Richard Diebenkorn: A Master of Spatial Relationships

(April 22, 1922March 30, 1993) was a well-known 20th century American painter. Diebenkorn was born in Portland, Oregon; his family moved to San Francisco, California when he was two. In 1940, Diebenkorn entered Stanford University. At first, he painted and drew in a representational style that was in a large part influenced by Edward Hopper. However, during the late 1940s and early 1950s he lived and worked in various places: New York City, Woodstock, New York, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Urbana, Illinois, Berkeley, California and he developed his own style of abstract expressionist painting. Abstract expressionism had captured worldwide attention having developed in New York during the 1940s. After the Second World War the focus of the art world shifted from the School of Paris to the New York School. In the early 1950s Diebenkorn adopted abstract expressionism as his vehicle for self expression.

The paintings shown above cover the range of his work, but most of all they show how effective he is at putting everything in the right place regardless of the subject. After studying his work for several years, the Ocean Park series remains my favorite (see middle painting). The wheels started turning as I wondered why we don’t do minimal or abstract expressionism in textile work. Is it because we are so accustomed to the opulence of fiber? Or, speaking only for myself, is it because we have not give enough attention to the simple elegance of spatial relationships?

Often the work of Joseph Alber’s Interaction of Color comes to mind when viewing Diebenkorn. Each color interacting with the next; yet every color has a voice that sings in harmony with all the others…..much like a choir where all the individual voices become one. Diebenkorn moves beyond color interaction into entirely new territory by his division of the canvas.

While Diebenkorn did explore color field and lyrical abstract, upon returning to Berkley he concentrated on the development of the Ocean Park series. The series ended at the time of his death with number 140. This is when his work moved beyond the typical paint on canvas movement. Many critics try to lump him into that old saw that was used for all abstract expressionist but aren’t we tired of that “critical” assessment. We need fresh eyes to find how this work applies to today’s artist.
Diebenkorn’s work is not just about the paint on the canvas. It speaks of hope, the beauty of the environment and the call of the Pacific. This aspect of his work is what prompted me to give some time to a minimal and textiles series. My series is called “Earth and Sky.” Even though I live in an urban environment, we still get to see big sky and plenty of earth. My color work is very different from Diebenkorn’s due to the difference in the light. The quilting line will become the brush stroke; never overwhelming but always visible and sculptural. I am following some of his forms as an homage, but also in an effort to better understand spatial relationships, I am branching out on several new forms.

In closing, Dan Hofstadter of The New Yorker was talking with Diebenkorn at a time when he (Diebenkorn) wasn’t sure he still had the energy or drive to paint. Hofstadter asked, “O.K. Dick. How many people in the world do you think paint as well as you do?” Diebenkorn thought for a long time and then just laughed and went back to the studio. To find the media that allows you to give meaning to your life is the greatest gift of all.

Thanks to June for giving me the chance to join you for an iced chai…..Gabrielle

A parting view for inspiration…..can textiles follow these forms? I give it a resounding yes. Art is art regardless of the media.

Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park No 10  1968 Print UPDATE: Here’s a quote I found from Diebenkorn “The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued – except as a stimulus for further moves.”

June asked to find more images or critiques on his use of space. The search continues.


Click to view full-sized image View Record Sorry I couldn’t find more images that would allow me to copy and paste; however there are lots of hits on Google if you are interested in a wide range of critiques on RD’s work. Thanks for being so kind regarding my first post to the Cafe.


20 Responses to “Richard Diebenkorn: A Master of Spatial Relationships”

  1. 1 co tuong gia re September 18, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Black is the color of water, and the room that is protected by this covering of water
    is the archives. Kubrick got a posthumous producer credit and the film’s ending credits feature a dedication,
    “For Stanley. Kubrick’s usual lackadaisical pace would come back to haunt him this time.

  2. 2 Melanie November 20, 2007 at 12:11 am

    Not to belabor this, nor to let it languish…
    I’ve scooting around on the ‘net to see if I could find more examples of Carter’s work that addresses the “The wheels started turning as I wondered why we don’t do minimal or abstract expressionism in textile work” question. She has work posted at

    (or maybe she just leapt to mind because she told me my work reminded her of Diebenkorn… an enmormous compliment that I’m still trying to take in.)

