By Michael Kimmelman, New York Times newspaper, March 31, 1993
Richard Diebenkorn 1922-1993, one of the premier American painters of the postwar era, whose deeply lyrical abstractions evoked the shimmering light and wide-open spaces of California, where he spent virtually his entire life, died yesterday at his home in Berkeley. He was 70.
The cause was respiratory failure after a long illness, said his dealer, Lawrence Rubin of M. Knoedler and Company in Manhattan.Two rounds of open-heart surgery, pneumonia and a bout of radiation therapy over the last two years had hobbled Mr. Diebenkorn, making his breathing so difficult that eventually his creative efforts were limited to drawings and other small-scale works he could produce while bedridden. Even these, in the soft, bleached colors he favored, often suggested a vast scale.
From the beginning of his career, in the late 1940's, he won admirers and exhibited widely. But the distance, both physical and psychological, that he maintained from New York tended to put him out of step with art-world fashion, and it caused either consternation or indifference in many critics. When Abstract Expressionism was ascendant in New York in the 1950's, Mr. Diebenkorn switched from abstraction to figuration. When Pop Art made figuration fashionable in the 1960's, he switched back to abstraction.
Mr. Diebenkorn cultivated no school, no circle around him. He was a modest, thoughtful and private man who produced a distinctly private and thoughtful brand of art. Prone to wearing corduroys and button-down shirts, he had a professorial, studiously unbohemian manner that was the very antithesis of the cliche of the slick SoHo artist and entrepreneur. He tended to hunch his large frame to make himself less imposing, and when he spoke it was typically in a halting way, frequently doubling back to what he had said to amend or correct a remark.
Strength and Curiosity
This was also the spirit in which he painted. His abstractions are composed of second thoughts, pentimenti, erasures and emendations. Many of his images involve the same elements: a scaffold of lines and bands, overlapping planes and atmospheric veils of color through which layers of activity can be perceived. The effect is an architecture of form in which the beauty has as much to do with the intricacy of the joinery as with the overall design. The strength, and the curiosity, of his work also involves the contradiction inherent in the idea that indecision, conflict and tinkering could become the essence of such sensuous and seductive painting.
In his last years, until his illness forced him to stay at an apartment he kept in Berkeley, Mr. Diebenkorn spent most of his time with his wife, Phyllis, at the simple two-story white house in the Northern California town of Healdsburg to which they moved from Los Angeles in 1988. From his studio in a converted garage, he could look out on lush vineyards and on the mountains across the Alexander Valley. He said the sight brought to mind the landscape of Provence, which had inspired the work of one of his main heroes, Cezanne. Like Cezanne's landscapes, his abstractions were characterized by balance, control, extraordinary honesty and painstaking construction.
Matisse was the other artist who influenced Mr. Diebenkorn most profoundly, and with whom he has been most often linked. Matisse's combination of seriousness and suavity, often in works that contained the evidence of changes and corrections, was something that Mr. Diebenkorn's art clearly echoed. But it was not merely elegance he sought. Mr. Diebenkorn tried to resist the easy fluency that could make his works seem facile and pretty. He often spoke of the "tension beneath calm" for which he strove in his art.
Richard Clifford Diebenkorn Jr. was born on April 22, 1922, in Portland, Ore., the only child of Dorothy and Richard Diebenkorn, a vice president of a Pacific coast hotel supply company. He described his parents as "super-bourgeois," resisting the idea that he become an artist. He credited his maternal grandmother, Florence McCarthy Stephens, a poet, painter and civil rights lawyer, with encouraging him.
His first enthusiasm was for the illustrations of Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth. When he entered Stanford University in 1940, his horizons expanded. He met Phyllis Gilman, the woman he would marry. And he was introduced to the work of Arthur Dove, Charles Sheeler and, most important, Edward Hopper, whom he seemed to mimic in his works of the early 1940's like "Palo Alto Circle", with its hard light and strong geometry of form.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1943 and spent a semester of duty at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied painting with Erle Loran, before he enrolled in officer training. On assignment to the base in Quantico, Va., he was able to visit the Phillips Collection in Washington, an experience he would always cherish because of the impact of the works he saw there by Bonnard, Picasso, Braque and especially Matisse. The Phillips would later become one of the most enthusiastic collectors and exhibiters of Mr. Diebenkorn's works.
At Home in the West
He began creating his earliest abstractions not long after. He briefly tried living in New York but quickly abandoned the idea. "If you're there", he said, "you get all involved in the moment, in the issues that are always present but don't really mean all that much. I like having had to rely on my own resources, although it seemed pretty desolate occasionally".
By the late 40's he had resettled in the San Francisco area, which had its own vital art scene that included David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Hassel Smith, Edward Corbett and Clyfford Still.
Mr. Diebenkorn fell strongly under the sway of Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning, whose work he first admired in a 1948 issue of Partisan Review. But to this influence he soon added something distinctive in the early 1950's. While flying between California and Albuquerque, N.M., where he was studying for a master's degree at the University of New Mexico, he observed from the air the colors and the broad, flat, rectilinear fields of the Southwestern landscape. His abstractions began to consist of interlocking planes that resembled terrains crisscrossed by roads and ravines.
His first one-man exhibition came in 1948, at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. When his early work was displayed in New York, it was warmly received as a West Coast variant of Abstract Expressionism.
From Abstraction to Figures
But Mr. Diebenkorn's conversion to figuration in the mid-1950's stunned some East Coast critics, especially those unfamiliar with Park and Bischoff, whose figurative paintings of the early 50's set the stage for him. In retrospect, it was less a conversion than it seemed at the time, because the figurative works were really an extension of his abstractions, just as his later change back to abstraction grew naturally out of his figurative paintings.
"I was never throwing things away when I switched from one way of painting to another", Mr. Diebenkorn said. "You can see a continuum from representation to abstraction, although I must say it never felt like a smooth transition while I was in the middle of it".
The evolution from figuration back to abstraction began shortly after he moved from the San Francisco area in 1966 to teach at the University of California at Los Angeles. He produced hundreds of abstractions in the last quarter of a century, most of them part of the "Ocean Park" series, named after the section of Santa Monica where he kept a studio until he moved with his wife to Healdsburg.
He is survived by his wife; a daughter, Gretchen Grant, and a son, Christopher, both of San Francisco, and two grandchildren.
Mr. Diebenkorn's work was represented in the Sao Paulo Bienal in 1955, and in 1961 the Phillips gave him a one-man show. In 1978 he was the United States representative at the Venice Biennale. Over the decades there were many exhibitions of his art at museums around the world; last year, a major paintings retrospective organized by the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London traveled from England to Germany, Spain and California.
The last big New York overview of his work was a survey of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art, organized in 1988 by John Elderfield. "You have to admire the persistence and longevity of his achievement," Mr. Elderfield said. "Better that than a fashion plate." "He renews your belief in painting", he said.