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Book Review : Richard Diebenkorn (Royal Academy of Arts)


This book accompanies the Royal Academy exhibition that features the work of Richard Diebenkorn who is considered  one of America’s “finest abstract painters”. Both the exhibition and the book address the fact that although Diebenkorn is considered one of the great American twentieth century artists, he is relatively unknown in Europe.

To understand this anomaly, the book explores the artist’s career and considers how the major strands of his work developed over time. Sarah H Bancroft in her essay A Riotous Calm explores one of the constant themes of his work, namely how Diebenkorn seems to be able to use the often widely different landscapes of where he was located to create works that seemed to be symbolic of the region. As Bancroft states ” The regions in which Diebenkorn worked – their climate, light and space, and sense of space- had a perennial impact on his sensibility and artwork, whether representational or abstract.”

Bancroft considers a number of influences which helped to define Diebenkorn as an artist, he was bought up in Northern California where his artistic talent was encouraged by his grandmother who gave him postcards featuring the Bayeux Tapestry and books on Arthurian legends. Although he enrolled to study at Stanford, the Second World War intervened and he joined the Marines. After basic training he was assigned to a photographic division and then in 1945 he was sent to Hawaii to work as an artist making maps. When the war had ended he finished his studies and then took up a teaching job at the California School of Fine Arts. In many ways his disrupted studies had enabled him to travel and visit a number of art institutions which inspired him to consider art as a career and the financial help from the GI Bill enabled him to undertake a Master of Arts degree at the University of New Mexico.

The dramatic landscape surrounding Albuquerque provided inspiration for  Diebenkorn’s first major series of paintings, The Albuquerque Series 1950 -1952, most of the paintings were abstract but expressionistic rather than geometrical. His success with this series led to him securing his first art dealer and found his work sold consistently. Perhaps more importantly it encouraged him to follow his own path, he later remarked ” I think I was saying to myself that OK, I am going to damn well paint what I want.

His next series, The Urbana series 1952- 53 built on his work in Albuquerque but was less dramatic with a more pastel palette which accentuated the dust and earthiness of the region. In 1953, the Diebenkorns left Urbana and moved to Berkeley in Northern California, gradually over the next few years, Diebenkorn moved from purely abstract to experiments with figuration. This was a bold move in more ways than one but was another clear indication that he would follow his own path. Gradually he created a large body of work which included large figure and still life paintings , landscapes and cityscapes. Although many of the paintings were figurative, many were ill defined and melted into a more abstract landscape. His cityscapes especially Cityscape #1 (1963) incorporates a  mix of realism with a suburban view and a landscape full of geometric shapes.

In the 1960s, Diebenkorn accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles and began to work on a new abstract series, The Ocean Park series 1967 -68. For many people this series seem to capture the essence of the area, a number of large paintings incorporated more distinctive geometric shapes with cool pastel tones.

The next essay in the book written by Steven A Nash is entitled An American Voice with European Accents considers how European artists influenced the work of Diebenkorn. According to Nash it was the work of Mondrian and Cezanne that influenced his early work, however in his figurative stage the work of Matisse began to be noticeable as a considerable influence.

The third essay in the book by Edith Devaney considers how Richard Diebenkorn’s drawings were an important part of his working pattern. It is suggested that Diebenkorn would use his drawings to look for ‘rightness’ before painting. Diebenkorn himself explained his approach ” My reasons for doing drawings are roughly two-fold. My drawings often begin as sketch explorations of ideas,which then hook me in further and complete development. This activity, up to a point where it becomes for me a serious work, is related to my larger oil on canvas pieces and is a kind of tryout or rehearsal of general possibilities.”

The rest of the book is made up of catalogues plates of Diebenkorn’s major works and a Chronology of his life and career.

This book provides many major insights into the work and career of Richard Diebenkorn over a forty-year period. It is intriguing to consider, it was not his art education that provided his inspiration for his early works but his military career. Working on maps allowed Diebenkorn to become familiar with a bird’s eye view of the landscape and his Albuquerque series suggest that this was a major possible influence. Another unusual aspect of Diebenkorn was the fact that very early in his career he was selling paintings and this continued steadily throughout his career. This gave him a great deal of freedom and may be a reason that he did not seek recognition outside of the United States. Much is made of his changes from abstract to figurative and then back to abstract periods of his work, but his explanation was ” If you don’t assume a rigid historical mission, you have infinitely more freedom. One of the most interesting polarities in art is between representation , at one end of the stick, and abstraction at the other end, and I’ve found myself all over that stick.”
It was Diebenkorn’s ability to work on that continuum that never allowed him to be easily categorised but is a clear indication that he possessed a fierce determination to follow his own path, even if that was in opposition of the dominant art movements of the day.

This lavishly illustrated and informative book allows people from outside the United States to consider a broad range of his work and perhaps gains some understanding into why he is revered in America as one of the countries greatest artist. From early in his career, people respected his ability to synthesise landscape, climate, light and space and to transfer that through the medium of paint onto canvas. However his figurative works and Cityscapes illustrated his skills were considerable and wide-ranging, while some critics saw the move to figuration as a sign that Diebenkorn had lost his way, Diebenkorn continued on his own path regardless. In many ways other than his body of work this is his true legacy, he was one of those rare artists who made connections to a large number of people whilst staying true to his wider artistic vision, mainly ignoring critics, fame and celebrity.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like more information about the book or buy a copy, visit the Royal Academy website here

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