Richard Diebenkorn


Richard Diebenkorn (April 22, 1922 – March 30, 1993) was an American painter and printmaker. His early work is associated with Abstract Expressionism and the Bay Area Figurative Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1960s he began his extensive series of geometric and lyrical abstract paintings. Known as the Ocean Park paintings, this series of paintings was instrumental in achieving his worldwide recognition.

Richard Clifford Diebenkorn Jr. was born on April 22, 1922, in Portland, Oregon. His family moved to San Francisco, California, when he was two years old, and from the age of four or five he was continuously drawing. From the age of four or five he was continuously drawing.In 1940, Diebenkorn entered Stanford University, where he met his first two artistic mentors, professor and muralist Victor Arnautoff, who guided Diebenkorn in the classical formal discipline with oil painting; and Daniel Mendelowitz, with whom he shared his passion for the work of Edward Hopper.Hopper”s influence is felt in Diebenkorn”s figurative works of that era. While studying at Stanford, Diebenkorn visits the home of Sarah Stein, Gertrude Stein”s sister-in-law, and sees for the first time the works of the modern European masters Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse.

It was also during his time at Stanford that Diebenkorn met his partner and future wife, Phyllis Antonieta Gilman. The two married in 1943 and had two children together, daughter Gretchen (1945) and son Christopher (1947). The entry of the United States into World War II interrupted Diebenkorn”s undergraduate studies at Stanford, and he temporarily abandoned his career. Diebenkorn entered the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943, where he remained until 1945.

During his time in the military, Diebenkorn continued his art studies and expanded his knowledge of modern European painting, first while briefly enrolled at UC Berkeley and later on the East Coast while stationed at the Navy base at Quantico, Virginia. While enrolled at UC Berkeley he had contact with three influential professors, Worth Ryder, Erle Loran, and Eugene Neuhaus. Both Ryder and Loran had studied art in Europe in the 1920s and brought from there their knowledge of modern European art for his teaching. Neuhaus, meanwhile, had emigrated from Germany in 1904 and was a key figure in establishing the Bay Area as a nucleus for education and the formation of artistic taste on the West Coast. On the East Coast, when he was transferred to the Quantico base, Diebenkorn took advantage of the proximity to visit art museums in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and New York. This allowed him to study firsthand the paintings of modern masters such as Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Bonnard and Miro. During this period he also had his first contact with New York-based artists who were making their first surrealist-inspired paintings. The work of Robert Motherwell, in particular, made a special impression on him. As a result, Diebenkorn began his own experiments in abstract painting.

In 1945, Diebenkorn was included among the military personnel to be transferred to Japan, however, with the end of the war in August 1945, he was discharged and returned to civilian life in the Bay Area.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, he lived and worked in various locations: San Francisco and Sausalito (1946-47 and 1947-50), Woodstock, New York (1947), Albuquerque, New Mexico (1950-52), Urbana, Illinois (1952-53), and Berkeley, California (1953-1966). During this period he developed his own Abstract Expressionist style of painting. After World War II, the focus of the art world shifted from the School of Paris to the United States and, in particular, to the New York School. In 1946, Diebenkorn enrolled as a student at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, now known as the San Francisco Art Institute, which was developing its own distinct style of abstract expressionism. In 1947, after ten months in Woodstock on an Alfred Bender travel grant, Diebenkorn returned to the California School of Fine Arts, where he adopted Abstract Expressionism as a vehicle for self-expression. He was offered and accepted a teaching position at the School in 1947 and taught there until 1950. He was initially influenced by Clyfford Still, who also taught at the School from 1946 to 1950, by Arshile Gorky, Hassel Smith and Willem de Kooning. He became one of the leading artists of Abstract Expressionism on the West Coast. Between 1950 and 1952, Diebenkorn enrolled thanks to the G. I. Bill in the graduate department of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico, where he continued to adapt his style of abstract expressionism style.

During the 1952-53 academic year, Richard Diebenkorn taught painting and drawing at the University of Illinois at Urbana. In November and December 1952 he had his first solo show in a commercial art gallery, the Pablo Kantor Gallery in Los Angeles, California.

In September 1953 Diebenkorn moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area from New York, where he had spent the summer. He made his home in Berkeley, California, where he lived until 1966. It was during the early years of this period that Diebenkorn abandoned his strict adherence to abstract expressionism and began to work in a more representational style. By the mid-1950s, Diebenkorn had already become an important figurative painter, with a style that connected Henri Matisse to Abstract Expressionism. Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Henry Villierme, David Park, James Weeks and other artists participated in a revival of figurative painting, dubbed the Bay Area Figurative Movement. The subjects of their works from this period include interiors, landscapes, still lifes, as well as the human figure.

Diebenkorn began to have a measure of success with his artwork during this period. He was included in several group exhibitions as well as had several solo exhibitions. In 1960, a retrospective was presented by the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). Later, that falling variation of the show was moved to California”s Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

It was in the summer of 1961, during his stay as a visiting professor at UCLA, that Diebenkorn first came into contact with printmaking, when a student collaborator introduced him to the drypoint printmaking technique. Also, while in Southern California, he was invited to the Tamarind Lithography Workshop (now the Tamarind Institute), where he worked on a group of prints that he would finish in 1962.

