally and nationally, many  rarely or never before available to view by the public. With such an extensive amount of the artwork on view from this period, which ranges from drawings to collage, large and small oil paintings of genre scenes and still lifes, audiences are offered a rare opportunity to comprehensively examine this pivotal moment in the artist’s practice that also saddled a moment when the world, art, and society was undergoing a significant shift. “It was during this period that Diebenkorn really became Diebenkorn,” says Ednah Root curator-in-charge of American art Timothy Anglin Burgard. “His artistic integrity rendered him immune to external pressure to conform to either abstract or figurative styles, and set a liberating example that seems remarkably prescient given the inclusive nature of the contemporary art world.” Willem De Kooning, nearly 20 years Diebenkorn’s senior, and Jackson Pollock, who would sadly perish in a car crash just a few years after Diebenkorn began his “Berkeley” series, remained archetypes of the post-war Abstract Expressionist style. Yet, as a young, 21-year-old painter in 1953, Diebenkorn, perhaps aiming to be unburdened by the critical rhetoric, offered a significantly unique, youthful perspective. Diebenkorn’s early “Berkeley” paintings from 1953 to 1956 are some of his most gestural, yet it is their stillness and concentrated layers which separate the artist from typical Abstract Expressionist painting. By the series’ end, Diebenkorn would be working in his most figurative paintings, which would carry on by the popular figurative styles of the 1960s, like those Wayne Thiebaud and the Pop Art of Andy Warhol.

“Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953–1966” will be on view at the de Young Museum through September 29.