Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn

A protagonist of American painting in the postwar era, Richard Diebenkorn created lyrical abstractions that channel the glimmering, brisk light of California, where he spent most of his life. With his exuberant handling of paint and his refusal to be confined, Diebenkorn forged a singular exploration of color and form, moving fluidly, over the course of his five-decade career, between abstraction and representation.

Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1922, and raised in San Francisco, Diebenkorn studied at Stanford University. There, he was introduced to the work of American artists Arthur Dove, Charles Sheeler, and Edward Hopper, as well as European modernistsPaul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, all of whom would have an enduring influence. Diebenkorn served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1943 until 1945, returning from military duty to San Francisco in 1946, where he studied at the California School of Fine Arts on the G.I. Bill.After spending a year in New York funded by an Albert Bender Grant-in-Aid fellowship, he settled in the San Francisco area in 1947—joining the vital art scene that included David Park, Edward Corbett, and Clyfford Still—and mounted his first solo exhibition in the city the following year at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.In 1950, he enrolled at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. While flying there from California, he observed from the air the earthen colors and flat, rectilinear fields of the Southwestern landscape. These interlocking planes traversed by calligraphic road- or ravine-like forms inspired the signature style that would feature in all of the artist’s subsequent work.

Diebenkorn often worked against the grain: when Abstract Expressionism ascended in New York in the 1950s, he opted for figuration, and when Pop Art emerged in the ’60s, he returned to abstraction. His career is often understood as consisting of three parts: In his early maturity, he was considered to be a second-generation, West Coast variant Abstract Expressionist; in late 1955 his paintings evolved to include figure studies, still lifes, and representational landscapes; and in the mid-’60s he returned to abstraction, producing hundreds of paintings in the last three decades of his life, most of them part of the Ocean Park series, named after the section of Santa Monica where he kept a studio from 1966 to 1988. Consistent across the painter’s oeuvre is a palimpsestic methodology that made visible amendments and erasures. Overlapping planes, architectures of lines and bands, and atmospheric layers of color likewise recur throughout his work, resulting in a vivid quality Diebenkorn often spoke of as the “tension beneath the calm.”

Diebenkorn’s work has been the subject of many major exhibitions across the United States and internationally, and in 1978 he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. Numerous traveling retrospectives and surveys of his work have been organized, including those at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York (1976), the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1988), the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (1992), the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1997), and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (2011).

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