Diebenkorn’s Berkeley of the Mind

  • by Sura Wood
  • Tuesday July 9, 2013
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Timothy Anglin Burgard, the Ednah Root Curator in Charge of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums, discusses "Berkeley #3" by Richard Diebenkorn
Timothy Anglin Burgard, the Ednah Root Curator in Charge of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums, discusses "Berkeley #3" by Richard Diebenkorn

Hometown art hero Richard Diebenkorn followed his muse, oscillating between abstraction and figuration and plowing the middle ground, at a time when the rigid, prevailing orthodoxy of abstract expressionism, which dominated the modern-art world, dictated strict adherence to the creed. But the man insistently went his own way, putting the "I" in independent, hanging with the Bay Area Figurative boys - Elmer Bischoff, Wayne Thiebaud, David Park - and sampling his customized abstract expressionist style, an approach that yielded magnificent results.

That's the thesis borne out by "Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966," at the de Young Museum, a definitive survey and the first to focus on the fertile 13-year period the artist spent in Berkeley when "Diebenkorn really became Diebenkorn." After viewing this breathtaking exhibition, all I can say is: Vive la resistance!

With 131 primarily large-scale paintings and works on paper, the show is huge without being overwhelming or repetitive. It communicates both California spaciousness and gravity, simultaneously providing a venue for renewed (or just plain new) appreciation of an influential artist's work, while being one of the best, most satisfying exhibitions at the Fine Arts Museums in recent memory. Rather than the saturation effect that can plague these kinds of sprawling exhibits, you may leave liking Diebenkorn's art even more than you did before you arrived.

Not the least of its virtues is that instead of the usual summer blockbuster on loan from a European institution that's under renovation, the exhibition was organized in-house by the erudite, astonishingly fluent curator Timothy Anglin Burgard, in collaboration with the Palm Springs Art Museum. Hopefully, the show represents a harbinger of things to come under the stewardship of the museums' recently installed new director, Colin Bailey.

Although there's some explanatory text, you won't need any amplification to thrill to this moving show. Just take one look at the splendid, intimately scaled "Seawall" (1957), where a sky so blue it could burst and the sea beyond collide with emerald green fields; it's as if the topographical features of the coastline were pressed together in a compactor. Diebenkorn was a cartographer in the Marine Corps, which may explain the sensation of soaring high above landscapes that can resemble a patchwork of colors and geometric forms.

Abundantly clear is that the Bay Area's golden light and atmosphere, its vivid colors and blue water beckoning in the distance, and the heightened, at times unreal beauty of its varied natural landscapes permeated Diebenkorn's artistic consciousness until he immersed himself in a fresh setting after re-locating to Santa Monica in 1967.

He was very nearly a native son, attending San Francisco's Lowell High School, Stanford and UCB, and was both a student and teacher at what is now SFAI. In 1963, he returned to the city's affluent Ingleside Terraces neighborhood, where he grew up, for his painting "Cityscape, Landscape 1." A precipitous suburban enclave absent of people and with a road to nowhere, it owes a debt to his friend Thiebaud, and the enigmatic eeriness of Edward Hopper, a seminal influence. But it was an exhibition of another outlier, Van Gogh, which Diebenkorn saw when he was eight years old, that sealed his rendezvous with destiny.

A persistent theme is the open window that both separates one from the world and leads to connection with it. In many works, some of which have an undercurrent of melancholy and introversion, subjects are seated by themselves or with another person in empty rooms that have doors and windows that open onto abstracted, improbable vistas and compressed horizons. They're invitations to the surreal, but in contrast to Jean-Paul Sartre's existential, hermetically sealed hell, there's always an exit through one portal or another.

Diebenkorn once remarked that temperamentally, he was a landscape painter, but what kind exactly? These aren't your daddy's landscapes; they're imagined interior maps of mood and mind. The optimistic "Figure on a Porch" (1959), for instance, looks like the beginning of a sunny day near the beach, maybe, with a terrace bathed in warm yellow, sandy hues that contrast with indigo waters in the distance, while "Woman on a Porch," which was painted a year earlier and closely resembles the same scene, is more contemplative. As afternoon shadows fall across her body, the female subject sits in a chair alone in private reverie.

Just as one can feel the artist wrestling with isolation, and attempting to reconcile the intellectual and emotional impulses within him, one can also detect the ghosts of previous compositions as he thought out loud on the paper and on rough-edged, less-than-pristine canvases. The emblems of metamorphosis - his erasures, scrapings, reworking and archaeological layering - led his friend Wayne Thiebaud to comment that Diebenkorn's works "are always complete, but never finished."

Be sure not to miss the watercolors or the sensual ink-and-charcoal drawings of women, reclining and otherwise - Diebenkorn is considered a master draftsman of the 20th century - and a pair of delightful, bright cut-paper collages worthy of one of his heroes, Matisse. The influence of Cezanne and de Kooning, a contemporary whom he idolized, is obvious, but Matisse's imprint is pervasive and profound.

The last gallery pays homage to the artist whose works Diebenkorn saw on a pivotal trip, in 1964, to Russia's Hermitage and Pushkin Museums. Visions of Matisse surely must have been dancing in his head as he worked on "Nude on Blue Ground" (1966), a painting of a regal, statuesque woman lunging into view. With its rectangular shapes and merging of indoor and outdoor space, "Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad" (1965) brings Matisse to mind as well as Bonnard, and presages the Ocean Park series he later produced in L.A.

When he embarked on a new work, Diebenkorn was like a wilderness explorer, unsure where he was headed or how the journey would end; art was the vehicle, not the destination. "We should be doing something, not making something," he once told Kathan Brown, founder of Crown Point Press, where he began his foray into etching. During his Berkeley years, what he did - and made - was spectacular. (Through Sept. 29.)