Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953โ€“1966


Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953โ€“1966

By Patricia Maloney September 11, 2013

Richard Diebenkorn was an artist intimately tied to California; with the exception of brief stints in Albuquerque and Urbana, Illinois, he spent his career and life here. Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years 1953–1966, on view at the de Young Museum, traces the evolution of the artist’s local production during this period and its radical shift from abstraction to representation. But the show also reveals the artist’s affinity for positioning himself, and us, in relation to the particular somewhere of Northern California, a terrain as much a product of his process as his locale.

For example, Berkeley #22 (1954), one of the earlier works on view, instantly invokes the impression of a rising hillside whose tall horizon is topped by a darkening sky. It takes several moments to settle into the painting’s actual vernacular: an abstract composition of thick brushstrokes roughly applied in crosshatched patterns and bright colors muddied by contrasting hues emanating from above and beneath. The painting is an accumulation of gestures that seem to put line at odds with shape, the artist allowing neither to assert itself fully. But it is abstract only in peering closely at each mark or block of color; the moment one takes in the canvas as a whole, a landscape immediately snaps back into view. 

Curator Timothy Anglin Burgard’s selections do an excellent job of establishing the radical nature of Diebenkorn’s turn away from Abstract Expressionism, the dominant mode of painting at the time, while underscoring the continuity of the artist’s process regardless of the paintings’ subjects or formal preoccupations. Diebenkorn himself placed little emphasis on the distinction between the two, noting that, “Abstract means literally to draw from or separate. In this sense…a realistic or non-objective approach makes no difference.”1 Even at their most representational, the paintings here don’t cohere into declarative statements on landscape or figure. So, in looking at Seawall (1957) or Cityscape, Landscape 1 (1963), the impression that one is gazing at a view of the cliffs at Point Reyes or Potrero Hill gives way to the cognizance of how the stacked planes of color in each painting refuse to coalesce into neat representations of physical terrain.

In his essay, Burgard notes Diebenkorn’s approach to painting “as a contingent process,” and one can readily discern through the pentimenti—the visible layers of earlier marks—how he built and reworked his compositions.2 These traces function as course corrections throughout what are largely fabricated vistas, conjured by Diebenkorn gazing at his canvas rather than the landscape beyond it. One also frequently sees an expanse framed more concretely—by a deck, a porch, or an open doorway—so that the view is of looking out onto the world but not quite stepping into it. Diebenkorn’s sense of place might have been mediated by the light and terrain of the Berkeley hills but it ultimately resides in the pull of paint to canvas.

Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years ยท1953โ€“1966 is on view at de Young Museum, in

San Francisco

, through September 29, 2013.


  1. Richard Diebenkorn quoted by James Schevill, “Art: Richard Diebenkorn,” in Frontier: the Voice of the New West, Vol. 8, n. 3 (January 1957), 21-22, as cited by Timothy Anglin Burgard, “The Nature of Abstraction,” in Burgard, Steven Nash, and Emma Acker, Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years ·1953–1966 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 16.
  2. Burgard, “The Nature of Abstraction,” 34.

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