Feature

Exhibit of the week: Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953–1966

During his Berkeley years, the artist's oscillation between realism and abstract expressionism became particularly intense.

De Young Museum, San FranciscoThrough Sept. 29

Richard Diebenkorn was not a man to be pigeonholed, said John Held Jr. in the San Francisco Arts Quarterly. The career of the great California-based painter (1922–93) has often been described as progressing from realism to abstract expressionism to a long period when he melded the two before settling for good in an abstract mode. But those phases can’t be so neatly separated. “Diebenkorn’s abstract works are always derived from some aspect of reality. Likewise his more representational works always incorporate abstraction.” That constant push-pull was not a product of indecision, either: Diebenkorn was at all times working to incorporate the innovations of Matisse, Picasso, and de Kooning and to propel modernist painting forward. During 13 fertile years he spent in Berkeley, Calif., the oscillation between styles became particularly intense. So intense, in fact, that this 131-piece sampling of work from that period—due to move next month to the Palm Springs Art Museum—may rank as “the painting show of the year.”

Diebenkorn’s Berkeley paintings usually take a back seat to his subsequent “Ocean Park” series, said David Littlejohn in The Wall Street Journal. Yet the Berkeley work shows Diebenkorn at the height of his powers. A turning point came in 1955, when he was driving through a San Francisco suburb and saw a house he felt he had to paint. He was leaving pure abstraction behind. Chabot Valley “shows that house not as a deformed abstraction, but as it appeared to his eye.” Diebenkorn was striking out on his own, keeping “the field-like patches of color” of his abstract years but using them to depict the world around him. Over the next decade, “he mastered the art of combining abstraction and figuration as had no artist since Cézanne.”

His work offers proof that painting, a medium that has lately “fallen from grace,” still contains unexplored possibilities, said Jed Perl in The New Republic. Our “go-with-the-flow culture” has made young artists uncomfortable with painting’s demand that they believe, at least while working, that they can capture the entire world on a single, flat rectangle. Diebenkorn’s work points a way forward. In Woman on Porch, from 1958, a female figure sits against a backdrop simplified into eye-popping bands of color. She’s “a human puzzle knit into the puzzle of the landscape,” and yet the abstraction of both figure and setting has a purpose because it helps convey a complex emotional reality: the woman’s state of mind. In this painting and many of those currently assembled around it, Diebenkorn did what any painter must do: He struck “a provocative balance” between the conventions of painting and the potential of the medium to tell us something new.

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