Since his death in 1998, Diebenkorn's reputation has steadily grown. His works anchor the modern art collection at the de Young Museum and his retrospective was that rare thing - a thoughtful blockbuster.
Diebenkorn was born in Portland, Oregon in 1922, raised in San Francisco and got his first art education there--interrupted by WW II and a stint in the Marine Corps. This proved to be the seminal chapter in his art education as he was posted to Quantico, Va. While he was there, he was able to visit Washington museums, especially the Phillips Collection.
Matisse's "Studio, Quai St. Michel, 1916" with its simultaneous inside-outside view, thrilled and inspired him: "I noticed its spatial amplitude; one saw a marvelous hollow or room yet the surface is right there...right up front."
Discharged from the military in 1945, Diebenkorn enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts. Over the next several years, he moved between the East and West coasts. His work from the late '40s to the early '50s was essentially abstract, though with strong overtones of landscape space and color showing a considerable influence of Willem de Kooning. De Kooning, Diebenkorn felt, "had it all, could outpaint anybody, at least until the mid-'60s, when he began to lose it."
Diebenkorn's friendship with the David Park, the fiercely independent Bay Area painter, who rejected abstraction, pointed him in the direction of figurative painting. In his later work, he returned to abstraction, but an abstraction shaped and informed by his studies of the figure.
The climax of his work - and the pride of the de Young, is the Ocean Park series. Began in 1967, Ocean Park is part of Santa Monica, the beachside suburb of Los Angeles where he had his studio.
The Ocean Park series radiates calmness. They are strong, almost austere. The paintings repeat elements - the straight lines, the geometric triangles and half obscured squares and arches. The colors echo the California landscape, yellow-ochre, green, multiple variations on blue. The layered surface shows many revisions and corrections; one of the fascinations in viewing his work is seeing the painter's hand in the process of creation.
In her introductory essay to the 1988 show at the Museum of Modern Art, curator Jane Livingston observed that "the fundamental fact about Diebenkorn may be that, in a sense, he lived just slightly in the wrong time. He was down to the bone a modernist. His painting was neither reductivist nor conceptual; it was sublime in an old-fashioned sense. Fortunately, he was entirely unembarrassed by the anachronism of his passion."
When he died of respiratory failure in 1993, Richard Diebenkorn was recognized as one of the preeminent painters of the last half century, a major figure contributing to the dominance of American art since 1945. He sought artistic challenges, was unafraid of changing styles, and constantly reworked and altered paintings until they achieved an "emotional rightness." ("I want a painting to be difficult to do," he once declared. "The more obstacles, obstructions, problems, the better.")
images courtesy FAMSF & Campbell/Thiebaud Gallery