  3. 3 gabrielleswain November 14, 2007 at 11:40 am

    Olga, Thanks for the links….great work. I agree both of these artist are working as near to ab exp as any I have seen. Melanie, I don’t mean to be obstinate but only one of Erika’s quilts, Time Told, seems to come close to what Diebenkorn was doing in the Ocean Park series and even that quilt is very reliant on repetition and patterning for its imagery. Please don’t get the wrong idea; she is obviously doing solid,mature work…..but I stand by my first assessment….lyrical and image laden. Maybe you could add to the discourse by explaining why you see her work as ab exp.

  4. 4 Melanie November 14, 2007 at 11:00 am

    Take a look at the work posted here. See what you think

  5. 5 Olga November 14, 2007 at 1:25 am

    I agree with Gabrielle about Erika Carter’s work. I think that Dorothy Caldwell and Fenella Davies might fit into the AbEx category -?

  6. 6 gabrielleswain November 13, 2007 at 11:42 pm

    Hi Melanie, After looking at Erika’s site, I agree she is painting. There doesn’t appear to be any textile work on the sight. If so I think she probably would have made note of it. While I like the work she is doing, I am not sure it is in the tradition of the Abstract Expressionism of the later Diebenkorn work. Erika’s work seems more lyrical and image laden. What do y’all think?

  7. 7 Melanie November 13, 2007 at 11:11 pm

    Let me add Erika Carter to the mix. Her website — — suggests she’s painting, but her fiber work is extremely painterly so I’d be reluctant to make a declaration about the work displayed.

  8. 8 bj parady November 12, 2007 at 10:57 am

    To return to one of your original points about seeing similar work in textiles, check out the Fall 2007 issue of Surface Design. There are examples of what I would call abstract expressionism throughout the journal, but I am especially drawn to the work of Kohroh Kawata on pages 42 and 43. If that isn’t abstract expressionism in textiles, then I don’t know what abstract expressionism is I guess.

  9. 9 gabrielleswain November 11, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    June, All I can say is Jung was right. Amazing how this discussion has come full circle….and has affirmed my conviction to follow this work. Thank you Eileen, Olga and BJ for great insights and links. It has been an honor to participate in the lively and insightful discussion at the Cafe.
    I look forward to reading more from all of you. I have always been better at talking about art than making it….Oy!

  10. 10 june November 11, 2007 at 5:31 pm

    Hi Gabrielle,

    I got through a bit of the Diebenkorn interview and realized that Diebenkorn took a class from Erle Loran, the Cezanne expert, painter, and teacher. The transcript messes up the name, but I recognized who it was because Loran’s book, Cezanne’s Compositions, has been my gospel reading for the last six months. It’s an oddly dry read but if you are thinking about painting (or composition) and landscape it’s marvelous. It needs studying, not reading, but Loran analyzes Cezanne in such a way as to make perfect sense out of the way the picture planes of Cezanne’s work read. I bought a used copy after renewing my library copy three times.

    It’s wonderful to find a book that fits my needs so precisely at any given time — unusual.

    And I just now googled Loran (to see if I had the spelling correct) and discovered he painted the John Day Fossil Beds in eastern Oregon — the place I’ve been working over since a year ago September. It’s a strange small world.

  11. 11 gabrielleswain November 11, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    June, thanks for the jolt of java. Your post about the “Wild Man” started my wheels turning because as you so astutely observed, none of this seems to apply to Diebenkorn. I finally found an oral interview with RD that truly sheds light on his character. – 166k –

    So you won’t have to read through pages of transcription, here’s the skinny. While RD was in the Marines during WWII, he never saw combat. Due to his talent, he was sent to work at Disney (yep, as in Walt) to develop what we would call interactive maps of the Pacific Theatre. The closest he came was almost getting shipped out to one of the islands in the Pacific to map it for troop movement. Ergo, he did not have the horror of combat that the New York “Cedar Bar Bad Boys” shared.

    He and his wife Phyllis did live in New York for a short time but in
    Woodstock, not in the city. While he studied and visited there often, he was a Californian at heart. They did spend some time in New Mexico during which he produced a body of work indicative of that environment.

