On Richard Diebenkorn by Clairan Ferrono

Richard Diebenkorn, 1922 – 1993, was a modern painter whose work had three main phases. He was a successful abstract painter who then turned to landscape and figures and then, remarkably enough, went back to abstraction with a fresh perspective to finish his career.

His first finished painting (1943) reveals the influence of Hopper — compare Hopper’s:


Approaching a City

with Diebenkorn’s


Palo Alto.

Hopper’s use of light continued to influence Diebenkorn, but he quickly found his own style. His education (Stanford) was interrupted by WWII; he spent several years in DC, then returned to CA. He then spent a couple years in New Mexico, and on to Urbana, IL, before returning to CA. During the late 40’s and early 50’s, he quickly became one of the pre-eminent abstract painters of the time. Much of his work at this time was landscape inspired or influenced, but some of it shows the influence of surrealism and the work of other abstract expressionists such as Motherwell. His palette changesdsomewhat, it seems, in reaction to the physical environment. But the paintings are definitely not landscape, but abstract.


Sausalito (1949)

Beginning in 1955, however, his work took a distinct turn, as Diebenkorn moved to a more representational expression. One day he got “in the car and (went) out and looked for something that might make a good painting.” The result was a little city scape, Chabot Valley., about which Diebenkorn said, “After doing this landscape–and this all probably happened in a week–the landscape and several still lifes–I approached a big canvas with a figure. ” While there is an organic relationship between Diebenkorn’s earlier abstracts and his landscapes, there is no escaping the fact that the work of this period is clearly representational — although it was considered retrograde at the time. Still lifes, interiors with or without figures, figure studies and landscapes occupied the artist until 1967. One of the masterpieces of this period is:


Cityscape I (1963)

In 1966 Diebenkorn saw an exhibit of Matisse in LA. He was especially struck by:


Porte-Fenêtre à Collioure (1914)

The artist’s subsequent work abandoned representation, and returned to abstraction in a very different way. The great Ocean Park series began in 1967, running to well over 100 paintings with flat bands of luminous colors and airy planes.


Ocean Park #66 (1973)

I encountered Diebenkorn’s work for the first time in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art about 5 years ago. I was bowled over by it, and continue to pour over the gorgeous book I bought then The Art of Richard Diebenkorn by Jane Livingston, from which I extracted some of these images, the timeline and the quotes.

Now that we have a little context in common, I would like to invite you to do a little analysis à la Terry Barrett of one of my favorite Diebenkorn paintings:


Interior with View of Buildings (1962)


8 Responses to “On Richard Diebenkorn by Clairan Ferrono”

  1. 1 Richard July 18, 2010 at 7:35 am

    I knew Diebenkorn. I know his work deeply. i contributed to the Livingston catalogue that one of you mentioned. I was browsing through the online material when I happened upon this site.

    He was at California College of Fine Arts when Clifford Still was there. Dick was not enamored of Still. When they played catch with a baseball, Dick threw it hard when Still wasn’t wearing a glove. Dick did not emulate Newman at all. Motherwell was a friend (they both emerged from Stanford University at different times) but Dick did not pursue Motherwell’s calligraphic approach that flowed from gentrifying Pollock. Dick’s work touched base with Matisse and Mondrian.

    “Interior with View of Buildings” (1962) owes to Matisse’s “Interior with Goldfish” (1914), now up at the Museum of Modern Art New York in an exceptionally important exhibit “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917.” Dick was intellectually intrigued with the monumental struggle toward reduction that Matisse engaged during World War I after two trips to Tangiers, ending in 1912. Diebenkorn’s “Interior with View of Buildings” was only one of several pieces wherein Diebenkorn explored the operations within Matisse’s painting. The reflecting oval of the magnifying glass on the table echoes two in Matisse; the sketchy chair two in Matisse; the black interior was common to both; the minimalist exterior buildings cast in light shared by both. In another version of the interior of Matisse’s studio at 19 Quai Saint-Michel Matisse included his own paintings on the wall., as Dick did in his own painting. Another view during the same year from the same window by Matisse in the opposite direction, “View of Notre Dame” (1914) became the progenitor of Dick’s Ocean Park paintings.

