An Activated Sense of Place: Diebenkorn at the de Young

Stanford University didn’t yet have a school of Humanities and Sciences when Richard Diebenkorn arrived as a freshman in 1940, but the young San Franciscan had come to study the arts. How strange that decision sounds today.

The sunny thrum of engineering and entrepreneurship that defines Stanford now were still young when Diebenkorn arrived on campus. A key painter in the Abstract Expressionist and Bay Area Figurative Movements in the 1950s and 60s, he was also the subject of a major exhibition at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco this summer.

One might not expect the some 130 works featured in the exhibition, created between 1953 and 1966, when the artist lived in Berkeley, to look the way they do: big, bold and bright apportions of paint. There is a consistent diagonal jag to the works, from lower left to upper right, that often evoke streets or sunsets in the chalky mix of asphalt and ocean tones. Abstract painting with Californian consideration. “Be careful,” says number 10 on his list of Notes to myself on beginning a painting, “only in a perverse way.”

He had, after all, studied with Professor Daniel Mendelowitz, a talented draughtsman whose legacy of precision lives in one of the premier introductory textbooks to drawing. During his first two years at the university he fell deep into a world of studies in history, literature and poetry. Classical music, too, was a revelation for the eighteen-year-old, and the works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn seem to have sparked his intellectual and aesthetic maturity; the beginning of his adult life, of his career.

His life, though, like so many of that generation, was interrupted by the war. In 1943, two years after the Hoover Tower was built, a year following the move of the Division of Graphic Arts from the Education Department to the newly founded School of Humanities, and a year before his own graduation, Diebenkorn joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He served for the next two years, but still found occasion to visit major museum collections of modern art while stationed on the east coast.

Like so many artists of his generation, knowledge of the war, as well as his return to the progressive artistic community in the Bay Area in 1946, pushed him away from figurative painting. He quickly demonstrated gifts in a non-representation, Abstract Expressionist mode of painting, earning a faculty appointment at the California School of Fine Arts and a solo-exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1948. This show announced Diebenkorn’s arrival as a talented Young Turk, and Stanford’s decision to award him his B.A. in 1949 must have seemed long overdue.

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Though he began working in the East Bay in 1955, meeting for weekly drawing groups with fellow painters Elmer Bischoff and David Park, lessons learned from Stanford pulled him away from abstraction.. “Essentially what I did was what I had done at Stanford,” he recalled about Chabot Valley, generally regarded as his first figural work: “get in the car and go out and look for something that looked like it might make a good painting.” [1]

The story testifies to the importance of the Bay Area landscape for the artist’s work. An activated sense of place, a sense of moving and feeling through his surroundings, is present in this painting and those from the dry, sunny fall of 1955, before the floods of December. The “rush of painting” he describes from that year reveal the excitement he felt in the move away from the Abstract Expressionist style. The series of black and white figure studies from around that time demonstrates a growing freedom of movement while finding balance in form and color.

An airy freedom seems secured by the end of his time in Berkeley. In a 1967 work, Seated Figure with Hat (top of page), we see a woman sitting in profile, eyes hidden by the brim of a deep straw sun hat. Her hand, no more than a feathery smear between her peach skin and her fuchsia skirt, holds the scraped outline of glass. The brushwork is erratic in direction but insistent in pressure, revealing the dark blue layer behind a streaked yellow background. Her pose recalls the neat geometries of Diebenkorn’s earlier work, and the vacant, drifting psychology of many of his faceless figures.

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The DeYoung show concluded with the enormous Window, another painting from 1967, measuring 92 by 80 inches. It was loaned by the Iris and B. Gerald Center for Visual Arts at Stanford, a gift Mr. and Mrs. Diebenkorn (and an anonymous donor) gave to the museum in 1969. It poses an empty folding chair at the lower right, looking out through the olive-gray frame of a large open window. Outside, a solid blue sky presses down on the roofline of houses with white walls and rare windows, but you’re pulled towards a bright band of matte orange that fills up the lower half of the window frame. Like the terracotta roofs at Stanford, the band – the wall, one assumes, of an adjacent building – appears plain but noble, well-formed, sturdy. It commands some kind of contemplation, a command doubled by the inviting empty chair. Window will return to the Cantor Arts Center next year. You should go to see it, whether you’ve come to Stanford to study engineering, entrepreneurship, or the arts. You may find it a kind of revelation.

[1] Susan Larsen, interview with Richard Diebenkorn, May 1, 1985, Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C., cited in Diebenkorn, Richard, Timothy Anglin Burgard, Steven A. Nash, and Emma Acker, Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 (San Francisco: Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, 2013), p.231.

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