    His early major influence was Cezanne. One of the first paintings he ever studied was a Cezanne where the table is tilted at an angle that made it appear everything on it was going to fall off….what we would call foreshortened perspective. He was friends with Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko but began to see changes in Rothko as his (Rothko’s) friendship with Still developed. He is quoted as saying once he and Rothko could talk for hours but as time passed Rothko became so paranoid he wouldn’t even allow RD to visit his studio.

    RD was also fascinated with Edward Hopper, but never liked Hopper’s interpretation of the people he used. RD thought the figures were always too stilted, but loved the landscape qualities of Hopper’s work.

    RD and Robert Motherwell be came close but again RD never had the desire to live in NYC. Motherwell is quoted as saying, “Diebenkorn is what I would have become if I had had his talent and I had stayed in California instead of moving to New York.”

    Your assessment of the Cedar Bar group is the heart of the NYC Ab Exp’s. They were all ego driven constantly trying to be the top dog and drinking themselves into oblivion. Pollock, among the worst, always afraid he wasn’t good enough even when he hit the heights.

    None of this is apparent in the interview with RD. He is thoughtful, a constant learner always studying other artist that fascinated him, and grounded in the knowledge of his skills. He had a strong family background since childhood and a loving relationship with wife, Phyllis throughout his career.

    To answer your question, I don’t think he shared Mailer’s “Wild Man.” I think he simply didn’t have time for it. He never appears to have suffered the angst of his generation because he was on a mission of self-discovery and revelation of the world around him.

  12. 12 June November 11, 2007 at 10:07 am

    Hey Gabrielle,

    Maggie, the Cloth Cafe barista, has been sulking in the corner because no one has requested her services for months. Have a (virtual) one on my tab!

    It’s interesting to ponder how 50 years have made a difference vis-a-vis the Ab Ex “style.” Or more specifically the Diebenkorn one, for that matter.

    Many of the Ab Ex’s were jaded by a war (WWII) that wasn’t nice (wars seldom are), by ideals that got smushed, by capitalism that seemed to have won over some of their objections. They were also relatively young, male, and ego-ridden as only those New York males could be (I blame it on all that smoking.) I guess I’m thinking of this because I just finished the long wonderful essay on Norman Mailer in the Times this AM. He was a bit later than the ab ex’s but had the same macho bravado.

    Here’s the quote from the Times — from the first pages of his “Armies of the Night,” which is about the 1968 political conventions: [he talks about his character, who has the same name as he does as having yet another character inside himself — the Wild Man]:

    “As mailer had come to recognize over the years, the modest everyday fellow of his daily round was servant to the wild man in himself: The gent did not appear so very often, sometimes so rarely as once a month, sometimes not even twice a year, and he sometimes came when Mailer was frightened and furious at the fear, sometimes he came just to get a breath of fresh air. He was indispensable, however, and Mailer was even fond of him. for the wild man was witty in his own wily way and absolutely fearless. He would have been admirable, except that he was an absolute egomaniac, a Beast — no recognition existed of the existence of anything beyond the range of his reach.”

    I think of Pollock and Rothko and Newman and Still when I read the passage above. Not Diebenkorn, though, and maybe that’s the point. D’s sensibilities seem quite different, at least in the Ocean Park series. And so are ours. I can’t name a single “mad” woman artist working with textiles except perhaps Tracy Emin. Perhaps the times we live in preclude the Divine Madness that poets have celebrated? Or are textile artists generally too nice? Or is something else the case — like Diebenkorn, no one wants furious art anymore? Does having a Wild Woman inside who takes over occasionally likely to lead to creativity? And, to make this relevant, do you suppose Diebenkorn had a Wild Man inside?

    I’m rambling because I am now on my third cup of Peets — which is much better than Starbucks.

  13. 13 gabrielleswain November 11, 2007 at 1:58 am

    June, sorry to cause an existential disconnect with all that agreeing.
    However, I think we are really getting down to some obvious issues with quilts and art. One of my constant questions to students is “Do you work in another media…..paint, sculpt, make vessels, etc?” About 50% reply “Yes” so I ask them why they aren’t bringing to quilts all that knowledge from their art work. Jaws drop open like it never dawned on them that composition is composition, color is color, etc.

