Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 is being organized in a collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Palm Springs Art Museum (PSAM). A fully illustrated catalogue published by Yale University Press will accompany the exhibition, with essays by Timothy Anglin Burgard, the Ednah Root Curator-in-Charge of American Art at FAMSF, and Steven Nash, Executive Director of the PSAM, with contributions from Emma Acker, Curatorial Assistant for American Art at FAMSF.
Richard Diebenkorn achieved national and international acclaim during his lifetime and is considered one of California’s finest 20th century artists. His work has been the subject of several retrospective exhibitions, numerous smaller exhibitions, and many articles and critical reviews. This exhibition will be the first to examine the productive period between 1953 to 1966 while Diebenkorn and his family lived in Berkeley, California. It was a remarkable period of exploration and innovation in his art marked by vivid abstract landscapes characterizing the rich, natural conditions of the Bay Area, followed by a sudden shift to a representational style that played a leading role in the Bay Area Figurative Movement, which finally gave way again to abstraction after the artist’s move to southern California in 1966.
These transformations represent one of the most interesting chapters in post-war American art, and Diebenkorn produced many of his most iconic works during this time. No previous investigations of his work have focused precisely on the motivations for his dramatic shifts of style, or what these different modes meant to him as expressive vehicles. A significant cataloguing project now underway has brought to light many works from this period that have long remained little known, and this exhibition will contain a major sampling of such works. Produced by the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation, the catalogue raisonne will identify all Diebenkorn’s work.
Early formative years as a student and teacher at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco provided Diebenkorn with strong influences from Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko who were instructors there. By 1953 Diebenkorn was living in the Berkeley Hills and had developed his own expressive abstract style, marked by a fluid, gestural handling of both line and thick impastos of paint, an expansive sense of space and rich earthen colors. He was inspired by the striking landscape vistas of the Bay Area, with their dramatic plunges, lush greens, and rich light. Over a three-year period he concentrated on a series of more than 50 paintings and hundreds of drawings and watercolors that synthesized these elements of nature in what came to be known as the Berkeley landscapes. Exhibitions of this work in San Francisco and New York gallery shows brought the beginnings of national attention to Diebenkorn’s work.
Diebenkorn’s Berkeley landscapes are deserving of more focused attention than they have received through the years. The numerous drawings and watercolors associated with the paintings have never been studied in order to determine their formal relationship to the paintings. The evolution of some particularly dark and somber compositions requires more explanation in conjunction with the reasons the artist suddenly abandoned this style at a time of recognition. The exhibition and catalogue will bring new light to these matters and celebrate the joyful quality of the abstractions.
Starting with tentative figure and still-life paintings, Diebenkorn’s conversion from abstraction to figuration began in 1954-55, followed by impressively confident, large paintings of figures, still-lifes, landscapes and interiors. Diebenkorn explained the sudden shift in style, commenting that he was weary of the “super- emotional” approach required by the dynamism of the abstract work, and credited the influence of his friends David Park and Elmer Bischoff, both of whom had recently abandoned abstraction for figuration. Other factors influencing the change were his growing interest in figural drawing, a strong interest in Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, as well as artists Edgar Degas and the German Expressionists, and a new-found concern for the human psychology of his own paintings. Richard Diebenkorn: the Berkeley Years will trace the development of these factors and examine the continued interaction but shifting balance, in nearly all of Diebenkorn’s work, between nature and abstraction, observation and artifice; a point dramatized at the conclusion of our study by growing evidence of a movement back towards abstraction in works produced in Southern California.
The pendulum swing from abstraction to figuration in Diebenkorn’s work during the Berkeley period is a highly unusual if not unique occurrence in the history of American post-war art. It is, however, one of the most salient features of his art, and the Berkeley period clearly demonstrates its invigorating effect, as works in one mode draw from stylistic and formal resources in the other. Diebenkorn was able to enact these changes with no disruptions to the unity of his art or the basic principles of his artistic personality.
This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, in collaboration with the Palm Springs Art Museum, and supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
The Palm Springs Art Museum presentation is supported by Diamond Sponsor: Museum Associates Council; Title Sponsor: National Endowment for the Arts; Presenting Sponsors: Sotheby’s, Myrna W. Kaplan, Faye and Herman Sarkowsky, Yvonne and Steve Maloney, Terra Foundation for American Art on behalf of board member Gloria Scoby; and Supporting Sponsors: Barbara and Jerry Keller, Donna MacMillan, Harold Matzner, Dorothy and Harold J. Meyerman, Carol and Steve Nash, Gwendolyn Weiner, Beth Edwards Harris, and Noel Hanford