If you like the visual arts at all, it’ll be hard to beat Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966, for sheer enjoyment. The gorgeous colors, the lush strokes, the intricate images, both figurative and abstract…. I say you don’t have to know a single thing about art or the art world to break into a smile at least once when viewing these 130 exemplary paintings and drawings at the de Young museum this summer.
Diebenkorn’s career famously breaks into three periods: abstraction, or, to be more specific, Abstract Expressionism (when he was an art student and young instructor in the Bay Area, Albuquerque, and Urbana, Illinois); work with figurative elements (while he and his family were living in Berkeley); and abstraction again (while he was teaching at UCLA, with a studio in a Santa Monica neighborhood known as Ocean Park).
Though he may be most famous for his more austere Ocean Park series, many consider the Berkeley years—when Diebenkorn moved out of the first period and into the second, combining abstraction and figuration in ways as original as those of his master predecessor Cezanne—the peak of his career.
It’s great to have several of the mid ’50s abstract paintings in the exhibition—not just because so many are so beautiful, but because we can see so clearly how they evolved into works with more recognizable elements. A piece such as Berkeley #44 (1955), for instance, with its intersecting rectangles, squares, and vague triangles in eye-delighting hues (chartreuse, gold, orange, red, pink, sky blue), looks something like Oz might appear as seen from a plane if you were somewhat near-sighted.
A flight from Urbana to San Francisco did, in fact, influence such paintings—just as a house Diebenkorn spotted on a drive in the East Bay inspired his first representational landscape, Chabot Valley (late 1955). This painting, too, has geometric lines and bands of color, but here you can make out an ice blue building with windows; some neighboring rooftops, which might include the flat red plane in the foreground; a low green hill, with a slash of brilliant yellow that could be a field; under a blue-gray wash of sky…. In both cases, as well as the rest of the show, the work is both fanciful and rigorous—a delight to the eye, a feast for the mind.
As New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman put it, in the obituary he wrote when Diebenkorn died at 70, in Berkeley in 1993, “Many of his images involve…a scaffold of lines and bands, overlapping planes and atmospheric veils of color through which layers of activity can be perceived. The effect is an architecture of form in which the beauty has as much to do with the intricacy of the joinery as with the overall design.”
During this period, Diebenkorn painted some great still lifes, nudes, and interiors, too. You don’t want to miss Interior With Doorway (1962), for one. Here, we’re near the windowed corner of an almost bare room. To the right, the light from a window falls on the battered edges and blue seat of a old folding chair; to the left, the sunlight streaming through the narrow doorway pulls our eyes out the door, across the sunny, empty street, and onto a corner gas station, sitting there like the prize in a scavenger hunt in an industrial neighborhood.
I could go on and on; truly, each of these pictures is worth 1,000 words. But no words, or images, can take the place of seeing these works in front of you—noting the pale wash or luscious depth of paint over paint, the wondrous colors, the elegant intricacy of design, the feeling of the artist’s living hand, and eye, and mind.
When Diebenkorn died, Kimmelman quoted John Elderfield of the Museum of Modern Art, who curated the last big New York exhibition of Diebenkorn’s work (drawings), in 1988. Said Elderfield of this masterly artist, “He renews your belief in painting.”
Through Sept. 29, Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966, de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F., 415.750.3600, famsf.org.