    My fear this all comes from the busyness (correct spelling) of marketing to quiltmakers. They are told what to buy and how to construct for so long that they need a dash of cold water in the face to move on.

    My vote for textile artist that are incorporating simplicity goes to Jette Clover, Fran Skiles (although since she is really a painter, it may not count) and Robin Crowley. I am sure there are others but my brain is now a year older so it may take awhile.

    You hit the right chord with me regarding simplicity. Simplicity is elegance…which drew me to Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series. They aren’t sparse but instead pure, clean and yet each has a mood that is easily perceived.

    As to imitation, there is nothing new under the sun. What we can do is work that is imbued with personal meaning regardless of the style or form. Yes, all those from the Abstract Expressionist movement got it right….but we are living in new times with different issues. We come to simplicity with a whole new set of mores that didn’t exist in their time. For me, that is what makes it valid to pursue the simple, yet strong statement of this work.

    Also, if we are to move textiles into the art world, it can’t hurt to use familiar styles as a jumping off point for discovery. We keep trying to reinvent the wheel instead of walking in the footsteps of those who came before. I will never accomplish what Diebenkorn did, but I can do my own form of simplicity influenced by his work.
    Aaargh, I need a double shot Espresso from Starbuck’s!

  14. 14 June November 10, 2007 at 9:06 pm

    Gee,Gabrielle, no one has ever played the devil’s advocate here before — nor been opinionated — (add a snort or two).

    I think you are right about traditional quilters — in fact, it would be surprising if it weren’t the case that repetition and fabric are what attract them. The standards by which they will be judged are far from the standards that we think of judging art by and include things like quarter inch seams that match perfectly. If you don’t have repetition, you can’t be judged on whether the seams match, right? And the impact of the quilt culture via county farm agencies can’t be overestimated. It is very strong.

    But about that person who suddenly understands — it is delicious to be able to bring someone to a greater understanding — it’s what all good teachers live for.

    I also have to agree (sigh — all this agreeing is hard) that attempting to compare the conventional quilt maker with the Gee’s Bend women is zuchinni to pomegranites.

    The difficulty for people making the transition from traditional quilt values to art values is great. There’s a tendency, as BJ has said, not to quite know when to stop. And the rewards for embellishment and more embellishment have been great. So between the artistic challenge of seeing how to do the minimal and the reward system that seems to love the ornate, it isn’t surprising that many would-be quilt artists struggle.

    It’s also true that it’s hard to be simple. One of my favorite quotes is “I don’t have time to be brief.” Simplicity is like brevity — it takes a lot more thinking and struggling and pacing and arguing with oneself to make it simple. And besides, all those painters of the 50’s already got it right, so what will we do besides imitate?

    But I’m curious about quilted art that does achieve simplicity. I think there’s a lot out there. Sally Sellers, for example, looks like Agnes Martin in textile and beads. And Ann Johnston, another Pacific Northwest artist, has a number of very simple, yet very dynamic pieces.

    I think maybe it’s time to leave the “newbies” in the quilt art field behind and start looking at those who have successfully achieved what we are talking about. So here’s my challenge — find textile artists who have successfully incorporated simplicity. And then, find one or more, who are working on something we would call (or the artist would call) “landscape.” Ann would qualify on both counts in some of her work, I think.

  15. 15 bj parady November 10, 2007 at 5:54 pm

    I continually design minimalistic abstract textile pieces. But then I stare at them on my design wall and think I haven’t done enough–that even though I’ve dyed or painted the cloth, stitched it, guided it to what it is now, the piece at that point owes (in my midwestern stoic brought-up mind) too much to chance and too little to the hand of the artist. This is what I’m trying to learn, what I struggled to learn as a watercolorist–when to stop. When enough is enough. I’m getting there, my new pieces are much more sparse than the older ones. But I need to keep looking at masters like this to reinforce the idea that it’s ok to stop. Thanks for exposing me to him.