Upon his return to Berkeley in the fall of 1961, he began to seriously explore drypoint and etching with Kathan Brown at the fine art press the latter had just founded, Crown Point Press. In 1965, Crown Point Press printed and published an edition of 13 bound and 12 loose volumes containing Diebenkorn”s first set of prints, 41 Drypoint Etchings (this project was the first publication in the Crown Point Press catalog). Diebenkorn would not make new prints again until 1977, when Brown renewed their artistic relationship. From then until 1992, Diebenkorn returned almost every year to Crown Point Press to produce new work.

It was also in the fall of 1961 that Diebenkorn was appointed to a professorship at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught periodically until 1966. He also taught sporadically during these years at other universities, including the California College of Arts and Mills College in Oakland, the University of Southern California (USC), the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

In September 1963 Diebenkorn was appointed the first artist-in-residence at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California (until June 1964). The only obligation this position entailed was to produce works in the studio provided for this purpose by the University. Students were also allowed to visit him in the studio during established hours. Although he made few paintings during his time at Stanford, he did produce a significant number of drawings. Stanford presented an extensive exhibition of these drawings at the end of his residency.

During the fall of 1964 and spring of 1965, Diebenkorn traveled throughout Europe and was granted a cultural visa to visit major Soviet museums and view their holdings of Matisse paintings. When he returned to painting, again in the Bay Area, in mid-1965, his new works summed up all that he had learned over more than a decade as a leading figurative painter.

Henri Matisse”s paintings, French Window in Collioure, and View of Notre-Dame Cathedral, both 1914, exerted a tremendous influence on Richard Diebenkorn”s Ocean Park series of paintings.

According to art historian Jane Livingston, Diebenkorn saw both Matisse paintings at an exhibition in Los Angeles in 1966, and they had a huge impact on him and his work. Livingston says of the January 1966 Matisse exhibition Diebenkorn saw in Los Angeles:

It is difficult not to attribute enormous weight to this experience, to the direction he gave his work from that moment on. Two of the paintings he saw there resonate in almost every Ocean Park canvas. View of Notre-Dame Cathedral and French Window at Collioure, both painted in 1914, were being exhibited for the first time in the United States.

Livingston adds that “Diebenkorn must have experienced the vision of French Window in Collioure as an epiphany”.

In September 1966, Diebenkorn moved to Santa Monica and accepted a teaching position at UCLA. He also moved into a small studio in the same building as his old Bay Area friend Sam Francis. In the winter of 1966-67 he returned to abstraction, this time with a distinctly personal, geometric style that clearly departed from his early Abstract Expressionist period. The Ocean Park series, which he began in 1967 and developed over the next 18 years, became his most famous work and eventually comprised approximately 135 paintings. Based on aerial landscape and perhaps perspective from his studio window, these large-scale abstract compositions are named after the community in Santa Monica where he had his studio. Diebenkorn retired from UCLA in 1973. The Ocean Park series links his early abstract expressionist works with the abstract color field style and lyrical abstraction.

In 1986, Diebenkorn decided to leave Santa Monica and Southern California. After traveling and visiting various areas in the western United States, in 1988, Diebenkorn and his wife settled in Healdsburg, California, where he built a new studio. In 1989 he began to suffer from serious health problems affecting his heart. Although he continued to produce prints, drawings and smaller paintings, his poor health prevented him from completing larger paintings. In 1990, Diebenkorn produced a series of six etchings for Arion Pres”s edition of the “Poems of W. B. Yeats,” which included poems selected and annotated by Helen Vendler.

Diebenkorn died of complications from emphysema in Berkeley on March 30, 1993.

Diebenkorn had his first exhibition at the California Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco in 1948. The first major retrospective of his work took place at the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo, New York, in 1976-77; the exhibition then traveled to Washington, DC, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Oakland. In 1989, John Elderfield, then curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, organized an exhibition of Diebenkorn”s works on paper, which constituted an important part of his output.

In 2012, the exhibition Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, curated by Sarah C. Bancroft, traveled to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Orange County Museum of Art, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Major and most recent shows in the San Francisco Bay Area include Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, July-September 2013, at the De Young Museum in San Francisco; an exhibition of smaller works at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, in the city of Sonoma, California, June 6-August 23, 2015; and Matisse.

Diebenkorn”s works can be found in a number of public collections, including those of the New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu, Hawaii; the Albertina, Vienna, Austria; the Albright-Knox Museum, Buffalo, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles. Gerald Cantor at Stanford University holds 29 Diebenkorn sketchbooks, as well as a collection of paintings and other works on paper.

In 1991, Diebenkorn was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 1979, he was elected a supernumerary member of the United States National Academy of Drawing and became a full academician in 1982.

In 2012, the Diebenkorn Ocean Park construction site


  1. Richard Diebenkorn
  2. Richard Diebenkorn