    Dick did not put Surrealist tropes in his paintings. Admiring artists’s works, such as those by Diebenkorn or Matisse, fundamentally both invites and confers a responsibility to understand more deeply than the surface the structure, issues, and meanings of the works. Satisfaction with only the surface rhetoric might have its pleasures, even if they are as Duchamp termed them only “retinal.” Deeper undertsanding would reveal ideological discussions and cultural advances that, for the artists, were probably closert to theology than to anything else.

  2. 2 clairan April 1, 2007 at 6:56 pm

    It is amazing how simple his paintings look at 1st glance and how deeply complex they really are!

  3. 3 kim lakin April 1, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    I did an art quilt based on an Ocean Park painting a few years ago. It was an incredible learning experience. I grew to appreciatehis work on a much deeper level. Every one of his brushstrokses, colrs, and layers are important to the overall piece. Nothing can be left out. Copying is always so frowned upon in art school, but it certainly helped my appreciation and I beleive made me a better artist.

  4. 4 clairan March 27, 2007 at 10:23 am

    Sorry, my server went down briefly and sent off the prior post prematurely.

    What you thought was a mirror is actually a painting. And it’s a visual “Joke” or reference to another painting where the woman is seated in the chair of “Interior” and looking at the scene presented as the horizon in “Interior.”

    The magnifying glass, which Diebenkorn apparently used frequently while painting, reflects the 3 horizontal bands in the background of the painting, reversed.

    The top third of the painting is very horizontal. In the bottom 2/3rds there are a number of curving images. What do we make of this?

  5. 5 clairan March 27, 2007 at 10:19 am


    I’m going to reply to a few of your comments then leave the field open to others for a while:

    The strong horizontal lines are definitely characteristic of Diebenkorn’s paintings.

    And yes, he was in the main stream of, and friends/student of/teacher of/ Still and Newman and others.

    As to Interior with view of Buildings: It is framed by a window — It’s an image that moves interior to exterior (I hadn’t realized before I wrote this that it may be that this painting intrigues and fascinates me because it’s about things that I am working through now). So I wouldn’t say the window frame was a misplaced image.

  6. 6 June March 26, 2007 at 8:35 pm


    I went back to read Jeanne’s notes on Terry Barrett’s first chapter — it covers a lot of ground.

    So here’s some observations on the painting itself — it’s full of reflected or misplaced images — the buildings on the horizon line are framed by the window; there’s a mirror that presumably reflects the artist; a magnifying glass lies on the table. The most directly presented object is the chair (also reflected in the mirror) but it’s barely presented. There’s a lot of large blank spaces in the canvas.

    Among the canvases you show, what I notice is strong horizontal lines that morph into the rectangles in the Ocean Park work. I’d have to see more to know if this is just a fluke of these images or whether it holds more universally.

    What struck me about the context of time of the painting (1962) is that that was when art broke wide open — post Warhol’s soup cans. The earlier abstract you showed (1949) has resemblances to many of the abstract artists of the late 40’s and 50’s — Clyfford Still, for example, and Barnett Newman come to mind immediately. So in a sense, Diebenkorn was caught up in the contemporary art scene and ran right with it. But when it broke in 1960, he went back to representational work. And then, he found, in the Ocean Park series (1967 forward) an amazing singular voice, not like anything that I know of in that period. It’s as if he had to go back to the older mode in order to free himself of the abstract work of the 50’s.

    In my own painting, I find representation to be “easier” than abstraction — that is, there’s far less to try to imagine. But back when I was doing serious abstraction in textile work, it seemed easier. So I’m thinking (or mostly meandering, I should say) that textiles have history and material that lends itself to abstraction; and painting has a history and material that lends itself to representation.

    What do the rest of you think about representation and abstraction, painting and textiles, and Diebenkorn in 1943, ’49, ’62, ’67?

  7. 7 clairan March 25, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    Take a look at “Chabot Valley.” It’s a beauty. I think it’s quite an honor to be classed in any way with Diebenkorn!

  8. 8 June March 25, 2007 at 4:33 pm


    My current painting teacher (one of many who have struggled with me) told me I was (or maybe it was “should be”) painting like Diebenkorn. I was confused because I only knew his late abstract work and I couldn’t see any resemblance, even in the mind of my always hopeful instructor. But now that I see his figurative landscape work, I understand.


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