  16. 16 eileen doughty November 10, 2007 at 11:05 am

    You asked, “why we don’t do minimal or abstract expressionism in textile work.” To make a very broad generalization, I think it is because quilters value the *process* of making a quilt the most, more than the work’s meaning or composition. I think at the quilt shows, the artist with the most patchwork pieces in their work (or beads or embellishments, etc etc) win. I have seen this trend in the past several years with Japanese quilts which have a bazillion patches, and quilts featured in magazines such as Quilters Newsletter. Those who judge the work seem to value most the maker’s apparent effort and time. Quilters see what gets rewarded, and the trend perpetuates itself. (I stopped subscribing to quilty magazines about two years ago so i don’t know if the trend has continued.)

    Another example is the Journal Quilt project, for those of you familiar with that. There are many nice pieces in the exhibition, but my gripe with it is that so many pieces have nothing at all to do with the idea of journaling – of making a statement about something happening in the artist’s life at the time – and are purely about technique. But that could be just me griping, I will admit.

    One way to turn this trend around would be to include judges and jurors on panels who are not from the quilt art world but from other parts of the art world, who don’t know the hot names and trends in quilted art but could come to the judging/jurying with a completely fresh and unbiased eye. I wonder what would happen with an exhibition like Quilt National if none of the jurors were from the quilt art world? Would we see far fewer names who have been juried in from past years, totally different kinds of work? Assuming there are people applying that make really different work, of course, which brings us back to the original question.

  17. 17 gabrielleswain November 10, 2007 at 6:48 am

    June, I will search for more of Diebenkorn’s work to illustrate my
    point while also reviewing the aspects of how his division of space is so critical to the discussion….to flesh out the discussion.

    Just to play devil’s advocate, while I agree that most traditional quiltmakers who strip piece or make block to block quilts have the potential to rise to an understanding of spatial relationship. In my experience, they are much more attracted to patterning and repetition.
    They tend to use fabrics they love without consideration of the true interaction of color…..just what they like whether it adds to the overall visual impact or not. Told you I was opinionated.

    A large majority of them are following designs developed by other designers from books or patterns. When I walk into class and start discussing negative space, interaction of color and division space, the deer in the head lights look fills the room. This is the main reason I continue to teach. In every class at least one light bulb turns on.

    As to the Gee’s Bend quilts, these, to me, are improv work. Finding a bit or piece to fill a space. Moving like a dance from one line to another. My thoughts are we trying to turn apples into oranges when we compare the Gee’s Bend work to the average traditional quiltmaker. Naturally, there are exceptions to every rule but too few and too far between.

    I am posting from my laptop so I will send images of my new series from home. Since they are still works in progress, they have no been added to the website.

    Love this discussion…

  18. 18 Olga November 10, 2007 at 6:18 am

    A British artist who was influenced by the Diebenkorn abstract landscapes is David Blackburn. He works in the most sumptuous pastel, and has been an inspiration for me in my own slight work in that medium. His work can be seen online at the Hart Gallery site: and enlargably on the artnet site: (I just love Grey hillside in light.)

    Another influence on David Blackburn was Fred Williams the Australian landscape artist. (Google image his name to see quite a range of his work) I find the use of placement and space in the compositions of all three artists speak of an open landscape – even in the work of the Brit, which is unusual because the UK is a much more intimate geography than either the US or Australia.

  19. 19 June November 9, 2007 at 8:59 pm


    You emphasize Diebenkorn’s mastery of spatial relationships. Could you go into more detail — maybe point us to a couple more paintings where you feel the zing of his shapes and space?

    It seems to me that people trained in conventional quilting techniques should be able to see spatial relationships — strip piecing is all about that as are many of the traditional blocks. Many of the Gee’s Bend pieces show the same kind of awareness of the plane on which the color is laid and how each shape/color interacts with the other shapes/colors.

    And, you say the color in your city/skies is different from Diebenkorn. I don’t think we have your website — would you give us a look at your color palette and spatial recognitions?

    Thanks, Olga, for Bosna Workshop link. I promptly included it in the SAQA Wiki. It’s a fascinating story and reminds me somewhat of the Gee’s Bend work. Or maybe I just have them on my mind.

  20. 20 Olga November 9, 2007 at 2:49 am

    The glories of coincidence: a friend has just sent me a set of Bosna Quilt Werkstatt cards. She saw the quilts at the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham, UK, and even bought one. I love the look of them, and was just thinking how beautiful the colour placement is. They can be seen here:

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